Preserving our ancient woodlands

Brimstone butterfly

Brimstone butterfly - Credit: Archant

Chris Redstall of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust explains how the Princethorpe Living Landscape scheme is helping reverse the decline in the county’s woods and hedgerows

“These woodlands play host to an enormous range of plants, insects and birds”

“These woodlands play host to an enormous range of plants, insects and birds” - Credit: Archant

Few sights herald the longanticipated arrival of springtime more than a dazzling carpet of bluebells pitched against the bright green of newly unfurling oak leaves before they cast a heavier shade.

A springtime hedgerow in full bloom, with the bright mauve of Honesty (Lunaria annua) and Garlic Mus

A springtime hedgerow in full bloom, with the bright mauve of Honesty (Lunaria annua) and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a vital foodplant for the larvae of the Orange-tip butterfly. - Credit: Archant

Such is the vision that greets visitors to Ryton and Wappenbury woodlands, part of a cluster of woodlands in the Princethorpe area of the county; priceless remnants of the once-extensive oak woodlands that covered large areas of our lowlands following the retreat of ice sheets around 10,000 years ago.

For those pausing to savour the unique atmosphere of the springtime woodland, any silence will quickly be broken by the flute-like song of the blackcap and other early spring migrants, or the drumming of great and lesser spotted woodpeckers as they search for insects and create nests.

In sunny corners of the wood, the hum of a newly-emerged bumble bee may be heard, clumsy in flight as it searches for nectar from other early spring flowerers such as wood anemone and greater stitchwort. As the daytime temperature rises along sunny rides, a flash of yellow marks the erratic flight of a brimstone butterfly, emerging from its winter hibernation.

Covering an area of 160ha, these woodlands play host to an enormous range of plants, insects and birds which, as a result, led to their classification as Sites of Special Scientific Interest affording a high level of protection against the growing pressures of development on the countryside. That is not to say that these sites have remained untouched by the hand of man; quite the contrary.

Neolithic people (4000 to 2500 BC) were already clearing woodlands for farming and by the Middle Ages the intensive use of woodlands for coppicing, timber and animal grazing was well established.

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Each winter coppice workers would cut the straight stems of hazel stools in an area of the wood, to then turn into a variety of products, including handles, canes and hedge-laying stakes for use on estates and farms, while remains of charcoal platforms attest to the widespread production of charcoal.

By the turn of the 20th century and increasingly after the Second World War, coppicing fell into decline. As it diminished, so too has the wildlife that came to rely on the regular pattern of clearance and subsequent regrowth.

Where once butterflies such as the pearl-bordered fritillary would have followed the succession of newly-opened coppice coupes before moving on as the canopy regenerated, dense and unbroken canopy cover now often creates conditions unsuitable for all but the most shade-tolerant plants.

Hazel coppice itself, left to mature and senesce, will eventually die back, leaving an impoverished woodland understorey with few insect nectar sources and nesting sites for birds.

With a £92,503 grant from the SITA Fund, the Princethorpe Living Landscape Project, run by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, is now able to continue and expand its work to restore these woodlands to good health, together with the hedgerows that surround and connect them.

Tracing their origin to the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries and in some cases to the activities of Anglo Saxon settlers, the hedgerows that connect our woodland patches are a valuable semi-natural habitat in their own right. In early spring, garlic mustard in the base of a hedge is a vital food source for orange-tip butterfly caterpillars (accumulations of mustard oil obtained from the plants makes them distasteful to birds), while uncut, dense hedges provide nesting sites for dunnocks and white-throats.

Farmers too benefit from the services that hedgerows offer, reducing soil erosion during heavy rain and sheltering new-born lambs from the worst of the late winter weather. However, along with natural woodlands, hedgerows too suffered a huge decline in the late 20th century as farmers responded to the need to maximise food production.

The Princethorpe Living Landscape scheme is now playing its part in reversing the decline in the quality and extent of Warwickshire’s woodlands and hedgerows.

Winter work in the woodland involves reinstating the age-old practice of coppicing (vital in maintaining vigorous undergrowth for nesting birds), together with the widening of woodland rides increasing light levels, floral diversity and abundance of insects – the base of the food chain.

Volunteers are playing a crucial role in this effort; as one regular volunteer, Peter Hanson says: “I have recently started to work part-time and am really pleased to have got involved in some practical conservation work. I have really enjoyed improving my hedgerow identification skills. Working in the woods and fields is so much better than the office!’

In an age of environmental uncertainty and change and following new threats both to farmers and to the wider living landscape (not least Ash Dieback disease), it is now more important than ever that we work to restore and expand the remaining areas of ancient woodland and the hedgerows that connect them, an intrinsic part of the character of the Warwickshire countryside.

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• For more details about the Princethorpe Living Landscape project, visit

www.warwickshirewildlifetrust.org.uk or contact Chris Redstall, woodland restoration officer, by email at chris.redstall@wkwt.org.uk or on 02476

308998.

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