New life for an ancient wood
Two brothers are restoring a long-neglected wood to create a thriving haven for both wildlife and people
A s the pale spring sunlight starts to filter through the canopy of an ancient woodland, the silence is broken by a burst of song. In the treetops, the early birds can be spotted in fleeting, frantic silhouette against the brightening sky. They dart from podium to podium, proclaiming their dominance. Below, in the still-dark undergrowth, mammals mark the start of the day. A deer barks in the distance, wood mice and voles rustle in the long-fallen leaves on the woodland floor. Squirrel claws clatter on tree bark. The clapping of wings indicates the wood pigeons are leaving their regular roosts for breakfast. From afar, a cuckoo, perhaps the first of the year, coos approval. As the light increases further, delicate white wood anemone and greater stitchwort blush pink in the weak, early morning light. Blackthorn blossom halos thorny thickets with white within the shady understorey. The brash yellow of lesser celandine outshines the pale sulphur primroses. All are soon upstaged by a carpet of bluebells, ready for a bright display towards the end of April. Riddy Wood in Cambridgeshire is waking up. These 21 acres of ancient woodland cling on amid a veritable ocean of prime agricultural land in England’s Fens. It is an island both metaphorically and historically, ascending a gentle slope which marks a border between historic wetland and relative highland. Its northern edge may have dipped its toes at high water before the Fens were drained in the last 200 to 250 years. The majority, however, would have been high and dry. For many years, human observation has been missing from dawns such as these in Riddy Wood. Then, in 2015, two brothers, Geoff and Richard Guy, took over the management of the woodland. Their aim is to restore and manage it in a way that it can be used for both conservation and education purposes.
Place of discovery
Both have backgrounds that involve working outdoors. Geoff lectures in countryside management at Reaseheath College in Cheshire. At the same time, he is studying for a BSc in conservation, as well as an MA in outdoor education. Richard has degrees in environment conservation and ecology. He works as a conservation officer for a partnership caring for Peak District moorland. The brothers were inspired to take on Riddy Wood as an opportunity to turn unmanaged land into somewhere people could come to find out more about nature and wildlife. “It gave us the chance to do more woodland management work, which we enjoy,” says Geoff. “At the same time, we can provide a benefit to others in the form of educational and environmental engagement opportunities. To this end,
we have set up a not-for-profit company to provide courses for people.” The first sign of human presence is a thin column of smoke, rimmed with gold, rising leisurely from a work camp. Basic shelters are roofed with tarpaulins, while a rustic tripod over the small cooking fire supports an aluminium kettle. Assorted tools, both antique and modern, such as billhooks, are carefully stored. Mud-caked boots and a pair of camp beds sit inside an open-fronted shelter.
It had been decades since the woodland was managed. Swollen stumps, or stools, of formerly coppiced hazels now support dead, twisted and overgrown shoots. Field maples exhibit the multi-stemmed growth indicative of previous harvests. Older still are the ash trees, standing alongside neat circular holes in the ground. Here, the anciently coppiced stumps have rotted, leaving only one or two adjacent stems of regrowth to carry on their legacy. These signs are all that remain of previous workers who managed the woodland. “Although it seems counter-intuitive, cutting trees down can actually extend their lifespan,” explains Geoff. “Most native deciduous trees in the UK will re-grow from the stump when cut down. This is unlike conifers in commercial forestry plantations, which die when they are felled. For millennia, this trait has been utilised by human civilization to generate a crop of materials for a range of tasks. These include furniture making, building, stock fencing, thatching spars and hedge laying stakes. The list goes on.” This process is known as coppicing, and has been practised widely in the UK since at least Roman times. Pinning a precise date on when people started managing Riddy Wood is close to impossible. However, a group of experimental archaeology students have found worked flint microliths, or small stone tools, in adjacent ploughed fields. These indicate people have at least been visiting the wood for thousands of years. Today, the harvest of usable wood is just one of the recognised benefits of coppicing. As trees are coppiced, the woodland canopy is opened up. This allows more light to reach the woodland floor, encouraging ground flora, particularly flowers, to flourish. In its turn, this supports both a greater abundance and a wider diversity of species of insects than would otherwise thrive. All this provides more food for species which prey on the insects, and so the food chain becomes rich and diverse.
Benefits to wildlife
Coppicing is done on rotation, with different areas cut each year. Through an established woodland, there are areas at all stages of the growth process, from freshly cut through to ready to be cut. Insects particularly can have very specific habitat requirements, met by one stage, but not another. They move round the wood from year to year to the area at the ideal stage. This may be a particular species of plant that only grows when an area regularly reaches an optimum temperature. “We’re not at that point yet, because this is only our second season working here,” says Geoff. “By our current plans, we won’t be ready to re-cut anything we’ve coppiced for another five years. It will most likely be two or even three full rotations, that’s 14 to 21 years, before the coppicing element of the work is running smoothly. But our focus is on the benefits to the wildlife, not commerciality. What we’d like to do is use the wood as a resource for people to learn woodland management.”
