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Broadleaved and Mixed Woodland

Habitat Management Plan

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Broadleaved and Mixed Woodland
Habitat Guide

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This category covers everything from traditional ‘deciduous woodlands’ to mixed woods that are up to 80% coniferous (Other Woodland – Mixed). Broadleaved woodland confusingly also includes our native Yew, which is actually a conifer, and some evergreen species like Holly and Box. These habitats are commonly used for recreation and forestry, and play an important role in the nation’s heritage.

Most types of woodland have the potential to create high value for biodiversity, as a healthy forest contains a great deal of species and structural diversity. The sheer height of the system and variability within that height means that there are niches for plants, animals and fungi all the way down from the canopy to the forest floor. However, much of British woodland is plantation or poorly managed, with disease, invasive species and deer affecting the health of these habitats.

Restoration can improve a woodland’s biodiversity, while also securing the long term health of soils and improving the aesthetic and recreational appeal. But this work is not a one-time intervention – management must continue over the long term in most woodlands to maintain good ecosystem health.

Sub Habitats

Ash-dominated [sic] woodland on acid soils, typically found in upland areas.

Ash-dominated woodland on alkaline soils, typically found in upland areas.

Beech-dominated woodland, typically found in lowland areas.

Alder, willow or birch-dominated woodland on wet or waterlogged soils.

Birch-dominated mature woodland, typically found in upland areas.

Other high quality woodland found on lowland sites, not covered by the above categories.

Other low quality broadleaved woodland, typically dominated by non-native trees. 

Mixed broadleaved and coniferous woodland.

Value

This category covers a wide range of woodland types – those which have a significant value for nature have been recognised with the ‘Priority Habitat’ status by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The remaining two categories – Other Broadleaved Woodland and Other Woodland – Mixed are catch-alls for lower value forestry (typically plantation). 

However, one habitat recognised by the UKBAP has relatively low biodiversity – Lowland Beech and Yew Woodland, which is typically characterised by a dense canopy, low levels of underwood and low diversity of ground flora.

Within the remaining categories, Upland Mixed Ashwoods have high biodiversity potential, but are plagued by the twin issues of Ash Dieback and invasive Sycamore. Upland Birchwoods have a relatively low diversity of canopy and underwood, due to the dominance of a few main tree species.

This leaves the highest quality habitats: Upland Oakwood, which includes rich temperate rainforest habitat; Wet Woodland – a tangled mess of verdant swampy vegetation with high productivity and dense underwood; and Lowland Mixed Deciduous Woodland, which includes much of our biodiverse lowland ancient Oak woodland.

Temperate Rainforest
In the wettest locations in Britain, temperate rainforest may form - typically in Upland Oakwood habitat.

Protect

Keeping a woodland in healthy condition isn’t just a case of sitting back and letting it grow. In most places, we’re missing many of the wild animals that would create disturbance, maintaining the woodland in good condition, from Aurochs to Beavers, Bison to Wild Boar. In their absence, humans have historically been good stewards of thriving ecosystems, with high diversity. In some places, they are still maintained in good condition by foresters, but elsewhere, we’ve neglected to do this…

Even after these species were wiped out in Britain, semi-natural levels of disturbance continued to be created by the local (human!) community. In many cases, they sustainably harvested firewood, timber, coppice products, food and charcoal from the forest. It’s still possible to do this, and even to build a small business around it. However, profit margins may be slim or non-existent unless you have a very large plot, or supply chains already in place for premium, ‘nature-friendly’ products.

There are a number of different traditional forestry techniques which, pursued at sustainable levels, can create products while supporting biodiversity:

Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF)

Rather than clear felling woodland, the CCF approach is to selectively fell individual trees, to meet demand. This maintains a much more structurally-diverse and biodiverse woodland, though it makes felling more difficult due to ease of access. As it’s increasing in popularity, the equipment and expertise is becoming easier to afford over time. There’s plenty of free information available at the CCFG website.

Standards

The tallest trees – ‘standards’ – are grown slowly over long periods of time for high quality timber, which is used in furniture, construction etc. These trees grow best when surrounded by underwood and other timber trees, which forces them to grow tall and straight. Oak, Ash and Beech are typical examples, though the former two species are increasingly prone to disease and the latter tends to inhibit biodiversity at ground level. The Tree List will show you which species are suitable for timber production – taller timber trees (e.g. Lime, not Cherry) will grow well as standards.

Coppice

The underwood, between canopy and forest floor, is made up of scrub and smaller trees that are cut in rotation, from about every 5 – 25 years depending on the species. This produces rods and palings for fencing, poles for gardening, and roundwood for carpentry, charcoal or kindling. Certain species like Hazel and Sweet Chestnut are specially-adapted to grow in this low light environment, though the latter is non-native. Many species of tree will coppice – some more readily than others – visit the Tree List to find those which are most suitable for coppicing.

