How to Rewild

Woodland Management

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Woodland Management
Management Guide

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The kind of woodland you’ll find on your land will depend on a few different factors – the soil type, climate, terrain and stage of succession. Many of these habitats will be degraded due to a lack of management, an overpopulation of deer, or some other factor. But getting them into good condition can be rewarding as it may yield wood products and create a beautiful and dynamic ecosystem.

While there is a big difference between a timber plantation and a wild woodland, it’s possible to find a happy medium which can supply both high biodiversity and sustainable productivity. Finding the right balance is what we’ll be exploring in this article.

What Can a Woodland Produce?

A woodland at different stages of life, or states of management, can produce different types of wood products.

Young tree shoots and early coppice/pollard, with a stem no greater than a finger width can be used for animal fodder. Willow products like these can also be used for weaving, though certain varieties are more flexible and easier to work than others. 

Mid stage coppice can produce rods, used for fencing, and products like walking sticks and beanpoles.

Late stage coppice/stage 5 woodland can produce charcoal – this is created by cutting smaller diameter wood into 30-50cm lengths and processing them (see more details below). This stage can also produce ‘roundwood‘ – timber which is left in a round shape, and not processed into planks or used for firewood. Roundwood can be used for furniture-making, fenceposts, tree stakes and poles, many of which are in high demand in the rural landscape.

Late stage 5 and stage 6 woodland begins to yield timber – larger trees which are felled and milled into planks for construction. This will also create some additional byproducts, which fall into all of the above categories, as smaller branches and upper trunk growth will not be thick enough for timber. So a single tree can be used to create leather (chemicals in tree bark) a telephone pole, horse jumps, charcoal and livestock fodder.

Stage 5 and 6 woodland which has not been managed for straight, tall tree growth could take decades to yield viable timber. But in the interim, it may be a useful source of firewood, which has shot up in price in recent years due to the cost of gas and increasing popularity of wood burning stoves.

 

Charcoal production
Traditionally, to create charcoal, piles of small diameter wood are stacked in a heap, then earth and turf are stacked on top, before the pile is lit. "Charcoal burner. Morocco or N. of Monolitos, Rhodes." by Mary Gillham Archive Project is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Designing a Woodland

Establishing a woodland which is great for biodiversity and productivity starts from the drawing board. You can get assistance with planning out larger woodlands in the form of grants and help from organisations like the Woodland Trust.

On every project, regardless of the scale, there are a number of different things to consider when sketching out your ideas, before you even order the trees:

Linear Planting

A wild, biodiverse woodland has semi randomly-placed trees, whereas a plantation is planted in a linear style. A linear woodland will ‘feel’ artificial even into maturity due to the unnatural lines and gaps. These gaps create sightlines, and flight paths which would not be found in a wild wood, shifting the balance of the woodland community in favour of predators.

Trees in a natural landscape aren’t completely random though – their distribution is affected by moisture levels, depth of soil, shading, and distance from other trees of the same species.

Structural Diversity

In a wild woodland, trees aren’t spaced out evenly, but occur in clumps and clusters, with dense patches of scrub and sparse areas dominated by ground flora.

There’s a cycle which happens every time a gap opens up in the canopy. Trees become mature, then die – rotting in place before being knocked over by gales. The gap they create becomes an open patch of forest floor, bursting with flowers, then intense competition for light occurs and tree seedlings rush to colonise the space. This sunlit area will soon have denser growth than its surroundings.

This structural diversity is an essential element in a biodiverse woodland – it is not found in linear plantations or systems like Miyawaki Forests (which are densely planted throughout). Planting trees at a low density and allowing later seedlings to fill out the space, and/or planting in a clustered pattern, will create structural diversity at an earlier stage in the woodland’s growth.

Species Diversity

Many new woodland planting projects tend to use 5 or so varieties of tree. But walk through an ancient woodland and you might count 20 species or more. Creating a woodland with low tree diversity will result in lower diversity of invertebrates, lower structural diversity and lower quality habitat.

But you will get the most benefit from increased tree diversity if those species you’re planting are already found in the local landscape. So a bit of research may be required – visiting a nature reserve, looking in hedgerows, and getting a plant ID app on your phone. You can usually take cuttings or seed if they’re on public land, not protected species and not in a nature reserve (though check the legislation in your area).

