A wildwood is an uncultivated wood or forest that has been allowed to grow naturally. In the UK today, there are no woodlands that remain unaltered or unfrequented by humans. They have all been harvested, coppiced, planted or modified in some way.
The closest habitat that remains today is ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW) which has developed naturally on undisturbed soils. The long continuity of ASNW (existing since at least 1600AD) makes it one of our most valuable and important habitats, as the complex ecological connections contained within the woodland have evolved over long periods of time.
Why should we protect them?
Ancient woodlands support a huge range of wildlife, including more threatened species than any other UK habitat. Many of these species require stable conditions to survive, and often do not disperse easily so are unable to readily colonise new areas. Important micro-climatic habitats, such as rotting deadwood, can also be found here.
“Hundreds of thousands of acres of ancient woodland were converted to conifers between the 1930s and 1980s.”
These species and habitats are also becoming confined to smaller and more fragmented areas of woodland, as less than 2% of the UK’s land mass is now ASNW. Of this small area, 25% has been replanted with other species, often commercial non-native conifers, which have had a significant negative impact on native flora and fauna. Hundreds of thousands of acres of ancient woodland were converted to conifers between the 1930s and 1980s to produce timber for the forestry industry. These woodlands are known as plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS), with the plantation trees on many sites now ready to be felled for their timber.
Unfortunately, woods planted today will not become ancient woodlands in 400 years time as the soils on which they have been planted have been modified by modern agriculture and industry. Existing ancient woodlands are therefore irreplaceable, and once gone are lost forever.
How can we restore them?
It is the rich variety of wildlife that makes ancient woodlands one of our most beautiful habitats, with carpets of bluebells, ramsons and wood anemones blooming in springtime. These delicate plants could no longer survive in our woodlands once dense stands of conifers had been planted, due to the year-round shade.
Although damaged, ancient woodlands are not beyond repair. Some plantations on ancient woodland sites have retained small remnants of native woodland in steep-sided, inaccessible gullies. The soils of many plantation sites may also contain an important bank of seeds that has lain dormant for hundreds of years, and with sufficient light, these seeds can thrive once again.
With sensitive management, and the felling and replanting of conifer trees with native broadleaf species, ancient woodlands and the complex ecological connections within them can be restored to their former glory.
It is the aim of the Wild Woods Project, a two-year Heritage Lottery funded project, to support communities in Gateshead and Durham to care for Milkwellburn Wood, Witton Dene, Flass Vale, Pelaw Wood, Blaid’s Wood, Great High Wood and Hollinside Wood, which all contain areas of ancient woodland. The project will involve working with volunteers to deliver practical projects and events that promote the biodiversity and cultural value of the woodlands, and will link the participating communities to form a network of groups that can support each other in future years.
For further information, please contact Fran Mudd on (0191) 584 3112, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org