Winter conservation on the Isle of Wight

On a walk through the countryside this winter you may come across our team of rangers. A lot of the work they carry out over the colder months involves cutting back scrub and coppicing trees, which may seem destructive. But these are actually very important conservation management tasks that allow rare and protected species to flourish.

Coppicing

In Borthwood and Town Copse at Newtown, our rangers carry out a woodland management activity that has been used by humans for thousands of years: coppicing.

Coppicing involves cutting back tree growth, in this case hazel and sweet chestnut, to the base, creating a ‘stool’. This will then regenerate and, over several years, provide a home for a variety of species. The first colonisers are insects who enjoy the warmth created by greater light levels. Then, as bushy growth starts to appear, birds nest amongst the leaves. Finally, after 5 years, the regenerated tree will provide the perfect habitat for protected dormice to reside in. The opening up of space increases the amount of light and heat that reaches the woodland floor, allowing bluebells and wood anemones to grow, as well as creating an improved environment for native oaks to germinate and expand.

Ranger holding a sleeping dormouse
Holnicote Ranger holding a sleeping dormouse
Ranger holding a sleeping dormouse

Because the coppiced trees will grow back, it means that we can coppice them again and again but we always ensure that the trees to be cut are sufficiently mature, with hazel coppicing only occurring after 7-14 years of growth, and chestnut after 30 years. The sweet chestnut we are currently coppicing in Borthwood was planted as a crop for this purpose.  

Coppicing not only helps nature within the woods. Nothing goes to waste as the cut down timber is stripped of its bark and shaped into posts for fencing, and binders for hedging and hurdles, which are used across our countryside sites. Using our own, untreated, wood means that we don’t have to buy in chemically treated wood, which can be toxic to the environment.

Before and after: regrown hazel coppice and a cut 'stool' in Borthwood
A row of hazel coppice with a hazel stool in Borthwood Copse
Before and after: regrown hazel coppice and a cut 'stool' in Borthwood

Newtown bird nesting site

If you’re over at Newtown birdwatching at the end of February, you might spy our rangers from the Mercia Seabrooke hide. At the end of each winter, they take a boat out to the islands in front of the hide and strim back the grass. In doing so, they create a more inviting habitat for birds who dislike nesting in long grass, such as the Black-headed gull and Mediterranean gull.

Scrub clearance

Up on the downs, we’re also helping nature in the winter. Over the last 50 years in the UK we’ve lost 97% of our wildlife-rich grassland. On the Island, scrub growth has squeezed the scarce and important chalk wildlife into a narrow strip on the top of the downs. Therefore, before spring arrives, we burn patches of gorse and scrub. This breaks up the scrub, providing more edges for insects and nesting birds, and helps the gorse grow back thick and bushy, perfect for them to hide in. It also increases diversity, by ensuring that both grassland and small scrub patches are available for insects, birds and mammals that prefer different environments.

We also ‘top over’ (cut back) areas of brambles and other scrub that have colonised previously cleared areas. This doesn’t expose the ground as pulling them out would, and encourages the spread of grasses, suppressing unwanted scrub germination. The cattle and sheep that graze the downs also help with topping over by chewing off any new scrub growth.

Although it is a lengthy process, after several years the minimisation of the scrub by both humans and cattle means that we are gradually returning the downs to the chalk grassland that is such an important habitat for rare and threatened species.