Natural Regeneration

There is a common myth that tree seeds are lying underneath every patch of the British countryside, waiting to pop into existence. In fact, many areas have very few or no viable tree seeds ready to go – but it’s still worth waiting to see if they’ll appear. You can typically work out what will pop up by identifying which species are present in hedgerows and woods within 50-100m of your site.

Natural regeneration from seeds in the soil is always the best approach, as it protects local genetic diversity (i.e. trees adapted to the local conditions). The next best thing is transplanting seedlings from nearby, which can also protect this diversity, while accelerating woodland growth. Then, if seedlings aren’t available, or if the species is missing locally but is likely to be native to the area, buying in new stock is a last resort.

Productivity

The species which you’ll plant in a woodland will differ depending on its function. In a purely productivity-driven woodland, you would likely plant a monoculture of Sitka Spruce, whereas a biodiversity-driven woodland would be a highly varied mix of native broadleaved trees.

A happy medium is a broadleaved coppice/timber forest, which can supply both medium term, smaller diameter wood and longer term timber. The presence of the coppice chokes out lower side shoots from timber trees, encouraging them to grow tall and straight, creating high value timber. Thinnings from the woodland can supply consistent firewood and roundwood over time.

However, this is only one possible type of woodland, and any combination of coppice, plantation, timber trees and wild wood can be created. Access should be considered if productivity is a priority, especially in areas with slopes, watercourses and bogs which could make removal of lumber difficult. However, compact machinery is becoming available for ‘Continuous Cover Forestry’ which may make this problem easier to solve.

Right Tree, Right Place

While you’re no doubt aware of the importance of sourcing the right tree species for your project, planting them in the right location on the ground is also very important. This will reduce losses and create natural communities of plant which boost biodiversity.

For example, Alder does well in waterlogged soils at the edge of woodland, while Elder thrives in well-drained soil in grassland. Wych Elm and Beech are both happy in dense woods. It may be difficult to precisely plan out where trees go on the ground, especially if you have 100s or 1000s, but creating ‘planting blocks’ with different mixes of species will allow you to achieve this same effect on larger projects.

Rewilding your woodland
A) linear planting of low diversity; B) structural planting of low diversity; C) structural planting of high diversity (right tree, right place)

Planning and Funding a Woodland

Depending on the size and location of your woodland, you may need planning permission, and/or an environmental assessment, for your project.

If your site is in a sensitive area, like a SSSI or National Landscape (AONB), there are likely to be specific restrictions on tree planting – please refer to your local organisation for these regulations. Outside of these areas, larger projects may need to complete an environmental impact assessment, which assesses everything from archaeological features to the local ecology.

According to the Woodland Trust, planning permission and an EIA is not required in England for projects under 2ha in low risk areas. Larger projects may find the guide on planning new woodland in England a useful reference.

Natural Resources Wales offers a handy table, which breaks down the maximum project size threshold before an EIA is required.

In Scotland, the regulations around forest planting are harder to interpret, but that’s likely due to fewer restrictions. Most sources appear to support the idea that planting woodland is fine, but creating infrastructure for that forestry (roads, buildings etc) is where you will need planning permission. Of course, in sensitive areas, per regulations in England, restrictions may apply. The Forestry Commission Scotland has produced a handy guide for small woodland creation.

Funding is available for many woodland projects, but it typically comes with very specific restrictions. As a general rule, grants are available for farmers, for public land, and/or for projects where forestry operations are not permitted for 30 years after planting (carbon/biodiversity schemes). Forestry companies and organisations may also lease your land, to plant woodland for timber – this may offer a reliable annual income stream, but takes management decisions out of your hands.

Self-funding may be cheaper than you expect. Bare root trees (‘whips’) can be sourced online in bulk for £1-2/tree (delivered) depending on the rarity of the species. The Woodland Trust further subsidises the cost of bulk tree purchases if they are arranged through a Trust grant scheme (e.g. MOREwoods). 

Quality tree shelters with a stake that offers protection from roe deer (1.2m high) are about £3-5 each in bulk. That would put the typical cost of 1000 trees + shelters at about £5,500.

Planting Trees
Mulch mats like this biodegradable one are an option for tree planting projects. They may reduce tree loss, especially on projects with dry soils.
Woodchip
Woodchip is likely to boost plant growth more than a mulch mat, while switching the soil community from grassland to woodland.