Firewood

Any trees or cuts which are too crooked to be good for timber, or coppice that is too large for rods, can be used for firewood. This has traditionally been the best way to use up the lowest-quality wood, and is now a low carbon method of heating your home. Firewood needs seasoning – leaving out in the open to dry out over time (under a shelter). After this, it may be burned straight away, or kiln-dried to a lower moisture content before burning. In general, the longer it takes a tree to grow, the longer it will take to burn, though Ash sits in a sweet spot – it burns long and hot, and grows quickly.

Charcoal

An industry used to exist in our woodlands, processing coppiced roundwood into charcoal. The wood was roasted slowly in a kiln (under low oxygen conditions), which turns it into a black fuel that burns very hot and clean – better for cooking food or use in industry. Today, the same product is sold for barbecues, though some traditional uses like artists’ charcoal still persist. Some trees are better for charcoal than others – Apple, Cherry, Oak and Walnut are particularly good.

Food

Whether it’s feeding up pigs on acorns, grazing cattle, foraging for mushrooms and hazelnuts, or growing a dedicated food forest with a variety of different trees and shrubs designed to supply the table, woodlands have long been a reliable source of food. In permaculture, zone 4 is a mixed wild/foraged/managed woodland, which may supply many different fruits and nuts. You can find trees which produce edible fruit and nuts tagged with a ‘fruit’ label in the Tree List – some fruits may need processing before eating.

Dark woodland floor
A diverse woodland has trees of many different ages, providing nesting and foraging opportunities, in addition to both timber and coppice products.

Restore

You can find out more about planting new woodlands in the dedicated Woodland Management guide. This section will focus on restoring our existing wooded habitats, and maintaining them in good health.

Most British woodlands are now degraded in some way, but they can be restored. And a restored woodland is not just productive, but beautiful, too – creating additional value for recreation and tourism. Let’s step through a few common ways that woodlands can be degraded, and how to fix them

Same Age Plantation

The woodland was planted in rows, and/or all trees planted at the same time. The result is a lower biodiversity system with a ‘corridor’ and/or ‘cathedral’ effect – only the trunks are visible at certain heights, with little undergrowth. This can be addressed by irregular felling of trees to break up the canopy (see CCF, above) and the work will encourage the growth of underwood. The trees can be used as lying deadwood on the forest floor (valuable habitat), or taken away for timber and firewood.

Invasive Species

Rhododendron, Cherry Laurel, Sycamore, Snowberry and plantation conifers are all problems in a broadleaved woodland as they outcompete native shrubs and trees, and create a dark monoculture in the underwood. At ground level, non-woody plants like Himalayan Balsam and Spanish Bluebell can also outcompete our native flora. Most conifers will be killed by cutting back, but the other species will grow back vigorously from cut stems. So a follow-on treatment with brush-on herbicide, while not environmentally-neutral, is the only effective way of controlling large populations of woody invasives.

Disease

Diseases always spread through tree populations, but with international trade, this became more frequent. Today, the most severe conditions affect Ash, Oak and (non-native) Larch. You must comply with any government orders to fell trees, but otherwise, it is often best to let diseased trees rot in place, so long as they pose no danger to the public. They will contribute standing deadwood to your ecosystem, and keeping them in place avoids spreading the disease beyond your local area. If the tree disease is reportable, like Acute Oak Decline, then record its location and report it to the relevant authorities. More information of threats to British trees can be found from Forest Research.

Deer, Sheep and Goats

These herbivores slow or stop the regrowth of a woodland by eating young saplings, causing the underwood to die off. This creates an unnatural gap between the ground flora and canopy – a ‘cathedral’ appearance. Livestock can have a devastating impact on woodland biodiversity in the long term if overstocked, but a low level of deer damage is natural. However, it is becoming increasingly fashionable to graze sheep in woodland – even ancient woodland. These non-native animals don’t have the same effect as deer and cattle – even a low level sheep presence may kill off a woodland over time, so maintenance of fencing along the edges of sheep fields is an important part of forest management.

Dogs and Walkers

The impact of dog walking on a woodland is surprisingly high, and it can, and does, cause the local extinction of threatened species, while reducing wildlife visibility, diversity and abundance in general. Marked trails with a good quality surface like woodchip or gravel, that route visitors away from bird nesting areas can reduce impacts. Effective signs tend to use a positive, informative tone, with illustrations and information on interpretation boards. Posting cautionary signs and limiting access to existing public rights of way is unlikely to be as effective. Fencing-off sensitive areas is the most successful system in preventing disturbance, if dog walking is a persistent and severe issue.

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