Restoring coppiced woodland in Row Heath and the Canadas.

Tree trunks being hauled

These woods were cleared and turned into a pine plantation in the 1960’s, largely as a financial investment facilitated by government tax-incentives. The crop is now mature and ready for felling, giving an opportunity to reconsider the best future use of the land. The plantation was intended to be clear-felled and perhaps another crop replanted but the economics of forestry have altered and nowadays much more thought is given to nature in managing woodland.

Over the years the densely-planted conifers dramatically reduced the amount of light reaching the forest floor and this resulted in the native plant species being suppressed to the extent that many either haven’t flowered and produced seed for years or any seedlings just haven’t survived in the shade. Along some path-edges and in places where the pines failed to grow, a little more light has persisted and some flowers can still be seen, giving a tantalising glimpse of what used to be. It is probable that others didn’t survive the upheaval of change and that insects and birds associated with the original woods disappeared, too.

At the west end of the woods, we have widened all the tracks and begun managing them more for wildlife. The benefits of this should become apparent over the next few years and already it has been seen in the increased diversity and abundance of the flowering plants. But it remains the case that we’ll need to remove the conifer trees and develop a more natural system of woodland management to really improve things for the long term.
By listening to those who remember the woods before the pines were planted, consulting old maps and aerial photographs, as well as examining the remnant surface archaeology, we intend to convert the woods back to mostly deciduous trees and encourage a diverse shrub-layer with open, sunny areas.
Instead of doing this in one major operation, we intend to do it over at least 10 years by felling small areas and protecting them from deer-browsing, initially, to maximise the potential for native trees, shrubs and low plants to re-establish. The wood removed will be sold and processed by local contractors and used for building construction, fencing materials, biomass wood-chips and firewood. Some will be used on local National Trust estates.

A specialist woodland-restoration contractor has already started to clear a small plot of pines where some of the native vegetation is still evident. Working at small scale with low-impact machinery costs considerably more than using large, mechanised timber harvesters but these may also have to be brought in from time to time, so that the work remains economically viable and also because some of the pines are simply too big for the smaller equipment. 
On each plot all the trees will be removed, except for a scattering of larger ones called ‘standards’. Most of the under-storey of shrubs will also be cut and allowed to re-grow again or any gaps planted up, although flowering hawthorns, hollies and some rowans will be left as insect nectar-sources. Deer will then be prevented from browsing the new shoots for 2 or 3 years, during which time it should be possible to assess whether, and how many, of the woodland flowers have survived the dense shading of the conifer trees.
With more sunlight and the re-establishment of plants to provide food for insect larvae and birds, we hope to see a wider variety of wildlife in greater numbers. In time, a brambly undergrowth will also develop and provide more nectar sources for insects and cover for small birds to nest in. Although butterfly numbers vary from year to year, some of the species not seen in Norfolk for decades have begun to re-appear in the county and are re-establishing in suitable places. These include white admiral, silver-washed fritillary and, most recently, purple emperor butterflies.

Female silver-washed fritillary
Female silver-washed fritillary

We intend these woods to be one of those places, as well as becoming attractive to a wide range of other wildlife.

White admiral butterfly
White admiral butterfly

Timeline

2016

Restoring coppiced woodland update October 2016

After a good, dry summer the weather has rapidly cooled and the rain returned just after we had removed the felled timber around the main path. It is now stacked along the hard central track waiting to be taken away. We are now working along the smaller tracks, cutting back overhanging branches so that we can mow the paths before winter. The spring flowers have set seed for future years and light now filters nicely through the thinned-out trees. Early in September the Wandering Woodsmen began a contract to coppice a small piece of the eastern end of the woods. This involves cutting all the trees and shrubs to ground level, except for a scattering of big trees and some of the flowering shrubs, like hawthorn & rowan, which are good sources of nectar for insects. Some of the old shoots of the hazel will be bent over and staked down to root and produce new hazel bushes. A deer-proof boundary is to be put up to protect the growth that springs from stumps of deciduous trees and also any long-lost flowering plants that may have survived the intense shade of the pine trees. Something to look out for next summer! Look out, too, for migrant birds in the woods. Already we have seen redwings, fieldfares and bramblings, as well as increased numbers of resident birds like woodcock, which come here from the continent on easterly breezes as the weather there cools. Lots of different kinds of fungi will soon be around the place, too. We still intend to upgrade the main path a little to keep it drier to use longer in the year, though this will very much depend on the weather in the next few months. Keith Zealand- Countryside Manager, National Trust (14 Oct 2016).

Redwing eating a red berry

2017

Restoring coppiced wodland update February 2017

LATE FEBRUARY Most places are damp underfoot at the moment but pretty much everywhere is OK for walking. The first adders have already been spotted on the heath, believe it or not. The felled log-stacks are labelled-up, either for selling or with cutting-dates, so that the wood can be tracked as it air-dries before chipping to fuel the heating systems at Sheringham Park & Felbrigg. A new Felbrigg biomass boiler should be running by the end of February. The deer-proof fence on the first coppice plot is finished. Hopefully, there will be a good flush of new growth and flowers during this year and next, protected from browsing deer. There is a handy little bank on the path ‘crossroads’, which means you can easily stand on top and look into the plot. Being a sheltered spot, it should be really good for butterflies later on. So we’re back to more widening of paths and felling conifers from the track edges to give the native trees, shrubs and lower-growing plants the maximum chance to thrive. We also hope to fit in some clearing around a pond in the next week or so before the frogs, toads and newts come back to spawn. And still we await a contractor and some dry weather coming so we can spread the heaps of stone over the wettest path areas. We are always pleased to receive sightings of wildlife and especially grateful for copies of old photographs taken in these woods. Although we have good records of when trees were planted here going back two hundred years or more, few people can remember what this place looked like before it was felled only fifty years ago. Keith Zealand- Countryside Manager, National Trust (16 February 2017).

2017

Restoring coppiced woodland update May 2017

Late April Apart from the odd wet patch, the paths are now mostly dry everywhere in the woods. We are just completing the widening of a second section of the public footpath (at the south end) and the felled stems should be taken away shortly. The section cleared last year is already beginning to look really good for wildlife. The gales earlier in the spring brought down several trees across paths but all are clear for walking. There are still a few larger trees leaning or fallen back away from paths which we hope to deal with shortly. Whilst doing this work we also cleared a few patches of invasive Rhododendron ponticum before it begins to spread. If you would like to be involved and join our volunteer team on Thursday mornings, do please get in touch. The first coppice plot is springing into life, with the first new shoots appearing on the felled stumps and newly-planted trees coming into leaf. The violets, wood sorrel and wood sanicle are starting to flower. There is a handy little bank on the path ‘crossroads’, where you can easily stand on top and look into the plot. Being a sunny & sheltered spot, it should be really good for butterflies later on. Unfortunately, the frogs and toads got to the pond just before us, which means we’ll have to wait until the autumn again before clearing some of the shading trees around that. In the meantime, we’ll be applying for felling licences from the Forestry Commission to allow us to make another coppice plot towards the end of the year. We are always pleased to receive sightings of wildlife and especially grateful for copies of old photographs taken in these woods. Although we have good records of when trees were planted here going back two hundred years or more, few people can remember what this place looked like before it was felled only fifty years ago. Keith Zealand- Countryside Manager, National Trust (26 April 2017).