Bluebells and coppicing
Well we desperately needed rain, so of course it came on a bank holiday weekend; Easter was wet, windy and chilly. Still, we had a lovely walk on Sunday at White Down, which is one of the loveliest bluebell woods I’ve visited. It’s an ancient managed woodland of beech and oak with an understory of ash and hazel coppice. Except that the ash coppice is no longer an understory; they are full sized trees, grown from massive multi-trunked stools. Coppicing is a woodland management system whereby the trees are allowed to grow to a certain height before being harvested – cut down to the ground – and the timber used for a variety of purposes. With a well established root system, many species of tree will not only survive being cut down, but will flourish, resprouting from the base and living a longer life than an uncoppiced tree. Over time, this results in a huge, often twisted base (known as a stool) from which the straight new shoots grow. Coppiced woodland is particularly good for bluebells and other spring flower, which thrive in the open spaces between trees before the leaf canopy closes in and blocks out the light.
White Down is a fabulous example of something you see a lot of in Surrey; ancient twisted beech stools indicating old land boundaries. To provide stock-proof fencing, a technique was developed whereby a ditch was dug, the earth thrown up along one side, and beech trees planted into the raised bank. The growing saplings were then woven together. This practice was common during the 1700s and continued during Tudor times with the enclosure of land for sheep farming to produce wool, and the establishment of a network of sunken drovers’ roads. Beech trees can create the most fantastical shapes, and these boundary markers are one of the local highlights for me; their moss-coated writhing forms topping the giveaway raised banks.
There’s an abundance of hazel in the wood, as there is in most managed woodlands in the area. Hazel is a tree that lends itself well to coppicing, since it naturally grows in multi-stemmed form (leading some to class it as a shrub rather than a tree). Over the years, a coppiced hazel stool grows much larger than an uncoppiced one, and will live much longer too. It remains at best a shrubby tree though, providing lovely straight growth for human uses and nourishing nuts for dormice and squirrels. Although a member of the birch family, it doesn’t support the biodiversity that birch does in terms of insects and fungi, but is good for lichens, apparently.
White Down is a fantastic place for mosses and lichens, and the wood is littered with standing and fallen dead wood, coated in moss and slowly melting into the ground. These stumps form beautiful and bizarre shapes as they rot, as well as providing perfect habitat for all manner of woodland creatures, from birds to invertebrates. Against the background of the bluebells, wandering through these twisted mossy shapes was like walking through a sculpture park. We also came across a little jungle of saplings whose tiny trunks were festooned with moss – like a miniature rainforest.
If anyone is in the area and would like to experience this beautiful place, there is a fantastic walk HERE – it’s how we discovered White Down. There’s been a bit of a delay in getting this post up, because I’ve had trouble uploading photos to the blog since the weekend. Very annoying. Here are some pictures though. Hope you enjoy them.