Coppice and wood pasture

The coppice woodlands of west Kent are distinctive with their densely woven blanket of sweet chestnuts dotted with ‘mother’ oak trees. Birch and pine are also present and the autumn sunlight creates rich mosaics of greens, orange and yellows. Sweet chestnut coppice is managed on an approximate 15 year rotation and for the first few years, before the new growth shades out the ground, is an open habitat rich in plants and butterflies. In southern England, a range of rare butterfly species are confined to coppice woodlands including Duke of Burgundy fritillary, whose larvae feed on primrose; pearl-bordered fritillary on common dog-violet; and heath fritillary on cow wheat and speedwells. The last has the colloquial name of ‘woodsman’s follower’. All three species have declined principally because of the decline in woodland management. These three species are much more common and widespread in mainland Europe; for example heath fritillary is abundant along forest rides in southern France; and in the Balkans, Duke of Burgundy and pearl-bordered fritillary are readily found in alpine grasslands and forest clearings. Birds such as nightjar and tree pipit similarly prefer recently cut coppice, but are also found in young conifer plantations as they are not tied to particular food plants, and again shift their nest sites with the crop rotation.

The coppice woodlands are a total contrast to the heavy shade of the ancient beech woodlands of Epping Forest which was until recently managed as wood pasture with intensive pollarding of the forest trees, cattle grazing in summer and pigs foraging in winter; now just fallow and Muntjac deer graze. The abandoned forest, even though busy with walkers and drowned by the noise of vehicles on the many roads, still retains an atmosphere of wilderness. Under the beech, the leaf litter carpets the ground and the great trees cast their heavy shade and only an occasional holly or yew tree competes, except where a tree has fallen and a bracken glade forms. This is a not a habitat of sunny plants, but of humid shade where mosses, lichens and fungi thrive on the trees and the forest floor. The rich epiphytic lichen assemblage has been closely monitored for decades and there are small, metal tags attached to many of the old trees; the assemblage has declined with increased atmospheric pollution derived from the large number of vehicles on the roads. With the passing of the age of oil, there should be a reversal of fortunes over the course of the 21st century.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Joseph Vary says:

    This looks lovely Steve!

    Really good to hear about how these woods are managed. Are you able to say which woods these are? Always looking for new places to walk.

    All the best,

    1. Steve Parr says:

      Hi Joe
      Thanks. Farningham wood in West Kent has the sweet chestnut coppice and some nice plants like Solomon’s seal (Mereworth woods is similar but commercially coppiced and has nightjars). Both readily accessible along paths and rides.

  2. Sherry Felix says:

    Lovely post. thanks for the information.

    1. Steve Parr says:

      Thanks Sherry

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