Woodland like Riddy Wood, once managed, but neglected for years, provides an opportunity to demonstrate the result of different strategies. One of the most important could be showing the result of ceasing all management. The plan is to coppice approximately half of the wood. The rest will be left as the brothers found it, to show the contrast between coppiced and unmanaged woodland. The difference is already noticeable. The areas coppiced last year have far more flowers growing, and are at a more developed stage. The uncut areas are darker and denser. All are an important part of the overall habitat diversity within the wood, encouraging greater biodiversity. “If this was a purely commercial operation, we’d probably take out dozens of trees,” says Geoff. “These would be replanted heavily with hazel, or other productive coppice. Instead, we are trying to work with what is in the wood. We aim to start with areas where mature trees have fallen, or are dangerously close to falling. The plan is then to work around these areas in order to make the most of the light which has been let in. “We’ll target areas where good coppicing species are most abundant, rather than cutting anywhere then having to replant. Our aim is to thin certain areas, rather than clear them entirely, so we keep many of the older trees. “Dead wood will be left behind, as the insects which are associated with dead wood form a key part of woodland diversity. They perform a vital role in breaking down organic material and returning nutrients to the soil.” A lesser stag beetle is spotted on a pile of wood left to rot. This species spends its early stages of life as a larva feeding on dead wood. Sharing this habitat in the woodland are two different species of longhorn beetle, as well as hundreds of
wood lice, smaller beetles, worms and other invertebrates.
Space filled with life
By now, the sun is well and truly up. Pools of sunlight are filled with insects jostling for the best basking spots to warm up. After a few minutes of soaking up the warmth, they zoom off with renewed energy. Hoverflies share the airspace with the occasional sleepy-looking bumblebee. Wasps and, now and again, their larger cousins, hornets, buzz around. Bee flies are present in abundance, with their curiously long proboscis, used to access the nectar of a range of woodland flowers. More delicate are the butterflies. At this time of year, the earliest emerging species are starting to be seen. Regular sightings in the springtime wood include small tortoiseshell, orange tip, brimstone and speckled wood. Regular visitors include buzzards, red kites and sparrowhawks. Both kestrels and barn owls have nested in dead trees on the northern edge of the wood. Tawny owls call through the night.
Camera traps have captured sightings of three species of deer. These are the native roe and two non-natives, the muntjac and Chinese water deer. Other sightings include brown hares and foxes. Last year, the brothers found a nest in a stack of firewood with pieces of squirrel and a recently half-eaten woodpecker in it. A camera trap caught short but captivating footage of a stoat stashing a rabbit under the pile of firewood. For now, the work in the wood is managed around full-time jobs and family commitments. The hope is that using the wood for educational opportunities will allow the brothers to spend more time there. “We recognise how lucky we are to be able to indulge our love for these areas and this type of work,” says Geoff. “We think that many more people would develop that same appreciation if they had health problems One of the challenges woodland managers across the country face going forward is the ever-present threat of disease. “Dutch elm disease, back in the 1970s, had a devastating effect on elms across the UK,” says Geoff. “We have elms here in Riddy Wood, but there are as many dead as alive, if not more. The ones which are alive are mostly younger trees. The disease hasn’t gone, and the older elms show signs of poor health. “We are potentially looking at a similar situation all over again with ash dieback (pictured below). This is a fungal disease affecting ash trees which, over the last three years or so, has spread throughout the UK from Europe. As its name suggests, it kills ash trees. Fears are that it will do to ash what Dutch elm did to elms. There are already signs of it here in the wood in young regeneration. If it takes hold, it will make ash unviable as a species to coppice. Worse is that approximately 60 per cent of our mature canopy trees are ash. “We are preserving other species wherever we can, especially oak. If the worst does happen and the ash all die, we have a small head start on replacing those canopy trees.” the chance to experience it for themselves. Groups who have already visited the wood have been positive and encouraging.” Dawn is over, and the day moves on. “It is hard, physical work, which can be both cold and wet,” says Geoff. “But look at our ‘office’; it is our very own nature reserve. And when the sun shines, we share it with a myriad of wildlife, often very close by. The robins, wrens, wood mice and voles often share our shelters. Stoats live in our woodpiles, woodpeckers, owls and deer are constant companions. Watching all of that close up is all the motivation we need to get out in the woods again.”
Geoff splits fallen trees for firewood, which is then stacked neatly (far left and centre).
Cooking over an open fire (left). The wood is from overgrown coppices being restored.
A pale tussock moth caterpillar, Calliteara pudibunda, feeds on a range of trees in the woods (top).
Rhagium mordax is one of two species of longhorn beetle that call Riddy Wood home (centre).
The lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelipipedus, grows to approximately 1in (2.5cm) long (bottom). The number of small birds in Riddy Wood, such as this long-tailed tit, is noticeably higher now than before coppicing restarted. To the right is an area that was coppiced in the past, letting the light in. Here, the ground is carpeted with bluebells, compared to the area under the larger trees to the left, where less light gets through the canopy.
A Chinese water deer, Hydropotes inermis, showing its tusks. These small deer are descended from deer who escaped from British zoos and parks in the 20th century.