Managing our Chiltern woodlands
The landscape of the Chilterns countryside contains several ancient woodlands, and protecting and managing these extraordinary environments is one of the most important conservation activities we undertake.
Our woodlands are part of the wider woodland heritage of the Chiltern Hills, which contains the most extensive area of native beech woodland in England. This includes protected woodlands, such as those at Bradenham, which are internationally important, with an ancient heritage. In the Chilterns countryside we always manage the woodland habitats to encourage the widest range of wildlife habitat.
If you hear the whizzing of a chainsaw in one of our woodlands, it is more than likely that we are thinning the woodland. Thinning is the process of removing dangerous, less healthy or less desirable trees to make more room for the healthy trees.
As trees grow the crown takes up more space and the trees require more energy, water and nutrients. Removal of part of the canopy also allows light to reach lower levels of the woodland and encourages more growth there. Selective thinning is carried out with careful planning and consideration, and it can be used to influence the dominant tree species and the make-up of the whole woodland. We use thinning when we want to encourage greater biodiversity in our woodland wildlife habitats.
In addition to thinning the trees, we also manage the under-canopy. Holly, for example, is a fast growing woodland plant, which can choke out other woodland plants such as bluebells, box, coralroot bittercress, and a variety of orchids including the red helleborine. Volunteers and rangers regularly clear and burn excessive holly growth, but they always leave some behind as holly berries are a valuable winter food source for woodland birds.
Ash dieback in the Chilterns
Ash dieback, caused by an airborne fungus, is devastating the historic trees and beautiful woodlands in our care in the Chilterns.
We will have to fell a record number of trees, some 6,000 this year, because of the impact the disease is having in the area. The rangers will leave the woodlands to see what shoots up naturally in the cleared spaces and then begin to replace some of the trees with native species in the coming years.
This ancient practice of coppicing is a sustainable method of using woodland to produce timber. It involves the repetitive felling of the same ‘compartment’ or ‘coupe’ (group) of trees on a rotational cycle of 7 to 15 years. The coppiced material was traditionally used for a variety of purposes such as fence posts, sheep hurdles, tool handles, firewood, charcoal and furniture parts.
The practice makes use of the natural regeneration of tree species, such as ash, oak, hazel, lime and maple. The regrowth can be surprisingly fast (up to 5cm a day) and oak can grow as much as 2 metres in a season. The cut stump is known as the stool and the fresh shoots as rods, poles or logs, depending on the size.
Coppicing has huge benefits for the biodiversity of woodlands as it lets light penetrate to the woodland floor, which in turn leads to more ground flora and insects like butterflies. Hazel coppice is particularly good for dormice, one of Britain’s rarest mammals.
Coppicing has been taking place at Low Scrubs near Coombe Hill for many centuries and The National Trust is continuing this regular cutting on a more sensitive scale.
You may have heard of a management technique called clear felling. This involves cutting down and removing every tree in an area. Clear felling may be a very economical way of harvesting timber but can have a devastating impact on woodland ecosystems. Clear felling can also damage the topsoil so the land will take far longer to recover and regrow. We do not undertake clear felling on our Chilterns countryside sites and it would not be an appropriate way to manage our woodlands.
What can you do to help?
- Join the National Trust to support our work on 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 woodlands. Why not share this page with your friends?