In January 2018, our Natural Habitats Manager, Jonathan, wrote a brilliant spotlight blog about the woodland structure, focusing on the understory. In this blog, Jonathan discussed the background of St Nicks woodland and talked about our plans for improvement as we launched our exciting new project; St Nicks community woodland, funded by the Postcode Local Trust. Now in our 12th and final month of delivery on the project, I’m here to talk about the fantastic work that has been done throughout the year and how it has helped to improve our woodland for both wildlife and those who wander the woodlands.
One of the biggest aims was to introduce a layered structure within the woodland as before the project began, we had an impressive canopy layer but not much else. You can read Jonathan’s blog on woodland structure to find out why this was the case. However this impressive canopy was actually too dense to allow much sunlight to penetrate to the depths of the woodland and so there were very few lower growing species to be found, making for a rather sparse and sorry looking understory.
Over the last 12 months, we have been working to change this; introducing pockets of colour and creating a buzz within our wonderful woodland. With the help of regular volunteers and local community members we have carried out a multitude of works to help us improve the structure and biodiversity. Through weekly practical conservation sessions, corporate away day groups and drop in volunteering events, we have thinned out several areas of densely planted trees. What were once small tendrils of light sneaking through the canopy are now great beams, creating much needed pools of light on the woodland floor. Now wildflowers such as bluebells, wild garlic and wood anemones have the light that they need to grow and flourish, as well as understory trees such as holly, hazel and hawthorn. These will create a fantastic understory layer and colourful, attractive ground flora. Invertebrates will also be very grateful to have a space where they can sunbathe and grab a nectar refill as they travel through the trees. Not only does this work improve the lower layers of the woodland but it also means that there is less competition within tall trees that make up the canopy layer. No longer fighting with each other for light and nutrients, the remaining trees will be able to grow to their full potential.
Work also includes our annual coppicing regime to rejuvenate struggling trees and create vast multi-stemmed structures within the woodland. Coppicing is a very traditional management technique. It can actually be traced as far back as the Neolithic period, however written records only hark back as far as the 13th century, when coppiced stems were cut and the produce used in various ways including building, fuel and crafting. Coppicing involves cutting the stems of certain tree species as close to the ground as possible, this encourages the tree to shoot out new growth from dormant buds within the bark around the stump or (in coppicing terms) the stool. Trees can be coppiced time and time again, so it is a great way to elongate the lifespan of a tree whilst creating a multi-stemmed, lower growing structure within a woodland that previously would have been full of very tall, single stemmed trees. Having these lower growing structures is very important for low nesting bird species such as finches, dunnocks and robins and allows light to pierce through the trees and reach the woodland floor.
At St Nicks we think it’s important to use heritage skills such as coppicing in our management, finding that often they are more wildlife friendly and more accessible to a wider range of people. We have a coppice with standards regime which means that we coppice a certain amount of trees within the woodland but we also leave some standard trees which are not coppiced and are left to grow tall. This creates our canopy layer as this too is an incredibly important habitat that we would never want to get rid of this completely. We coppice on a 10 year rotation; giving coppiced trees time to re-establish before they’re cut again and creating an even wider variety of structure and ages within the trees.
Another heritage skill that we try to implement where possible is the technique of hedgelaying. Hedgelaying works by cutting a tree using a tool called a billhook but leaving it attached to the coppiced stool via a small strip of bark. This allows nutrients to travel up to the cut tree and so it keeps producing. By laying the tree and then laying neighbouring trees on top of it, it creates a natural hedge that will continue to produce fruit and foliage for a few years. Once the hedge has started to die back, the remaining coppiced stool will have produced stems which can be laid again to retain the living hedge. With a little bit of volunteer training, we’ve laid several hedges in the past 12 months with many more to come. Hedges are brilliant for wildlife as they act as corridors throughout the site while the growth that blossoms, flowers and fruits within the hedge will provide a food source for a variety of species (and aside from the wildlife value, learning how to wield a billhook is rather exciting in itself!).
Of course all of this practical work serves a very important purpose and that purpose is supporting the weird and wonderful wildlife that uses the nature reserve. As such, it’s important to monitor the species that are using the woodland through surveying to make sure the hard work and effort poured into managing the site is having the intended benefits that we expect it to. To do this, we’ve made great efforts to improve our monitoring techniques. After some training in small and riparian mammal tracking, we’ve been carrying out surveys using water vole rafts, small mammal footprint tunnels and we even hosted a Mammal Detectives event earlier this year where we went looking for prints, burrows and —the most obvious field sign—poo! Through surveying, we’ve found field signs of hedgehogs, bats and even a visiting otter!
It’s been a real pleasure to work on the St Nicks Community Woodland project this year and it has given our woodland a much needed boost in terms of improving the structure, biodiversity and monitoring the habitat. We will continue to work on the improvements to make sure that the species that are currently using the site can continue doing so with a plentiful amount of shelter and food for foraging and making sure conditions are perfect for encouraging growth.
Do you fancy learning how to lay a hedge or coppice a tree? If you do, you could join our incredible team of volunteers to learn these skills and more! Just get in touch with Volunteer Co-ordinator, Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about how you can get involved.
Thanks again to Postcode Local Trust for funding St Nicks Community Woodland project.