Shedding light on bluebells
PUBLISHED: 11:11 09 June 2014
Bluebell woods are one of the wonders of the Hertfordshire spring. Elizabeth Hamilton, chairman of the county Campaign to Protect Rural England group, goes in search of this delicate flower
Our bluebell woods are one of the wonders of the countryside. Flourishing in the mild, damp climate, bluebells are more widespread and numerous in Britain than anywhere else. In Hertfordshire, bluebell woods are found throughout the county, although the flower seems to prefer acid soils (which gardeners know support species like rhododendron) especially on clay. In some of our woods the sea of blue can completely cover the ground and the sweet perfume of the flowers is also intense. They are at their best in late April and early May, when the leaves of the tree canopy are just emerging.
Bluebells grow mainly in ancient woodland – sites that have been wooded since at least 1600. Some of these may have a direct link back to the original wildwood. During the 20th century, many ancient woods were planted with conifers, which cast heavy shade and thereby reduce species diversity.
Coppicing, once widespread in British woods, exploits a tree’s ability to regenerate after felling. Species like hazel, ash, oak and hornbeam were cut regularly to produce wood for tools, fencing, fuel and house-building. The cycle could be as short as seven years to yield hazel spars for thatching, and up to 15 years for large hornbeam logs for fuel. Immediately after coppicing, woodland flowers thrived in the extra light, and then were able to survive the darker periods. In some woods, plants other than bluebells carpet the ground in spring. At Hoddesdonpark Wood to the south of Hertford Heath, the starry white flowers of wood anemones are a spectacle during April.
At the end of the 20th century, only around five per cent of Hertfordshire’s woods were actively coppiced. As the value of coppicing for wildflowers and wildlife has been recognised a few once-neglected woods are being managed in this way again. The mosaic of different growth stages in a regularly coppiced wood – where areas are cut in rotation – benefits species like dormouse, nightingale and butterflies.
BLUEBELL WOODS TO VISIT>>>
Ashridge Estate, near Berkhamsted. There are bluebells in many of these National Trust-owned woods, but one of the best areas is Dockey Wood, near Ringshall. It can get busy! UK Grid ref SP974147.
Langley Wood and Round Wood within the Woodland Trust’s Heartwood Forest. Access is off the B651 between Sandridge and Wheathampstead. Grid ref TL162109 and TL162121.
Harrocks Wood and Whippendell Wood to the west of Watford. Access from Grove Mill Lane. Grid ref TQ081983.
Gobions Wood (Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust) between Brookmans Park and Potters Bar. Grid ref TL249040.
Reynold’s Wood near St Paul’s Walden. Accessed along a public footpath from the B651. Grid ref TL197219.
For the wood anemones in Hoddesdonpark Wood, access is from Hoddesdon or car parks at grid ref TL347087 and TL347077.