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Our woodland work on West Exmoor

Sunshine breaks through the trees beside a woodland path in the Heddon Valley
Woodland path in the Heddon Valley | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The West Exmoor ranger team look after 1,200 acres of woodland, an area roughly the size of 16,000 tennis courts, containing around 400,000 trees. Rare species of moss, lichen and ground flora mean the woods have special protected status and form an important habitat for wildlife.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

History of the woodland

Most of the woodland on West Exmoor and around Watersmeet is known as semi-natural ancient woodland. This means that although trees have always been here, humans have played an important role in shaping the landscape we see today.

Less than 150 years ago, this tranquil space would have been alive with activity as the trees were harvested for firewood, and for timber, which was traded with Welsh communities for the lime used in agriculture in Exmoor.

The West Exmoor woodland plan

While most of the trees in the area were planted at the same time, healthy woodland depends on having a variety of age structures present. To encourage this, saplings are given a chance by creating gaps in the woodland that allow new growth to take hold.

At the same time, special older trees are identified and are given room to set seed and age.

The type of woodland management practised by the West Exmoor ranger team is known as Continuous Cover Forestry, which means there is never a time when large swathes of the woodland are felled.

This focused conservation is done using several methods.

Rangers complete tree work in the Heddon Valley
A ranger working in woodland | © Maia Rhoads

Glade creation, pollarding and coppicing

A large part of our woodland management at the moment revolves around creating new glades, as well as pollarding and coppicing areas. Around both the Heddon Valley and Watersmeet we have an oak monoculture, where the trees are all of a similar age and structure, by carrying out our woodland work we are encouraging diversity in the structure and creating new habitats for wildlife.

Glades are important areas for wildlife like birds and butterflies, and for light-loving plants. To create these gaps in the canopy we fell selected trees which allows light to penetrate the canopy and reach the woodland floor.

Pollarding is a traditional method of tree pruning where the tree's branches are cut back to encourage the growth of new shoots. The regrowth helps to create a diversity of habitats for birds, insects and small mammals like dormice. Pollarding trees allows more light to reach the forest floor and enables wildflowers and grasses to grow. The process also prolongs the tree's lifespan as the trunk and roots remain healthy. Pollarding has become an important tool for maintaining and improving biodiversity in woodlands and we are currently working in areas around Watersmeet.

Coppicing has similar benefits to pollarding, but also creates a variation in height within the woodland, again creating a diverse range of habitats for mammals and birds.

Deadwood in the woodland

Where copping, pollarding and glade creation has taken place felled timber is left in place. This deadwood is vital to woodland life, creating habitats for wildlife, food for insects and the ideal environment for fungi.

Invasive management

Removing invasive species like rhododendron ponticum from woodland means native species can flourish.

Sustainable futures

Some of the timber we fell plays an important role in the sustainability of the places we care for. It is used in biomass boilers to heat buildings and can be milled up and used as ‘estate timber’ to make things like gates and fences.

Unusual trees on West Exmoor

The woodland we care for is home to some unusual and special trees.

The strangely named No Parking Whitebeam was first noticed in the Watersmeet valley in the 1930s, where one stood in a lay-by with a ‘no parking’ sign nailed to its trunk. After biochemical analysis it was declared a new species and given its official name in 2009.

The Spindle tree, found only in areas with very low acidity levels in the soil, can be found in the Heddon Valley. The past use of the valley as a import route of lime contributed to this. You can still see one of the old lime kilns down near the beach.

Ash dieback on West Exmoor

Sadly, many woodlands in North Devon are affected with ash dieback, a chronic fungal disease that affects our native ash trees. The disease severely weakens the tree structurally, meaning trees close to footpaths, roads and buildings can become extremely dangerous. We have been working to carefully manage and remove affected trees.

A large ash tree in woodland on the slopes of the Heddon Valley in Exmoor
Ash tree on the slopes of the Heddon Valley, Exmoor | © National Trust Images/Seth Jackson

Marcus Wilde, who leads woodland work on West Exmoor, has assessed the ash trees in critical locations and has planned for their safe removal. The ash trees that aren’t going to do any harm will be left alone to allow nature to take its course.

It is hoped that between one and five per cent of the ash trees we look after are resistant to the disease, making them the future of ash in the UK.

2023 Ash Dieback update

You may have spotted us out doing tree surveys this autumn – we survey the trees every year in a rotation dependant on usage, this was our biggest year with dozens of miles of paths and roads to cover. We have mainly been identifying dead and dying Ash due to Ash Dieback.

Over the next few months work will begin on trees identified as needing work, this will largely be felling but some tree surgery. You will see areas across the estate where we have been at work, with the works being mobile and occurring through autumn and winter. Your walks may experience slight delays and not look quite the same but this tree work is essential to keep paths open. If you see signs for works or are stopped by sentries please take heed.

Thank you,
Ranger Dan Cameron, North Devon National Trust.

Visitors walking the path linking Heddon's Mouth to Woody Bay, Exmoor


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