By Dr Tony Whitbread
President of Sussex Wildlife Trust
Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites – or PAWS as we call them – are our un-appreciated type of ancient woodland. Over-looked by some, dismissed as just plantations by many and often poorly protected by policy they can, nevertheless, be valuable historical and ecological assets.
Before working for the Wildlife Trusts I worked for what is now Natural England building up an inventory of ancient woods around the country. Ancient woods are areas that have been under some form of woodland management for at least 400 years. In fact, many date right back to the ice age. Being able to walk into a place and know it had been there for many centuries is a real privilege and gives a wonderful sense of historical context. And they are not as rare as you might think. Roughly half the woods in Sussex could be classed as ancient. Roughly half of that is what we would call “semi-natural” – consisting mainly of native trees (the other half are PAWS). These include large sites like our nature reserves at The Mens and Ebernoe Common, along with small copses and thin belt of trees, called “shaws” by Sussex people. These woods are not, however, natural unmanaged woodlands. They have always been managed – hence “semi-natural”. Indeed, it is this management that enhances their wildlife and gives a great connection between human history and ecology. Ancient woods, whether semi-natural or PAWS, are fascinating history books as well as a place of characteristic wildlife.
So ancient woodland has always been managed. Trees have been cut and harvested and in the process some tree species have become more common. Oak and Hornbeam, for example, are common in Sussex probably because, even if not planted, they have been selected, favoured, and encouraged to grow on.
Dense plantations on ancient sites can be quite damaging. They exclude light so plants and animals slowly decline. But the effect can be temporary, especially in a sympathetically managed wood. Periods of dense shade are quite natural in woodlands (even if the cause is an un-natural plantation) so woods have evolved with periods of light and shade as part of their natural ecology. Many of the forest estates in Sussex do practice plantation forestry on ancient sites but are adept at working with the natural cycles of light and shade. This means that forest ecology is kept intact even in PAWS. A Sussex forester would rightly be offended if we thought that his estate was a second-class citizen just because it had planted trees on it!
Furthermore, planting takes many forms. Chestnut is not native to this country so has been widely planted, often on ancient sites. But it has been here so long it is thought an “honorary native”. Oak and Beech have been widely planted but are native. Larch is not native but is a deciduous conifer so casts an open shade in spring. Pine casts a dense shade but a well-managed plantation can keep all it’s open ness and diversity. Even dense Sitka spruce plantations can be restored to a more semi-natural condition when harvested. Finding the line between “semi-natural” woods on one hand and “PAWS” on the other is difficult in any case, and probably unhelpful in terms of conservation.
So dismissing PAWS as “just plantations” is to miss their value and potential. By doing so, some use this as an excuse to destroy them for development and bypasses. If the wider population is equally dismissive of PAWS then all manner of abuses could be screened within the dense foliage of planted trees. We are rightly quick to defend our ancient semi-natural woods. We should be just as quick to defend our PAWS. So if an area proposed for development is “just” a plantation, pause for thought.
Dr Tony Whitbread is speaking an upcoming webinar Rewilding – A brave new idea or a re-creation of the past? on 26 October 2021. Places are free but registration is essential.