Discover beech woodlands in the Chilterns Countryside
The National Trust looks after several important beechwoods in the Chiltern Hills. These include woodlands at Pulpit Hill, Juniper Bank, Aston Wood, Greenfields Copse, and Bradenham, and at Low Scrubs near Coombe Hill. Many of these woodlands were originally planted to provide timber for the chair and furniture industry centred on High Wycombe, or to provide local firewood. Today, the trees are still harvested for timber but more importantly, they are also managed by the National Trust for their amenity, recreation and wildlife value.
The landscape of the Chiltern Hills is surprisingly wooded, and those woodlands are dominated by beech trees. Many parts of the Chilterns have been covered with woodland for hundreds of years, and today the Chilterns are still one of the most wooded parts of England, with over one fifth of the land area covered by trees. In addition to beech, ash, cherry and oak are also widespread in our woodlands.
Wooded hilltops are a distinct characteristic of the Chiltern Hills, which is often absent on the other ranges of chalk hills such as Salisbury Plain, the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds or the North and South Downs. In many places, the woodlands are associated with a geological deposit called ‘clay-with-flints’ which lies on top of the chalk. The soils here may become waterlogged on the surface, so in the past, they have not been cleared for farming. Beech trees usually grow in well-drained soils, but the clay-with-flints is usually thin enough for the beech trees’ roots to reach through to the well-drained chalk below.
About beech trees
Mature beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) grow to a height of more than 40 metres and, unimpeded, they will develop huge domed crowns. The bark is smooth, thin and grey, with slight horizontal etchings. In early spring, reddish-brown, torpedo-shaped leaf buds form on short stalks, before bursting into leaf in late-April to mid-May. Young leaves are lime green with silky hairs, which become darker green and lose the hairs, as they mature. Each leaf is 4–9 cm long, with a wavy edge.
Beech is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers grow on the same tree in April and May. The tassel-like male catkins hang from long stalks at the end of twigs, while female flowers grow in pairs, surrounded by a cup. Pollination takes place care of the wind. The cup becomes woody once pollinated, and they will enclose one or two beechnuts. The triangular beechnuts form in prickly four-lobed seed cases.
Once the beech trees have come into leaf, the beech woodlands become very shady, and the woodland floor is characterised by dense carpets of fallen leaves and beechnut husks. These conditions prevent most woodland plants from growing, so only specialist shade tolerant plants can survive beneath a beech canopy. One of these specialists is the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), which overcomes the problem of excessive shade by completing its growing and flowering season before the beech trees come into leaf in May. For the rest of the growing season, the bluebells survive as bulbs, dormant beneath the surface.
Value to wildlife
Due to its dense canopy, some rarer plant species are associated with beech woodland, such as box, coralroot bittercress, and a variety of orchids including the red helleborine. Beech woodland are important habitats for many butterfly species, such as the speckled wood, purple emperor and silver-washed fritillary, particularly in open glades and along woodland rides. Beech foliage is eaten by a number of moth caterpillars, including the barred hook-tip, the clay triple-lines and the olive crescent.The beechnuts are eaten by mice, voles, squirrels, deer and birds, and during the Second World War, people used ground, roasted beechnuts to make a coffee substitute.
Native truffle fungi grow in beech woods. These fungi are ectomycorrhizal, which means they help the host trees get nutrients in exchange for some of the sugar the tree produces through photosynthesis.
Older beech trees provide habitats for many deadwood specialists such as hole-nesting birds, squirrels, dormice and wood-boring insects. The bark is often home to a variety of fungi, mosses and lichens.
Beech as an industrial raw material
Records of the craft of chair making in the Chilterns dates to before 1700, with reference to a ‘turner’ in the parish register of High Wycombe in the 1680s. Daniel Defoe, the author of the classic novel Robinson Crusoe, noticed in 1725 that there was: "a vast quantity of beechwood, which grows in the woods of Buckinghamshire more plentifully than in any other part of England".
Many Chiltern beech trees were planted as a raw material for the chair and furniture manufactures, centred on High Wycombe, which was once regarded as the chair-making capital of the world. In the early days, the production focused on chair parts which were sent up to London to be framed-up into chairs, but over the next 50 years, local landowners begin to make available premises in High Wycombe to enable the work to be completed in the town itself. The Windsor chair was the most famous product of this trade, but these chairs were never made in Windsor, instead they were shipped to London from High Wycombe through traders in Windsor.
Bodging was a traditional woodturning craft, using green (unseasoned) wood to make chair legs and other cylindrical parts of chairs. The bodgers worked within the beechwoods in their bodgers’ hovels or lean-to shelters, and contrary to popular belief, most went home to their families at night to cottages in local villages. A bodger’s equipment often included a ‘High Wycombe lathe’; a term to describe any wooden-bed pole lathe.
The completed chair legs were sold to furniture factories in High Wycombe to be matched with other chair parts made in their workshops. The trade died out as recently as the late 1950s. You can still find numerous small pits or depressions in many of the Chiltern woods, between 3-5 metres long. Most of these smaller hollows are abandoned saw pits, dating back to this industrial past.
Beech woodlands in today’s economy
In recent times, the market for Chilterns beech wood has declined dramatically because of the prevalence of cheaper imported timber. The furniture industry has all but disappeared from High Wycombe and wood from beech trees has been replaced by cheaper softwoods, metal and plastic in many of the industry’s products. In addition, there is now a lack of good quality timber in the Chilterns because many of the largest and most suitable trees have already been harvested.
Wood from the Chilterns is still used for a variety of purposes including firewood, charcoal, fencing, woodcrafts and craft furniture.
How does the National Trust manages its beechwoods?
Today, the woods are still harvested for timber, for example, poor quality timber is chipped and used as fuel in the sustainable biomass boiler at Hughenden Manor, where it provides hot water and central heating for the whole property. However, the focus of our woodland management has shifted; developing the beech woodlands’ amenity, recreation and wildlife value has become far more important.
Our beech woodlands are constantly changing, and storms, drought and disease all take their toll on old trees. Many of the beech trees are now well over 100 years old. However, the loss of older trees offers opportunities for the young trees to grow in the gaps. These saplings need to be thinned out if they are to have the space and light they need to develop into strong trees.
To increase the opportunities for wildlife, such as woodland birds and butterflies, we create open glades and wide rides along tracks and footpaths by selectively felling the weakest trees. This allows light through the canopy, allowing a wider variety of shrubs, grasses and other flowering plants to establish. These in turn attract birds and many species of insect, especially butterflies.
Grey squirrels, which were introduced to Britain from North America in the 1870s, are a particular nuisance in beechwoods as they can strip large areas of bark from young beech trees. To a lesser degree, young saplings are also in danger of being browsed by deer, so we often need to protect beech saplings in their early years.
As global warming progress, it may have a significant impact on our Chiltern beechwoods. Beech trees are especially susceptible to drought and if we get longer, drier summers as predicted, the beech trees may die back to be replaced by more resilient oaks and ashes.
There are many threats to the survival of our woodland heritage, but with proper management, the beechwoods we enjoy today will provide pleasure to many future generations.
What can you do to help?
- Join the National Trust to support our work on beech woodlands and other threatened habitats.
- Get involved by volunteering with your local National Trust ranger team.
- Buy sustainable beech wood charcoal or wood crafts from your local National Trust shop.
- Tell others about the importance of our special beechwoods. Why not share this page with your friends?