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Woodland restoration at the Skirrid

A couple of people in colourful outdoor clothing walking on a slope downwards along a woodland ride surrounded by trees and felled logs.
Walk through the restored woodland at the Skirrid in Monmouthshire | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Patience is essential when managing woodland, especially when starting an ambitious project to remove conifers from an ancient woodland site. Read on to find out how taking a long-term approach has helped to transform the woodland at the Skirrid.

Taking the long view

Twenty-five years ago, 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 the first 10 years, the conifer coverage was reduced to just 25%.

By 2001 the bulk of the work was completed, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the woodland to recover naturally 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.

What were the next steps?

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 access, but as an important woodland edge corridor for butterflies, which also encouraged 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. It’s now 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 RAWS (Restoration on Ancient Woodland Sites) condition surveys the Woodland Trust concluded that the site had progressed from being in ‘poor’ condition to ‘good’, verging on ‘very good’. This proves how successful the project has been in restoring the ancient woodland at the Skirrid.

A person walking along a trail at Skirrid Fawr in Monmouthshire with old moss-covered stone walls to their right and a wooden boardwalk underfoot
Take a walk on the trail at the Skirrid in Monmouthshire | © National Trust Images/John Millar

A 5-year plan

Despite this success story, our work doesn’t stop here. We’re now carrying out a 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. We will not be clear-felling these remaining conifers, as 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 to recover once again. We’ll see more flora at low levels, like the bluebells that have started to appear in spring, and we’ll monitor the butterfly populations to see what affect we’re having on their population numbers.

In another twenty years the woodland should look and feel as if the conifer plantation was never even there.

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