Planting Trees

Get your planting right, and you’ll save money in the medium term by avoiding costly losses of trees. Some projects in the past few years have suffered upwards of 90% loss of saplings due to poor planting decisions. On our trial project, we saw a greater than 90% survival rate over the first two years of life.

Timing

Timing is everything for tree planting – start too late in the year, and your trees won’t get a chance to become established before the growing season begins. But it’s also worth avoiding frosts, as leaving your bare root trees exposed during this weather can kill them off or knock them back, reducing long term survival. The ground should ideally be moist, as this will help you with digging, and gives the tree the water it needs to get going. Planting from November to February is safe, but March may touch and go in some southern regions, depending on how dry the following spring is.

Digging

There are a lot of different systems for digging trees into the ground – we prefer a simple horizontal slit. Cup the base of the roots in your hand and use your fist to gently drive them as deep as they’ll go. You’ll get muddy doing this – that’s just how it is. 

Make sure the base of the trunk (just above where the roots spread out) stays at ground level, not below, and all roots are under the surface. If the roots extend outwards in more than two directions, then a T cut is best. For this, cut a slit in the ground, then another slit at right angles to it, and wedge open the earth with your spade.

Once the roots are in place, the soil should be heeled back around the base of the tree firmly (i.e. with the back of your foot!). Using the slit system creates two sides which fold back neatly together. Failing to make close up the gap firmly can result in the ground opening up again during dry or frosty weather, killing the roots.

Preparing Trees

  • After your plants have been delivered, they should ideally be sat in water for at least 6 hours in every 24.
  • Leaving trees in the bag overnight or for a few days is OK, so long as they’re in the dark/shade and it won’t freeze. 
  • Giving trees a good drink before planting is worthwhile in dry conditions.
  • Don’t leave trees lying out next to a hole for more than 30 minutes at a time, as this will dry them out.
  • If you scratch the bark of any tree with your thumbnail, the flesh underneath should be green, not white or grey, if it’s alive. Check some of your delivery on arrival to make sure you have healthy stock. The top twigs may be dead, but the main trunk should be alive.
 

Mulch

If you can afford it, mulching trees tends to result in faster, healthier growth over the first few years. From speaking to landowners and our own testing, we believe that woodchip is the best mulch. Not only is it delivered free (if you speak nicely to a local landscaping company), it also appears to shift the soil community from what you’d find in a bacteria-dominated grassland to a fungi-dominated woodland. Also, the more you use, the better it seems to work. Within reason of course! Up to a foot of woodchip (not ‘bark’ chippings) seems to do wonders, especially on Willow.

Other systems are available, from mulch mats (OK, but time-consuming), to spraying off competing weeds with a herbicide. Any use of herbicide around the trees is likely to have a knock-on effect on your soil health, and may run off into watercourses, creating further damage downstream.

Tree Shelters

In Britain, we are home to a charming population of wild deer, which are much-beloved by the general public. However, these delightful creatures happen to have a taste for trees, and in many areas, leaving a young tree unguarded will swiftly result in it becoming an untree. On our own project, for example, even relatively mature trees without guards suffer serious damage from teeth and horns, increasing susceptibility to disease in the best case scenario, and causing tree death in many cases.

There are also other species which can do damage to trees – everything from regular livestock to rabbits, hares and field voles. Tree shelters – those ugly plastic tubes which many people love to hate – are the unfortunate answer to this issue in most cases.

While some trials have tested planting twice the number of trees and claim a 50% loss rate, this may not work in all cases (this percentage seems extremely unrealistic based on our own experience). Regardless, tree tubes act like a mini greenhouse and give your plants a boost to growth which can help speed up the process of getting a woodland established. There are many downsides, from the plastic pollution to the appearance and the loss of lower side shoots (though these are typically eaten in a livestock-grazed system anyway). 

Biodegradable tree shelters are available, and, though they have a higher carbon footprint than regular plastic tubes, they are a viable option. Recycling the plastic ones is probably your best bet for ‘sustainability’. However, be extremely wary of cardboard, or card-like ‘alternatives’ as these are, unsurprisingly, as effective as they sound; dark tubes, which wilt in the rain and are eaten by the very animals they claim to defend against. We’ve seen this regrettable picture over and over again.

