Restoring wood pasture

Ed Anderson, Residential Long Term Volunteer Ed Anderson Residential Long Term Volunteer

One of the special features of Hatfield Forest is the open areas between the coppices, aka wood pastures. These include ancient, sometimes pollarded, trees and provide a rich habitat. We are undertaking a long term project to restore a 25 ha area in the north west of the Forest, by Elmans Green, as well as creating some new pollards.

Wood Pasture

Of all the notable habitats found within Hatfield Forest, one of the most visually striking and historically representative is the ancient wood pasture. A by-product of medieval land management, wood pasture originated from the requirement for land to be used for a dual purpose.

Traditionally areas of grazing land were set aside for livestock, with varying densities of mature trees either retained for timber or as pollards.  The latter are trees regularly cut back to 6-8 foot in height, with new growth out of reach of grazing cattle.

A part of the SSSI

Here, the ancient wood pasture has been recognised within the Forest's Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation due to the ecological value it provides. Whilst wood pasture with pollarded trees were the solution to the problem of feeding livestock whilst avoiding browsing damage to the trees required for wood and timber, advances in surveying techniques and knowledge has shown that wood pasture provides habitat for a wide range of species.  Monitoring and creating the habitat here at Hatfield is therefore vital within the wider management of the Forest.

Ancient wood pasture, along with the veteran trees and decaying wood they provide, are listed as internationally important habitats within the current conservation plan.

An amazing species diversity

An amazing range of species has been foundin the Forest, including Green & Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, a wide range of nationally rare fungi and lichen species (including all 5 Ganoderma bracket fungi) and all 17 species of bat found in the UK, including Daubentons & Pipistrelles.
The current livestock plan incorporating Red Poll cattle also allows for the species-rich grassland surrounding these magnificent old trees to be maintained in the best condition.  The use of livestock at correct densities prevents land reverting to woodland, whilst allowing for the greatest potential range of species such as Pyramidal Orchids and Strawberry Clover currently found. 

Ancient Trees

Whilst the current wood pasture found is both ecologically rich and aesthetically stunning, it is also extremely ancient, with some trees estimated to be over 600 years old.

A long term restoration project

As a result of this we are currently undertaking a 20 year program of wood pasture restoration. This involves selecting 25 hectares of overgrown scrub (comprising of Hawthorn and Blackthorn, with mature Oak and Hornbeam trees found in the canopy), of which 1 ha per year will be cleared.

Creating new pollards

Within each hectare, 40 individual trees will be selected for use as new pollards, with each one being cut 2 years after the site is cleared. This will then allow each area to be cut for the first 2 years, then grazed by our livestock thereafter. Within each site up to 6 large trees will be retained (thus filling the current habitat age gap).
All trees cleared within each site are then used for firewood sales, thus supporting the financial running of the conservation team here at Hatfield.
This project then aims to develop a new age span of pollards to fill the current gap left by the last recorded program, back in the early 1800’s.  The then owners, the Houblon family, disaproved of this practice.

New wood pasture for future generations

It is with this ongoing project that we then hope to establish new wood pasture at a landscape level, creating a mosaic of habitats for wildlife whilst developing one of the Forests key features for the enjoyment and excitement of future visitors.