Assessment Training for Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites
Over two autumnal days in November, the Woodland Trust hosted two training sessions on key techniques for the assessment and management of Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS). Dartmoor’s Fingle Woods is a good example of a PAWS restoration site and woodland managers and conservation advisers from across the southwest took the opportunity to meet at the Fingle Bridge Inn for the training sessions.
Dave Rickwood, the Woodland Trust’s Site Manager for Dartmoor and Mick Bracken, the Ancient Woodland Restoration Manager led the course and Dave set the scene, saying “Ancient Woodland is defined as a woodland that has been in continuous existence since 1600AD. It is a finite resource; only 2.4% of the UK’s area is classified as ancient woodland and it can’t be recreated if it is lost. It is regarded as one of the most diverse land habitats but, once it has been coniferised, it is under threat. Fragments of ancient woodland can survive in plantation woodland but are further threatened by climate change, the spread of disease and new development. Some of Dartmoor’s valleys, like here in the Teign, are described as refugia, safe havens for some threatened species, so careful restoration of PAWS is now becoming more urgent.
Mick continued to explain how “PAWS assessment is an essential part of the UK Forest Standard which underpins government grant schemes, so the process is very important for woodland owners and managers to know about. The assessment process we use is fairly simple, it’s not a specialist, species based survey.”
The first step is to get the habitat right. A gradual approach is important to prevent a shock to a habitat. Making a sudden change, like clear felling a conifer crop, can lead to coarse vegetation taking over; bramble, bracken or gorse can quickly become dominant, reducing diversity. The process of PAWS assessment is based on reducing threats to remnant features of ancient woodland, securing them and enhancing their value. It doesn’t have to result in a complete transformation from conifer to broadleaf but a strategic approach where management of biodiversity and economic activity such as timber production can both be part of the plan, depending on the objectives of the land owner. Dave explained, “Fingle will become a demonstration site as, in many areas, we will be using the existing conifers such as Douglas fir as the canopy trees while the woodland structure and ground flora have time to develop underneath. This is fundamentally how Continuous Cover Forestry works.”
Mick described how the process of PAWS assessment may begin with a desk study to find out whether there are any designations such as SSSI or Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). Other interesting features or species could be found in the Ancient Woodland Inventory or at the Biodiversity Records Centre (e.g. Devon BRC) but the main process begins with a survey to look at four main elements, or remnants of ancient woodland:
• Woodland specialist plants
• Deadwood and stumps
• Pre-plantation and relic native trees
• Archaeological and cultural remains
Once these features are recorded, the next stage is to assess the level of threat that is posed using a very simple method of categorising them as Safe, Threatened or Critical. This naturally leads onto working out the priorities for action when managing the woods.
To begin to understand how the process works in practice, the trainees worked on an example – a local woodland that had recently changed hands and the new owner wanted to know where to start.
To build on this experience, it was time to take their survey sheets outside and have a look at a real woodland under restoration. Other Woodland Trust and National Trust staff were on hand and led small groups of trainees around a few selected sub-compartments of Fingle Woods – just across the river. In this corner of the woods the trainees walked round and discussed their ideas about how to do a PAWS assessment on an area of oak coppice, a dense plantation of young conifer, a plantation of thinned conifer and the forest tracks and water courses running between them.
A lively discussion took place at each woodland compartment. The trainees started by identifying and describing the general tree cover. They looked for linear features, water courses, ancient boundaries and tracks. Was there any dead wood? Decaying material is an important feature in a healthy woodland. It is often where life begins. Looking on the ground, what was the vegetation cover like? In some stands of dense conifer, the light levels are so low that next to nothing grows and this puts ancient woodland soil at serious risk of erosion. After a few hours, many differing opinions were being discussed but, in general, a consensus was being reached about how to target the most urgent areas of habitat for first aid and how to make a longer-term plan for sustainable management of the site.
Over two days of training, 36 people attended from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Many were countryside rangers and landscape management advisers from a range of organisations including the Forestry Commission, FWAG, National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and other conservation bodies such as Westcountry Rivers Trust, Bumblebee Conservation and the Avon Valley Project.
On the way back to the Fingle Bridge Inn the participants chatted about what they had learned and how they could apply it in their varied fields of work. One farm adviser said, “it will be a useful method to help farmers and land owners, but they will need to be trained to do the assessments. It’s a simple enough method though.”
Other site managers and rangers could see how the technique could be used on their sites. Though the soil type and habitats would differ, “it’s a quick and easy method to record the landscape and prioritise your plans”. Another pointed out that, “there isn’t a right or a wrong way – it depends on what you want to do with your woods. You need to provide the most appropriate solution you can.”
Back at the pub Dave finished off the day saying “with PAWS restoration, the urgency is to make a start. Once light is coming into your woods, there is no rush to finish. It will take time.” And that is the essence of PAWS restoration; by following the assessment guidelines, a site manager will be able to make long term plans in the best interest of their woods and the owner’s priorities.
by Matt Parkins