Deer fencing is an alternative, but this tends to be more expensive and harder to install on smaller scales (a few hectares), while affecting the dispersal of other wildlife. Even on projects with deer fencing, some landowners use tree shelters to improve sapling survival rates.

Help!

You may well look at your delivery and wonder how on earth you’ll be able to plant [x number of] trees in [x time]. It happens to the best of us. But the funny thing is, people really enjoy planting trees – in fact, there are many parts of the UK where we have too many volunteers and not enough land. 

If you plan wisely, you can recruit a local wildlife charity, or organisation like TCV to help you out (this may cost you). If you don’t plan wisely, then a hasty post on the socials may be enough to attract interest in the project, and you could be surprised by how many people want to take part (on the plus side, this would be cheaper). A recent event we attended ran out of trees halfway through the day due to too many volunteers! Just remember that people will need to bring their own spades.

Linear Woodland
Tree plantations will continue to look linear even after many decades of growth, and work to remediate this may take half a century or more.

Early Woodland Management

Young Trees

Bare root trees should not need watering. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when they’ve been planted very late in winter, or if you plant from spring to autumn (though this isn’t the bare root season, and you’ll struggle to find trees). 

Smaller trees, and plants grown from seed, suffer less from drought, so if you’re planting in free draining soils or a particularly dry area, shorter saplings are likely to do better. Watering your trees could attract badgers, which dig in wet ground, and may uproot the plant.

Cutting thorny hedges produces ‘brash’, which can be piled over growing saplings and young coppice stools. This can protect them from being eaten by deer, and allow them to grow through the most vulnerable early stage of life unmolested. The same brash can be piled around young tree trunks as a barrier to keep deer from rubbing their antlers and damaging the bark.

If you’re using tree shelters, these should be checked every 6 months or so, and tightened if necessary, to prevent them coming off. Visiting the project during high winds can help you easily identify loose tubes. These have a gap at the base where field voles can enter; deer may accidentally lever up the tube by rubbing on it (this has happened frequently on our pilot project). If the tree inside still looks dead by the middle of June, then removing the tree shelter allows you to reuse it on another sapling (though stakes are easiest to pull out in winter).

You may wish to keep grassland around any planted trees to preserve accessibility. This will make it easier to maintain tree shelters, dump additional mulch, and coppice, thin or fell the trees later on. However, it will also limit the growth of a biodiverse underwood/ground flora. A brushcutter with a metal blade or high density grazing will help to maintain this grassland, stopping scrub from encroaching on a planted woodland. 

Felling Licenses

Felling Licences

If you want to cut down trees, in some situations you will legally require a felling licence. The penalty for illegal felling in England is an unlimited fine, with substantial damage to your public reputation.

In England, the Forestry Commission issues felling licences, and they’ve written some very handy guidance on who requires one. In general, while there are exceptions in protected areas, in any calendar quarter you can fell up to 5 cubic metres of ‘growing trees’ on your land. But you can’t sell more than 2 cubic metres of this, and existing coppice is exempt, if the trees have a diameter of less than 15cm, measured at 1.3m height. At the same height, trees of 8cm or less diameter (‘over bark’) are also exempt, which extends to 10cm for thinnings. Surprisingly, this is an easy to read summary – you can view the detailed guidance via the link above, and find the most up to date version on the government website.

In Scotland, the term is ‘felling permissions’, rather than ‘felling licences’, and these are issued by Scottish Forestry, which has a handy bulletpointed list of exemptions. In general, while there are exceptions in protected areas, you can fell up to 5 cubic metres of timber in any calendar quarter, though not in native broadleaved woodland from 0.1-0.5ha in area, or in Caledonian Pinewood Inventory sites. While coppice is not specifically exempted, trees that are 10cm or less in diameter at 1.3m above ground height are exempt, so coppicing should be feasible. You can find the most up to date version of guidance on Forestry Scotland’s website.

In Wales, felling licences are issued by Natural Resources Wales, and you must also check to see if you require a species licence, permission from the local authority or from Cadw (‘within the boundaries of scheduled monuments and registered historic parks and gardens’). In general, while there are exceptions in protected areas, in any calendar quarter you can fell up to 5 cubic metres of ‘growing trees’ on your land. But you can’t sell more than 2 cubic metres of this. There is no exemption for coppice, but there is for trees with a specific diameter at 1.3m height. At this ‘breast height’, coppiced trees can be 15cm, but thinnings must be 10cm or less while other felling must be 8cm or less. All of this is laid out in a handy webpage.

