Restoring the wood pasture

Jonathan Ireland, Ranger Jonathan Ireland Ranger
Ancient wood pasture with a standing dead tree, with open areas of flora and other large trees

Here in Cobham Wood, part of the North Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), we’re working to reinstate 60 ha of a wood pasture that’s long since lapsed.

Ancient wood pastures are areas of grazed parkland, with a scattering of mature and veteran trees. They are such a rarity, that they’re classed as a priority habitat under the Government’s UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP). 


What is special about wood pasture?

Only in environments where trees can grow without competition from others can they grow to their full potential in both size and age. Open grown veteran trees are especially attractive to insect, bats and birds. Their sunlit canopies and pockets of decay are particularly attractive to the communities of insects which thrive in dead wood. This is the reason that Cobham Wood is classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Arms open wide in greeting
Our ranger, Jonathan, with arms spread wide as he mimics the branches of a veteran tress
Arms open wide in greeting

Why does it need restoring?

For hundreds of years, this site formed part of the Earl of Darnley’s estate at Cobham Hall, but this ended in the mid-1950s. As the land was sold off, this once beautiful and vibrant landscape reverted to an impenetrable scrubby mess. Mature trees were choked by the infilling of glades, whilst ungrazed weed growth suppressed the once species rich pasture.


What are we doing?

We’re felling as much growth as possible between our mature trees, whilst retaining some specimens to be our veterans of the future. A proportion of felled wood is left for habitat, whilst the remainder goes into firewood, which we sell to generate funds.

We stabilise our veteran trees with the occasional surgery, which also encourages sustainable new growth. For the first time in hundreds of years, we’ve started to pollard trees on this site, whereby we coppice them above the ‘browse line’ of deer and cattle to stimulate growth. 
The understorey is managed by our ‘fold’ of 26 Highland Cattle. They’re hardy browsers who trample the bracken, and happily feed on all the undesirable elements of pasture in transition such as bramble and thistle all year round. 

See our distinguished workers helping restore the wood pasture
Highland Cattle graze the woodland at Cobham, Kent
See our distinguished workers helping restore the wood pasture

How is the reinstatement project going?

We’ve done a lot of work to reinstate and maintain a healthy and vibrant wood pasture, however is it only in the last few years that our forestry and pasture management is becoming obvious. The wood has a much more airy feel, with most of our iconic veterans no longer having to compete for light and nutrients. Pathways are increasingly irrelevant as trees are thinned and scrub suppressed, with grassy glades replacing brambles.

This is just the start of a dynamic process, which will lead to a sustainable landscape where regeneration is moderated by future generations of cattle and deer.