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Shedding light on the woods

PUBLISHED: 10:10 26 October 2015

Bishop's Wood - tree thining and removal of non-native tree species is letting light reach the woodland floor and re-establishing habitats

Bishop's Wood - tree thining and removal of non-native tree species is letting light reach the woodland floor and re-establishing habitats

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The ancient woodland of Bishop's Wood Country Park is undergoing a transformation. Countryside Management Service officer Angela Forster explains its history and ecology and major improvements

Enchanter's nightshadeEnchanter's nightshade

Bishop’s Wood is south of Rickmansworth in the south-west corner of Hertfordshire. Owned by Three Rivers District Council, the site is managed to provide a haven for wildlife and for the enjoyment of visitors with routes provided for walkers, horse riders and cyclists.

The 38-hectare site is classified as ancient semi-natural woodland, which means there has been a wood here since at least 1600, and probably far longer. Much of the wood was historically managed as coppice, where trees and shrubs such as hornbeam and hazel were cut on rotation to provide a regular supply of materials for building, fencing and firewood.

Earth banks were once used to mark woodland ownership or management boundaries and several can still be found in Bishop’s Wood, including a large ditch and bank along the roadside boundary dating back to medieval times. In places these are topped with very old coppice stools – living relics of past management.

Ancient hornbeam on a medieval boundary bankAncient hornbeam on a medieval boundary bank

The site straddles a valley with winding streams following the valley floor. These feed into a sinkhole where, in all but the wettest periods, the water disappears underground through faults in the underlying bedrock. In times of high rainfall, the sinkhole fills with water and spills out over the wood boundary, finding its way down the valley through the adjacent field as a temporary surface stream.

Native trees such as oak, ash and hazel formed the backbone of the original woodland. Traditional management allowed light on to the woodland floor where a diverse range of plants grew, including bluebells, the rare violet helleborine and herb Paris. Bishop’s Wood was so rich in plants that it was classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Sadly, the demands of two world wars devastated the tree stock.

The local council purchased the wood in 1960 and set about replanting it. Some areas of ancient woodland were retained but large areas were replanted with conifers such as larch, douglas fir and Scots pine, in line with forestry practice at the time. As these grew, the canopy closed over many of the once-sunny rides. Some of the native plants and the animals they supported declined or disappeared and the site was declassified as a SSSI.

Despite this, the woodland retains a diverse and rich ecology. The keen-eyed can spot common spotted orchid, enchanter’s nightshade, bugle, honeysuckle and the rare wild service tree, with its stunning autumn colours, among others. Purple emperor and white admiral butterflies can be seen in summer and the lucky visitor might startle an elusive woodcock (below).

Three Rivers District Council is now bringing the woodland back into management. In 2012, it commissioned the Countryside Management Service to set out a range of actions to restore the woodland to its semi-natural state. This includes a phased removal of most of the conifers, management of the native trees, reintroducing coppicing and restoring species-rich habitats for other wildlife.

The whole process will take years – trees grow slowly! The first five-year phase started last autumn, when around four hectares of wood were thinned; selectively removing a proportion of trees to allow the remainder to get stronger and healthier. A ride in the same area was opened up to let in the sun and allow flowering plants to recolonise. More work will take place until the whole wood has been thinned and then it will be repeated in future years as the woodland grows and matures.

At the same time, access to the wood is being improved. Paths which had become muddy have been cleaned up and resurfaced. The car park has been enlarged and an easy access trail created. Signage and interpretation boards are being produced to help people to find their way around the wood and to discover more about its history and ecology.

All this has been achieved with investment by the district council and the support of a generous grant from the Forestry Commission in order to make the most of the rich biodiversity in Bishop’s Wood and to promote it as an asset for the local and wider community.

For more information, visit the Herts Link website.

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