February 2018 - bringing back the past, a woodland story

One of the woodland rangers with the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust team

Woodland management is not a quick fix, particularly when it comes to ancient woodland regeneration and the Skirrid near Abergavenny has seen some significant changes over the years. Tim our woodland ranger explains in more detail how we are bringing the past back to life...

For a long time the lower slopes of the Skirrid on the outskirts of Abergavenny have been wooded, long enough for it to be classed as ancient woodland. Features found within the wood and its presence on some of the oldest mapping confirms this. The wood's species and appearance went through quite a change in the middle of the last century, as a lot did, in the push to grow our own timber through the drive for conifer plantations.

Winding back the clock

Over the last 30 years we have been working to wind the clock back. Reducing the conifer numbers has been a key part of this, but waiting for them to reach maturity for market has also helped fund our work alongside woodland schemes and membership support.

Where conifers were removed in the early phases of work, we have had a fantastic dense regeneration of the species we would expect to find in ancient woodland. It is great that so many of these trees have come from the seed source that lies in the soil, typical of ancient woodland, however, they are little better than the conifers for the woodland's diversity. The regrowth is all the same age, the same size and creates a thick canopy that shades the woodland floor.

What we have done

This is why we have begun thinning through the woodland. Focusing on a section at a time, we are taking out around 30% of the trees, possibly a little more in the planted beech sections that are really hampering the ancient woodland's regeneration. This is creating canopy gaps for light to reach the woodland floor to help improve regeneration that includes everything from the smallest plants up. Some of our work has already allowed bluebells, a fantastic ancient woodland indicator species, to show through where they haven’t previously. The thinning also breaks up the age and size of the trees and allows us to give space to those we feel are important to the wood. These might be mature trees that can provide the future seed source, veterans or less common species that are present on the site like hornbeam or elm.

Beech thinning on the Skirrid allows more light for improved regeneration
Thinning beech trees at the Skirrid near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
Beech thinning on the Skirrid allows more light for improved regeneration

Encouraging Elm trees

We are also looking to actively encourage elm trees. Last year we came across The Great British Elm Experiment. The project involved propagating elms from trees that had shown resistance to Dutch Elm disease and we managed to get some of their last saplings. They arrived a little too late last year for planting straight away, so we potted them and initially kept them in our tree nursery.

Planting elm trees at the Skirrid, part of a restoration programme
Planting elm trees next to the Skirrid car park near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
Planting elm trees at the Skirrid, part of a restoration programme

Recently we have managed to get two of the stronger looking trees planted out. We have located them in one of the banks next to the Skirrid car park. The tree's locations and parentage have been recorded. Now, as with the rest of the wood, we just have to wait…

If our woodland regeneration story has inspired you to find out more about our conservation work, come back next month for an update on the footpath maintenance carried out by our upland rangers on the slopes to Pen y Fan.