North Dorset’s ancient woodlands

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Reviving the ancient art of coppicing may just be the saving of our national woodland heritage, says DWT’s reserve warden Ben Atkinson

Working on a coppice coupe at Ashley Wood
Image: ©Adam Woolcott

North Dorset is home to ancient broadleaved woodlands which are a testament to the enduring power of nature. Standing tall and proud among the towering canopies of trees are, of course, the impressive English oaks which can be found at many of Dorset Wildlife Trust’s woodland nature reserves including Bracketts Coppice and Hibbitt Woods near Yeovil. They are often the oldest trees in the wood, hundreds of years old and supporting thousands of species.
Ancient woodlands are also home to many of Dorset’s rare species. Their diverse mix of trees, shrubs and other plants support all manner of wildlife. Woodland butterflies like the white admiral and silver-washed fritillary can be seen basking in sheltered sunny areas.
Birdsong often fills the air with resident birds like song thrushes, marsh tits and great spotted woodpeckers joined by summer visitors like chiffchaffs, blackcaps and spotted flycatchers. Roe deer can often be seen as they cross the grassy rides and during the night, hazel dormice climb among the trees and brambles in search of food and nesting material.
Ancient skills
Looking after our woodlands and ensuring wildlife continues to thrive there requires a lot of work from Dorset Wildlife Trust’s wardens. One of the most important ways in which we manage many of our woodland reserves is through coppicing, where a tree is cut down to a stump, encouraging new shoots to grow and ultimately regrowing the tree. It’s an old method of managing a woodland, and something people have been doing for thousands of years. Traditionally, coppicing provided a continuous and sustainable supply of timber and materials, used in a huge range of things from thatched roofs to charcoal making.
It takes advantage of the fact that almost every broadleaved tree native to the UK will regrow from the base if cut down when young, with several stems growing from the original stump. It’s the method by which it is hoped the tree recently felled at Sycamore Gap in Northumberland may yet be preserved.
As the warden responsible for both Ashley Wood near Blandford and Girdlers Coppice at Sturminster Newton, I spend many a winter’s day in these woods coppicing, often with the help of our antastic team of volunteers. Each winter, when the trees are dormant and the birds have finished nesting, we coppice one or two small areas – known as coupes – in each woodland. It is always a popular task with our volunteers. Working in the woods, using age-old techniques to give the woodland a helping hand to provide an ideal place for wildlife … what’s not to like?

A carpet of wildflowers will usually follow when coppicing lets new light and space into an ancient woodland

Breathing life into old wood
Coppicing can have huge benefits for wildlife, with many species responding to the newly-created open areas within a previously-dense and dark wood. It is no coincidence that the decline of many woodland species over the last century has coincided with the decline in coppicing in the UK.
The increase in light and warmth in a newly-coppiced area stimulates new growth.
Come spring, there will be an eruption of bluebells, wood anemones, violets and many other woodland flowers. These valuable nectar sources, along with the warm sheltered conditions, attract insects – which in turn attract birds, reptiles, bats and other small mammals.
So, I urge you to get out there and visit an ancient woodland. Take a moment to listen to the birdsong, take in the earthy scent of damp moss and fallen leaves – and contemplate the centuries that have passed within that wood.
May there be many more to come.

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