Spruce Woodland
Sitka Spruce plantations have high environmental value, as their products are used in building to replace concrete and steel. However, their ecological value in Britain is low.

Later Woodland Management

Small Interventions

There are a few simple things you can do as a landowner in an existing woodland, to boost biodiversity (be aware of felling restrictions):

– Soften edges: At the edge of the woodland, trees typically form a gradual decline into the next habitat. This ‘ecotone’ will create higher biodiversity, and can be engineered by felling trees and/or planting woodland edge species like Dogwood, Guelder Rose, Alder Buckthorn and Privet (toxic to livestock).

– Break up the canopy: If you have a dense, closed-canopy woodland, with no gaps, and little light reaching the forest floor, strategic felling of a few trees will create more diversity. With more light at ground level, flowers will thrive, then succession will occur and a variety of tree heights and ages will boost biodiversity.

– Create deadwood: In a new woodland, it takes a long time for saprotrophic (decaying wood) species to arrive, but these are important for creating rich soils. You can speed up the process and boost biodiversity by felling some trees early on, and leaving them in place. Fell a variety of trees, as different saprotrophs are dependent on different tree species.

– Restore old coppice: If you find a stand of Hazel, Sweet Chestnut, Lime or Ash trees with multiple trunks emerging from a large base, it’s likely to be an overgrown coppice. In many cases, you can restore a biodiverse ground flora by beginning to manage this area as coppiced woodland again.

Woodland Management Strategies

Many woodlands in the UK have had low levels of management over the past century, as people moved from country to city and agriculture intensified. Traditional practices like coppicing and charcoal production fell out of favour, and woodlands became recreational places, rather than a thriving community resource. 

In the past, villagers would have collected wood for fuel, foraged for fungi, and tapped trees for sap, and landowners would have stocked these spaces with pigs and cattle in season. Many woodlands were populated with forester huts, charcoal kilns, high seats and the signs of other traditional crafts. Some of these have almost fallen from our memories, like snakecatching – a position which shows how abundant wildlife used to be in our woodlands. One New Forest snake catcher is rumoured to have caught 30,000 animals in his 19th century career.

Today, our woodlands are not home to industry and productivity, but to dog walkers and birdwatchers. The sound of saws and pigs is replaced by the occasional bark (from both dogs and deer). There are two possible routes to go down when managing woodland:

a) Conservation of the status quo

Allowing a woodland to do what it will.

Some describe this as rewilding, because it involves letting natural processes take over, with minimal management to preserve access and maintain boundaries. However, we are missing many of the wild species which would have made these woodlands diverse and abundant in our ancient past – aurochs, bison, wild boar etc. 

In their absence, deer are the only control on tree growth, and the density of deer will determine the health of the underwood, and the amount of light reaching the forest floor. This is a low cost strategy, and in the extreme, it may be an entirely ‘hands-off’ system, which could be viable if the habitat is in good condition with a low deer population. This woodland typically yields very little in the way of quality timber, but can produce firewood in abundance.

b) Active management

A much higher productivity, high intensity strategy.

This mimics what we would have seen in Victorian Britain and much earlier. In this system, the woodland is a resource, which can produce many different products and services. 

Native species are typically grown, but may be supplemented with useful non-natives, like Sweet Chestnut, but not invasive species like Sycamore. Where possible, the woodland is stocked a few days per year with cattle and/or pigs, which create more plant diversity. The trees are specifically managed for coppice products and/or timber, with regular thinning taking place. Foraging is encouraged, and at the extreme end of this system, the entire habitat may have be created as a productive ‘food forest’ or plantation.

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There are merits to each strategy, and downfalls to each. In a very healthy woodland ecosystem (these are rare in Britain), it may be better to allow natural processes to continue their work. On the other extreme, as perennial sources of fruit, nuts and timber products, non-native food forests are an interesting option for smallholders looking to maximise productivity. But something in the middle is likely to be the best compromise for most situations, maximising both productivity and biodiversity.

Dark woodland floor
A relatively healthy woodland on the Mendips in Somerset, managed through coppicing and felling, with diversity of light, structure and species.

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