Habitat Management – Woodlands
10,000 years ago the last Ice Age ended and, as the climate warmed, forest trees spread across from more southerly climes until the lowlands and uplands of Britain were clothed in
woodlands, and filled with the birds and animals which live in them. Stone Age families also moved northwards, hunting and gathering in the rich forests. By 7,000 years ago the sea had risen and filled the English Channel – Britain was now an island and cut off from the continent – no new species could seed across the water, and the plants and animals which had arrived before this are termed as ‘native’.
None of these early woodlands still exist, but those we can trace back to 1600s can be called “Ancient”.>Most have been managed by
Man for hundreds or thousands of years. Coppicing was the traditional management designed to produce wood for a wide variety of purposes – cooking and shelter building being always first and foremost. As human technology advances wood was needed for charcoal for iron smelting, fuel for dyeing wool, timbers for houses and ships, poles for hop growing etc. For charcoal the most often used woods were oak, birch, beech, hazel & hornbeam, wood being cut on an 8 to 15 year cycle. It has been estimated that 2500 acres of coppice were required to supply a blast furnace, with a further 1500 acres to support the finery forge meaning that ~¼ of the land within a 3 mile radius of a furnace was coppiced for charcoal. With an estimated 100 blast furnaces operating in the Weald in the late 16th century that is a lot of coppice woodland. With the introduction of hops for brewing beer (hops were brought to England during the 15th century by Flemish weavers and the first hop fields or “gardens” were established near Canterbury in 1520) so the demand for chestnut poles for supporting the hop bines increased. The method recommended by Reynolde Scot in the 16th century was for three or four poles to a plant growing on a large earth mound up to 3 feet high. (A hop plant, or group of plants growing together, is still referred to as a “hill”). By 1878 the acreage of hops in Kent was 46,600. Estimates of the number of chestnut hop poles required suggest that some 60,000 acres of woodland coppice was required to meet demand. Until the 1930`s coppice woodland also provided the charcoal used for drying the hops.
The coppice cycle, that of cutting down the stems, allowing light to reach the ground enabling other plants such as bluebells and primroses to flower until the canopy closes over again, has resulted
in a rich woodland mosaic full of flowers, insects and birds. As the coppice cycle is lost so our woodlands become poorer in species, less vibrant and less exciting.
Standing dead wood is one of the most important, and also one of the rarest, woodland habitats, providing food and shelter for a whole host of invertebrates and birds.