bee pollination and restoring woodland

Restoring Our Woodland

Follow our Victorian woodland, Spence Plantation, and its journey from the dense undergrowth of invasive species to a thriving and diverse habitat for all the enjoy.
Louma Matteo strimming, Autumn 2023

About Our Woodland

From Ordnance Survey maps, we can see that our woodland, Spence Plantation, was first developed sometime between 1888 and 1901, making it around 120 years old. Of this time, it is possible for me to see what has been going on in the last 30-35 years, which is very little. The woodland has been neglected, and while allowing it to remain untouched wouldn’t typically be problematic, in this case, it has facilitated the infiltration of invasive species, which have disrupted the natural order. For the last three years, we have been working to restore the health and balance of the woodland to ensure biodiversity in all aspects.

When we think about the woodland, we’re not speaking about a single tree, plant, bird, dormouse, but the whole organism that is the woodland, and if you want to expand the view, that organism connects with the fields, ponds, livestock. Our purpose is to try and restore an environment that is as diverse as possible, which means introducing more species, increasing the number of existing species and trying to deter the invasive species, such a laurel, brambles and carex, an invasive grass. When we began work on the woodland, we found a lot of these species, which thrive in the undergrowth, turning it into a monoculture and not allowing other varieties of flora to grow. We are trying to establish a balance between the natural wildness and a richer environment. This starts with herbaceous plants, annual and perennials.

 

Diversity is Key

We are working to increase the number of flowers available in the woodland, such as bluebells, foxgloves, primroses, cowslips. The latter two will increase the number of flowers for pollinators and are perfect for the wild colonies, one of which has moved into a tree cavity in the woodland. Last Spring, when I was working in the woodland, I heard the swarm coming and finally found the place where it landed: a large sycamore on the north hedge of the woodland. One of our bee specialists checked on them and it was said that they had settled in happily. We have since had more colonies moving in, and this is a sure sign that we are succeeding in creating beneficial habitats for them.

Trees and shrubs have been planted this winter, which are mostly native varieties, but also some non-native, non-invasive varieties, further increasing the amount of flower blossoms to attract pollinators. These help the wealth of the plant, playing an important part in the normal, natural cycle and regeneration of the woodland. One great benefit of our woodland is that it’s a wet woodland with a lot of sitting water. Although this doesn’t make for ideal working conditions, it does provide many habitats for invertebrates and plants that thrive in peaty soil, rotting wood and organic matter, also bringing insects such as mosquitos and hoverflies. These insects are the base of the food chain, increasing small vertebrates, reptiles, small mammals, all the way up to birds of prey and larger mammals.

Louma Woodland canopy

As we work on the flora in the woodland, it is important to balance the fauna too. Squirrels and deer especially have become pests. With no natural predators and being non-native, grey squirrels reproduce quickly and the population grows faster than the native flora can deal will. They can damage, even kill large trees over a few years by ring-barking the new shoots until the tree becomes weaker and weaker and eventually stops growing, without being able to put out enough foliage to survive. Squirrels also let infections enter into the sapwood, by eating and scratching the bark, the protective skin that protects against pathogens in the environment. Humane traps were implemented last winter to try and control the populations. New plantings have been fenced so that deer cannot destroy them, as they frequently eat new shoots and young saplings.

After Restoration, Comes Rewilding

We left patches in the woodland to be wild, and we try to do very little in this area. It may seem messy or to be a waste of space, but these bubbles of fallen shrubs and trees are the best habitats for nesting birds, living in the lower canopies or creating nests in the fallen trees. We will eventually put in a rotation as other areas of the woodland become well stabilised, to clear some of these wilder areas and leave somewhere else to provide that habitat. We always want to welcome nesting birds in the woodland, and this balance allows that to be possible.

I like to see the woodland as a creature, and imagine that it has had surgery, an enormous impacting operation that has taken its infection away. If it were a human, it may take a year to recover, but being a creature so great, it will take decades for the woodland to recover, especially with an environment so complex and fragile as this. We have been trying to speed up this process with the work we have been doing and the new plantings that have been introduced, but we can only help up to a point, and the rest is left to time.

As I survey the woodland, I am increasingly impressed with what’s happened in just the last three years, which is such a short period of its lifespan, considering some of these trees will go on to live for 200-300 years. In the last three years since we’ve cleared the invasives, we have seen an incredible change in the environment. There is still so much to do, but the most important is to get to a point where we can let nature run its course, only interfering when absolutely necessary.

By Matteo Greggi

 

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