When the Woodland Trust and National Trust pooled their resources in 2014 to take on 330 hectares of woodland in the Teign Valley to the east of Dartmoor, the guiding principle of how to tackle the landscape scale restoration of a Plantation on an Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS) had already been established in a White Paper published back in 2010. The “Making Space for Nature” report set out to review England’s wildlife and ecological network. Consulting with experts from across the ecological spectrum, the report asked the question “do England’s wildlife sites comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network?” It suggested that, “we need to embrace a new, restorative approach which rebuilds nature and creates a more resilient natural environment for the benefit of wildlife and ourselves”.
Fingle Woods provided a perfect opportunity to put that principle into action as it nestled between two ancient woodland sites already under the ownership of the National Trust and just across the river, another ancient woodland nature reserve sat under the watchful eye of Devon Wildlife Trust. All around the valley are other established habitats, linking up to form a continuous patchwork of moors, heaths, hedgerows, rivers and streams with the potential to become what the White Paper referred to as a resilient and connected ecological network, meeting the needs of the basic convention of more, bigger, better and joined. Central to all this, Fingle Woods was the missing link, perfectly located in the valley to bring together this network of nature. After the first four years of woodland restoration the results are beginning to emerge and, as the years pass, Fingle Woods is becoming a perfect demonstration site. With a patient approach to the conservation work and a good team of ecologists and partner organisations on board, records of wildlife diversity are beginning to indicate how and where the progress is being made.
The ability for wild species to create their networks at Fingle a priority but the story of the restoration so far can also be shared with networks of ecological professionals and, in April 2018, a group of CIEEM (Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Managers) members visited Fingle Woods. Starting at a view point in the valley where the extent of the restoration task could be visualised, a tour of some of the key areas began. Standing above the steep sided gorge, Woodland Trust Site Manager, Dave Rickwood introduced the tour. He told the story of how the ancient woodland became coniferised and the potential for the site to become the centre-piece of a large, connected haven for nature, predicting that “in 50 years, the tree cover will look very different. Broadleaved species will become dominant but, for the sake of diversity, some conifers will still stand within a mixed woodland structure”.
Woodland restoration over a period of decades may be challenging to visualise but one easily accessible spot along the riverside track demonstrates clearly how a woodland can, with some assistance, regenerate itself. The area known locally as Rickwood’s Bank shows how, after three years, a strip of conifers can become a wildlife friendly woodland edge, supporting numerous species of ancient woodland ground flora. In amongst the regenerating wild flowers are a few tree seedlings, providing a few clues to what this strip of woodland may look like in the future. This example of how the restoration process takes place has shown how seeds have been dormant in the soil for some decades have sprung back to life once the first few rows of conifer were cut back to allow the sun to reach the trackside.
The next stop on the tour was hosted by Fred Hutt, the Fingle Ranger. Fingle has a low proportion of open space within the woodland and Fred explained how Ross Meadow had been restored to boost the overall area of grassland habitat. The transformation from regenerating coniferous scrub to a sunlit meadow has made rapid progress in just a few years and, with the introduction of green hay and managed stock grazing, the existing seed bank of wild meadow flowers has begun to form another important habitat connected to other grazed meadows nearby. Initial results from the NVC surveys have shown some interesting developments and Tom Nitti from Devon Wildlife Consultants described how the diversity of wildflowers, grasses and reeds on the site is likely to improve if the grazing continues. There are currently remnants of gorse and broom from the cleared scrub land of three years ago but he reported that, “it is anticipated that if these species are managed, a transition to a grassland community will occur.”
Further up the hill, the next stop on the tour centred around one of the small pockets of hazel coppice within Fingle. In the first year of the restoration project, this area was identified as a potential habitat for dormice, but the surrounding dense conifers were casting significant shade over the broadleaves and reducing their vigour and diversity. With regular monitoring of the dormice and using information and experience from the work of two recent research projects, the conifers have been carefully thinned and the broadleaves enhanced to expand this fragment of ancient woodland to become a more resilient habitat. Lessons learned from the recent research has enabled woodland management methods to be carefully planned to maintain the important connections in the tree canopy while avoiding damage to the areas of ground where hibernation is known to occur. Three years of monitoring data is showing that the dormice are currently thriving in this area.
The final discussion of the day took place at the top of another steep slope where a stand of larch trees had been felled a year-and-a-half earlier. These trees were infected with the disease Phytophthora ramorum and, under orders from the Forestry Commission, were felled to restrict the spread of the pathogen. This operation had the potential to have a significant impact on the wildlife of the area but the carefully controlled felling minimised damage to the ground flora and, where there was an oak understorey, these trees were left in place. Dave explained that “this method of mitigation is now working well; as the oak and shrub understorey recovers, it will replace the larch and quickly reinstate a canopy of trees over the felling zone”.
As site managers, this was a successful day for the Woodland Trust and National Trust. It is their aim to engage with local land managers and ecological experts to give an on-site demonstration of how the Fingle Woods project is progressing. The CIEEM members found their tour of Fingle very interesting, saying “being able to see PAWS woodland restoration in action paints a better picture of how the mitigation measures can maintain connected habitats and create buffer zones to protect important areas.” As well as the connections between key natural habitats, the connections between the ecological managers can be maintained and, as the “Making Space for Nature” White Paper concluded, “… our natural world is not a luxury: it is fundamental to our well-being, health and economy.”
[This article was originally written for an internal Woodland Trust web page]
Written by Matt Parkins
Photos – Paul Moody and Matt Parkins
Reference: Making Space for Nature – A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network by Professor Sir John Lawton CBE FRS