A woodland 25 years in the making at the Skirrid

Restoration of Ancient Woodland project at Skirrid, Abergavenny

Patience is a key quality when managing woodland, especially when starting an ambitious project to remove conifers from an ancient woodland site.

Twenty five years ago, our Ranger, Stuart McDonnell, started the restoration at the Skirrid, near Abergavenny. The site, of around 14 hectares (roughly the size of 14 rugby pitches) was covered in conifers. Over the course of 10 years they reduced the conifer coverage to 25%.

By 2001 the bulk of the work was completed, and then they waited, waited for the woodland to recover from the intervention. True to form, since this was the site of an ancient woodland, there was a fantastic seed source within the soil. Given the disturbance and light that was now reaching the floor, the regeneration took off. 

Following the initial intervention, what did we do next?

For the next 15 years, nature was left to take its course and the woodland grew back. Our only involvement was to maintain the ride network, not only for our access, but as the new found woodland edge corridor for butterflies whilst also encouraging the woodland indicator plants associated with ancient woodland. 

Assessing the condition of the site today

Looking at the site today it is hard to imagine the conifer plantation that once covered this landscape. We now find ourselves with a dense infill of birch, ash, hazel, beech, alder and willow, all at the same level, competing for light, as well as the remaining conifers that are getting ever closer to maturity. 

As part of the condition surveys into of RAWS (Restoration on Ancient Woodland Sites) the Woodland Trust concluded that the site had progressed from being in poor condition to good, verging on very good. 

Does this success mean that our intervention stops? 

This proves how successful the project has been in restoring the ancient woodland at the Skirrid. Despite this success story, our work doesn’t stop here. 

We’re now embarking on our next 5 year plan to actively manage this new woodland. We’ll work through the woodland, block by block to thin back the dense regeneration. We’ll favour trees of good condition and create canopy gaps to help establish different layers within the woodland. 

We’ll also be taking the blocks of conifers back to their final thin. You could question why we’re not clear felling the remaining conifers, but they are not quite ready yet and are still a useful resource, and income source. 

In the longer term

Following this latest round of work we’ll end up with a more open and diverse woodland and the site will be left again to recover. We’ll see more flora at low levels, like the bluebells that we started to spot this spring and we’ll monitor the butterfly populations to see what affect we’re having on their population numbers. 

In another twenty years we should be looking at something close to as if the plantation was never even there. 

Patience is the key to woodland management, while the recovery for individual species can be quick, for the woodland as a whole, the process is slow and there is no ‘quick-fix’ with management passed from person to person to maintain consistent management.