Early autumn 2018 The hot summer and prolonged lack of rain means there was a real risk of a damaging fire. Some plants have gone to seed already but the brambles and sweet chestnut trees are full of flower, which is good news for insects, birds that feed insects to their chicks and also for bats. We’re hoping the dryness and heat didn't cause too many of the newly-planted trees to die but, so far, so good. We’ve moved a lot of the stacked timber to Sheringham Park ready for making into biofuel and also to make space for wood coming from the next coppice plot, hopefully in the autumn. If you have wondered why there is a newly-cleared swathe through the west end of the woods it is because we have just re-opened a public footpath that has long been blocked. It is now passable but will probably need cutting occasionally until it is walked regularly again. Fifteen kinds of butterfly were spotted on a single day in July, some of them in large numbers. This included four white admirals and around twenty silver-washed fritillaries. Looks like this will be a good season after a few poor ones recently. The pond still has plenty of water, whereas a lot in the area dried up over the summer. The tracks in the mud around the pond show that many kinds of animals depend on it for a drink, especially during hot spells of weather. We are 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.
Restoring coppiced woodland in Row Heath and the Canadas.
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.
We intend these woods to be one of those places, as well as becoming attractive to a wide range of other wildlife.