Three Hagges Wood, the story so far ….
Why exactly are we trying to create an ecosystem at Three Hagges Wood?
The end of the year is always a time of review and preview for me. And though I’ve always been a bit of deadline girl, so much has happened at Three Hagges Wood this year, I’ve been provoked to begin early if I’m to assimilate it all.
When first we set out to create a Jubilee Wood, one of the simplest objectives was to avoid making a plantation with an understorey of brambles and nettles. It was clear from the outset that careful management was key to this. Then, like Topsy, objectives grew and grew, until eventually our ambitions encompassed the creation of an entire ecosystem. How did that happen?
Well, these ambitions have blossomed out of what have been, for me, viscerally shocking data regarding the decline of biodiversity during my lifetime. Here are some of them:
Between the end of WWII and the new millennium, the proportion of high canopy forest increased from 51% (1947) to 97% (2002). The high-density shade that this creates is antipathetic to a diverse woodland ground flora; the higher the percentage of high canopy forest, the lower the percentage of woodland ground flora. Since 1990, despite a 5% increase in woodland cover, there has been a decline in of 19% in woodland plant diversity. This is most marked in Ancient Woodland Indicators, which have declined by 34%. Of 1256 woodland species surveyed, 60% have declined during the past 60 years; 11% are Red List species; they are endangered, some of them critically.
Coppice-managed woodland, which creates a mosaic of diversity-friendly open rides and glades, has declined by 97% since the beginning of last century4. Open rides, with a characteristic tapestry of variables (light, shade, shelter, aspect etc.) are the preferred habitats for up to 60% of woodland flora. And as a direct result of these vegetation changes, woodland birds have declined by 50% and woodland butterflies by 74%.
Where a homogeneous woodland structure is allowed to develop, it inevitably results dense high-canopy cover. It also allows the rapid establishment of native invasives such as bramble, ivy and nettle, which in turn prevent colonisation by native woodland wildflowers. The mean cover and extent of nettles and brambles has doubled between 1990-2007.
In all, about one third of our native plants are of conservation concern: of 3,000 species for which quantitative assessment is available, 60% are in decline. Their conservation is underfunded: whilst plants and fungi comprise 50% of BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) priority species, they accounted for 0% of research contract grants awarded by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee 2007-09.
One obvious conclusion is that floral elements are too frequently overlooked in new woodland projects. One obvious question for us then, was how to encourage the sustainable development of a natural ground flora?
I believe that creating and managing a fine sward of non-competitive grasses and meadow flowers into which we could plant our native trees was the way to go. This opened the can-of-worms of grassland concerns.
Flower-rich meadows have declined by 98% during the 20th century, with losses equivalent to 64,000km. The decline in lowland floodplain meadows has been enormous over the past 50 years and is unquantifiable – that’s particularly pertinent on our site on the Ouse-Derwent floodplain.
Some 65% of grassland species have declined over the past 50 years, a greater proportion than in any other habitat; some 25% of native flowering plants from grassland habitats are under threat.
We surely cannot believe it remarkable, therefore, that floral losses from permanent grasslands have been paralleled by declines in the many thousands of invertebrate species that depend on them, and that the loss of the very creatures that form the base of the food web doesn’t have repercussions all the way up the chain. Of 97 food plants that bumble bees prefer, 76% have declined during past 80 years; butterfly numbers have declined by 40% between 1990-2011; 64% farmland moths and 70% of carabid beetles are declining. It’s a story that parallels that of woodland flora decline.
I might also add concerns about what happens to out-of-sight soil life, from mycorrhiza upwards, but that’s a story for another day. If you want a list of references, please contact me.
The long and the short of it is that we have committed to trying to recreate an entire ecosystem in a holistic way, and we want to publish results in a format that will be useful for anyone else who wants to do the same. We have a snappy strap line: Raising Tomorrow’s Ancient Woodland. Speaking for myself, I no longer wish to hear that planting trees alone is the way forward in raising the bar for biodiversity.
The featured picture above, by Andrew Hill, is of Bradfield Woods in Suffolk, managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. If you go in spring you will find your heart moved immeasurably. It has been coppice managed for perhaps a thousand years, a testament to humankind’s relationship with the natural world. http://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/about-us/gift-your-will/bradfield-woods
How long will our experiment take to bear fruit? We don’t know, but please wish us luck, and we’ll keep you posted.