Protecting our woodland treasures

As the Royal Forestry Society celebrates its 125th anniversary, Hertfordshire Life takes a look at the important role the group plays in protecting our woods

FOR centuries, trees have been an integral part of our lives. Not only are they a valuable resource, providing shelter, tools, weapons, fuel and materials, but they have been crucial for the stability of our flora and fauna.Safeguarding their future development is a crucial role and one to which the Royal Forestry Society (RFS) is dedicated. Based in Tring, the society is this year celebrating 125 years of managing our country's woodlands.Founded in 1882 by working foresters and nurserymen, the society remains dedicated to sharing knowledge and wise management of forests and woodlands. The society now has 4,000 members and 21 divisions across the country.A 125th anniversary celebration was planned for Windsor Great Park in October and was due to be attended by The Queen, as the society's patron, but the event was postponed following the outbreak of Foot and Mouth which closed the park. The society now hopes to rearrange the event for 2008 but a celebration is taking place this month in Hexham, Northumberland, where the society was originally founded, and will be marked by the planting of a walnut tree at Hexham Abbey.The Society's Home Counties Division covers Hertfordshire, Essex and Bedfordshire, and each year its programme of events takes members to estates throughout the region where they can see woodlands not normally open to the public, and talk to and learn from the experienced men and women who look after them. This year's visits have included Colworth Estate in Bedfordshire, Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey and Thorndon Country Park. Dr John Jackson, the society's chief executive, says, 'There is widespread public interest in conservation and the countryside, but people do not always appreciate that the woods and forests they admire look the way they do because they are well managed. Left alone, woodland quickly becomes overgrown, and, as the tree canopy spreads and keeps light from reaching the forest floor, so plants such as bluebells and primroses start to decline, as do species such as butterflies. Most of our woodlands were planted by man and managed to produce wood as crops for centuries, with regular activities such as coppicing, thinning and felling, which need to be continued if they are to maintain their beauty and biodiversity.'One of the society's three woods, Hockeridge and Pancake Woods, sits astride the Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire border. Open to the public, the woods, near Berkhamsted, have won a Forestry Authority Centre of Excellence Award.In 1954 they were rescued from neglect by Mary Wellesley who replanted with hardwoods and softwoods, introducing many 'fashionable' forestry trees, including the range of conifers which give the woodland its special interest. Today, under the management of the RFS, the area is once again a working woodland supplying valuable timber for domestic and industrial use. Sixteen tree species are grown commercially in the 74-hectare (180-acre) woodland and include the area's traditional beech, as well as oak and cherry. Conifer plantations include Scots pine, Norway spruce, European larch and western hemlock.Venture into Hockeridge and Pancake Woods, pictured, and you will discover clues to their historic past. A centuries old bank and ditch which once kept out livestock surrounds the woods and the county boundary can still be seen, marked by mediaeval double banks topped with old hedgerow trees in Hockeridge Bottom.Ancient woodland flowers carpet parts of the woods in spring. The best displays are found near the old earthworks in Hockeridge Bottom with primroses, bluebells, yellow archangel and tway blade orchids. Widespread felling early this century encouraged heathland to spread on the more acidic soils and odd clumps of purple heather still border the woodland rides, serving up a summer feast for bees and other insects.Open rides provide sheltered sunny flight paths for butterflies and 13 species are found in the woodland, including the speckled wood and peacock. The variety of trees provides food and shelter for many woodland birds and mixed flocks of tits are a common winter sight as well as sparrowhawks and all three species of woodpecker - greater spotted, lesser spotted and green - can be found here. Some trees are specially 'ringbarked' to provide the deadwood woodpeckers need for hunting.Article taken from November issue of Hertfordshire Life