Ancient Woodland has developed over thousands of years to become a habitat rich in species diversity. Badgers, squirrels, owls and woodpeckers are some of the first animals that might spring to mind when you think of woodland wildlife, but there are so many more.
Think of the trees for a start. Each has its own cloak of life in it, on it, under it and flying around it. Mature willows and oaks can support over 400 types of insects and mites. Each species of plant has its own company of creatures - and there are many growing in an ancient woodland. Beneath the top canopy of the tall oak, ash, holly and cherry you have the understorey of wood, such as hazel, goat willow, hawthorn, elder and spindle, mixed with masses of climbers like ivy, bramble and honeysuckle.
The ground flora below includes ferns, mosses, liverworts, bluebells, wood anemone, wood sorrel, and in Nut Wood the unusual Goldilocks Buttercup can be found. And lower still, mosses and liverworts enjoy the humidity of the sheltered woodland environment.
Autumn is perhaps the best time to spot mushrooms and all sorts of fungal fruiting bodies in a wood. Weird spore-making structures explode out of every surface, They emerge to send microscopic copies of themselves around the world's air currents.
Some of those in Nut Wood have curious common names; Dryad's Saddle, Orange Peel Fungus, Chicken of the Woods, Earthstar, Candlesnuff.
When you start to appreciate the vital role fungus takes in plant root partnerships, you've got to love the old rotters. Add to that, the recycling achieved by fungi - an unimaginably huge task of turning fibres into food and returning the nutrients to the woodland ecosystem. Fungi make wood digestible to many a minibeast. The largest living things on Planet Earth are fungal networks who cover vast tracts of woodland and link into the very pulse of the forest.
Life in dead wood
The rich resource of dead wood is vital to many wondrous fungi and creatures who spend much of their lives hidden from the human eye.
Greater Wood Wasps spend up to 4 years as grubs inside rotting wood, which they eat, before eventually turning into adults. Mum gives them the best possible start in life, by injecting fungal spores into the wood where she lays her eggs, which helps to make sure their will be plenty of rotting wood for years to come. Other insects which rely on dead wood include a rather rare cranefly, the spectacular Ctenophora pectinicornis, that we have here at Sheepdrove.
Nut Wood is our largest ancient wood, 5 hectares in size (12 acres) and growing! We planted an extension of 3 more hectares of native trees and removed the old fence to allow the woodland habitat to ease out naturally into the land near the reedbed system.
There are bigger woods on the farm, much, much younger than Nut Wood but very important in their own right. Each year they get better, supporting more wildlife and providing valuable habitat.
Melvilles Wood is the largest, but Triangle, Jonathans, Glebe, Archeologists, East Down, Pounds, Gunters and Bockhampton are all providing lifelines to woodland creatures across the farm.
A coppiced wood is always growing
Coppicing is the ultimate tool of sustainable management. It has been the traditional way of harvesting for thousands of years. We cut carefully within a system of rotation, clearing just small parcels of trees, in different places each year.
Future harvests of the small-diameter wood will become easier and more useful because each coppiced parcel has fewer over-mature poles and more even-aged growth on each stool of hazel, ash and oak.
Straight trees are selected for timber, and the best left uncut until ready. Timber from Sheepdrove's oak and ash trees has been used to makefurniture, for example. Smaller ash and hazel wood has been used to make greenwood benches and chairs.
Variety is the spice of woodland lifeThe mosaic of different ages of tree growth suits a wide range of plants, fungi and animals. Varied canopy structure- ground dwelling plants up to the tallest tree- means that wildlife has many opportunities to use the woodland habitat.
We coppice during winter while the trees are dormant, and the results become apparent in springtime. Plants on the ground respond to the extra light let in after the canopy is opened. We love to see the springtime bonanza of bluebells, wood anemone and red campion flowers which carpet the woodland with colour.
In the summer, Speckled Wood butterflies bask in the warm sunlight and males leck for a hot spot where they hope to woo females. Comma butterflies feed on the blackberries as autumn approaches.
Coppice to Charcoal
The coppicing is carried out to help wildlife in the wood, but one of the uses found for the wood is to produce charcoal.