Kent’s pretty, ancient woodlands
- Credit: Archant
We live in one of the busiest part of Britain yet are surrounded by ancient woodland. How blessed are the people of Kent
*In association with Shepherd Neame & the Heritage Lottery Fund
We are extraordinarily lucky in Kent to enjoy such a wooded county in one of the busiest part of Britain. The woodlands of the Kent Downs provide a calm, green shade away from the stress and noise of our daily lives.
Around a quarter of the land area of the Kent Downs AONB is woodland, a landscape cloaked with our most ancient places. Each tree, each woodland is a natural and cultural ecology. Like us, each woodland has a name; a quick look at an Ordnance Survey map reveals Perry Wood (after pear orchards once growing nearby), Oaken Pole Wood, Cuckoo Wood, Hog Wood, Hawks Wood and Thomas Acre Wood, among hundreds of other individuals.
The woodlands of the Kent Downs are particularly rich, more than 70 per cent of them are ‘ancient woodlands’. Irreplaceable, they are often direct descendants of the wildwood, the natural woodland which arrived after the last ice age.
The bluebells, wood anemones, ramsons and yellow archangel and the bird song of warblers, nightingale and nightjar are vital part of the natural beauty of the Downs.
It is extraordinary to think that the soils in these places have never been ploughed or often never touched; the underground ecology of ancient woodlands is every bit as marvellous as the natural cathedral above.
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The woodlands of the Kent Downs are often extraordinarily rich in wildlife, home to incredibly rare plants and animals. The Lady Orchid, found pretty much only in the Kent Downs in Britain, has its stronghold in the east Kent Downs woodlands.
It is so strongly associated with these beautiful landscapes that the logo of the AONB depicts a Lady Orchid on the Downs.
There are many other species of orchid growing in abundance that you would simply not encounter in many other parts of Britain – and butterflies too, including remaining strongholds for the incredibly rare Duke of Burgundy Fritillary.
Historically, woodlands were of huge economic value and used to provide for many of our needs: building, charcoal for smelting, tools, carts, boats, poles and firewood.
The historic management of many woodland was to coppice, or cut trees on a short cycle (10-20 years), creating straight poles which grow rapidly from the large established root system. The bright spring sunshine after a woodland was coppiced would encourage a dramatic carpet of spring flowers and myriad of woodland birds and butterflies to flourish.
Hazel coppice is often the home to the sleepy, secretive but always endearing Hazel Dormouse. Over each cycle the woodland canopy would then close allowing the shade to prevent brambles and nettles, the light lovers, from taking over.
Scattered among the coppice stools, sometimes many hundreds of years old, stand mature trees, often Oak ‘standards’ which had other uses such as timber framing and planking. Kent is unusual that there remains an active coppice industry, now often based around sweet chestnut.
Woodlands still provide for our needs; they clean our air, reduce and slow flood waters, capture carbon from the atmosphere and increasingly provide environmentally friendly fuels as well as high-quality timber.
Woodlands also contribute to our health and wellbeing; regular walks in the woods are demonstrated as reducing stress, the risk of many diseases and will improve your mood.
Increasingly we are working out how, in a post-Brexit world, public investments in our woodlands and wider landscapes can be linked to providing people with access and health and wellbeing as well as carbon capture, wildlife and flood alleviation.
Public money could buy public goods and hopefully the environment and our lives will benefit from this important investment.
Outside our woodlands the Kent Downs is home to many remarkable trees, again often ancient and majestic, with lifespans of many hundreds or even thousands of years.
Britain is an international stronghold of ancient trees and, according to The Ancient Tree Forum, is thought to have the greatest number of ancient trees in northern Europe. With so many grand old trees it’s easy to become complacent about these important champion trees, but we have an international responsibility to conserve and enhance them.
As a landscape manager woodlands and trees once had a sense of permanence, of stability; we loved our trees and their survival seemed pretty much assured. All of this has changed; perhaps the most dramatic recent example of this dramatic change is the devastating impact of Ash dieback.
Ash is probably the most common tree in Kent, it is marked in place names and it is for good reason that Asholt wood, Ashford, Ash, Ashley and many other places are so called.
Ash dieback is widely accepted to be untreatable and could see the demise of 90 to 98 per cent of these trees over the next decade. As Jack Dee put it: “Most people would not know an Ash tree if it fell on their heads…better prepare yourselves.”
The photo (right) show this most dramatic impact on our landscape; sadly we are now starting to see Ash trees die and collapse. There is little we can do to stop Ash dieback, although its spread can be slowed by careful biosecurity (see the Forestry Commission Website).
In order that we mark and remember the Ash landscapes, the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Unit has established The Ash Project, which will provide a lasting legacy for the Ash tree.
The project is generating walks, talks and an ash archive, a record of the beauty and cultural place of Ash. Look out also for an extraordinary and beautiful artwork created by the internationally renowned artists practice Ackroyd and Harvey, which we plan to launch in the Kent Downs this month.
Our woodlands and trees are threatened in a way that we have never before experienced, the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership and team are working with many partners, from the County Council to Woodland Trust and Forestry Commission to Wildlife Trust to respond to this and to record and celebrate our trees and woodlands and generate a recovery plan for this vitally important part of our landscape.
Great places to see bluebells from mid April to the beginning of May include the Forestry Commission sites at Kings Wood and Lyminge Forest, Woodland Trust sites such as Denge Wood and the remarkable Hucking Estate, Plantlife and the National Trust, which has beautiful woodlands around Cobham and right across the Downs. There are a whole series of bluebell woods managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust.
Clive Steward: The Woodland Trust
Helping to manage and look after some of the ancient woodland on the North Downs is a job I relish. Being in one of the busiest parts of England doesn’t mean that you can’t get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, and our ancient woodland areas provide that sanctuary. However, ancient woodland is continually under threat with housing/road/rail construction always trying to nibble away at areas of woodland.
The landscape of the North Downs within the last 50-100 years has seen great changes, mainly attributed to the industrialisation of agriculture. The need to produce more food and bring production costs down was mainly centred on enlarging fields by the removal of hedgerows and woodland areas which has resulted in the fragmentation of ancient woodland into ever smaller and smaller areas.
There is an urgent need now to re connect and to maximise quality habitats within the landscape with the onset of climate change to allow species to move at their own speed through the landscape. The Woodland Trust has demonstrated such an approach at Hucking Estate: it’s well worth a visit.
Find out more
If you care about the future of our woodlands, please get involved. Check out The Ash Project or participate in the review of the statutory management plan of the Kent Downs AONB (contact the Kent Downs AONB Unit for more information).
28 and 29 April
Guided bluebell walk and cream teas in Bredhurst Woods
Guided walk with the Tanger around Hucking Woods, 11am meeting at Hucking Woods car park ME17 1QT. To book contact Mary on 01303 815170 or book online