|Vinney Ridge. A large beech tree in New Forest woodland |
dominated by beech
It was Franz Vera who, in his ground breaking book Grazing Ecology and Forest History, brought to the attention of ecologists the importance of the balance between grazing and woodland in the northern hemisphere. An understanding and appreciation of the finest, most natural non man managed woodland moved from forests in Poland to the British New Forest. The New Forest consists of a mosaic of habitats which have been created by herds of grazing animals. These animals create areas of grassland known locally as lawns. The ancient New Forest woodland contains little regeneration, a more open shrub layer and a particularly impoverished ground flora. The tradition in medieval Britain for deer hunting by the king and his nobles created the New Forest, and the English medieval deer parks. Since William the Conqueror, the New Forest has been managed, one way and another primarily as a food resource for grazing animals.
|South Ocknell Wood|
Open canopy oak woodland
Gradually over the years, the few surviving oak trees develop with the bark of their young trunks protected from the ring barking of deer by thorny bushes, and eventually new oak woodland pushes its way into areas of lawn. At this stage, the thorn bushes degenerate, and a ground flora in the wood having minimal regeneration and shrub layer beneath a fairly open canopy becomes the stable vegetation cover for several centuries. The unenclosed, ancient and ornamental woodland of the New Forest must closely resemble the primeval woodland before the ascent of man.
|East End Wood. New Forest Oak Woodland. |
Note the thorny scrub around the base of the
trees where acorns can germinate
The above can easily be criticised as over simplistic. Of course it is. Other factors such as drainage, water levels, slope gradient, the presence of rocks and cliffs, and the nature of local geology, all would have had a profound effect on primeval woodland.
One of the great criticisms of the high levels of grazing in the New Forest has been that the shrub and herb layers of New Forest woodlands do not develop. It is well known that woodland inclosed against grazing animals develops bramble and other important shrubs. The open rides in this inclosed woodland provides habitat for insects, and especially butterflies that is impoverished in the open forest. As a result of well grazed, open woodland, the purple emperor is not a New Forest feature and the high brown fritillary has been extinct for several decades.
Since this post is about woodland, I have not mentioned that other vital, and scarce habitat for which the New Forest is internationally renowned, namely valley bogs. The New Forest is an assemblage of habitat variety that has taken centuries to develop. In the New Forest, the balanced management of grazing animals has resulted in its unique biodiversity.
|Ebernoe Common |
An area of low grazing where holly has become dominant
|Trodd’s Copse, Hampshire|
Recent woodland where regeneration is
rampant reducing light levels and biodiversity
In the absence of a healthy grazing regime in woodland, an alternative that could be considered is human recreation. Camping, hide and seek and dog walking are all activities that should keep regeneration and the shrub layer in check. Paint ball games, an activity that is perhaps not considered as politically correct in the countryside as it might be, could also be considered
as a possibly positive conservation activity.