Let The Light Back In
How the end of the Sheffield Plantation in the Peak District will restore an old English landscape called Wood Pasture.
Imagine a landscape painting of England from the 1700s or 1800s. Have a look round: there’ll be a few cows or sheep, maybe some wildflowers and tussocky grass, a few hawthorn or holly bushes, and probably a spreading oak tree or two in the background.
What you’re seeing is an official type of woodland designated as a priority habitat in the current UK Biodiversity Action Plan, with a name you may never have heard before. You’re probably looking at a painting of wood pasture, explains Chris Millner.
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If you’re a landscape professional, (a National Trust ranger like Chris, for example), you’ll be aware that the Peak District is home to many kinds of woodland.
Most of us imagine a wood as a dark, dense kind of place, but some of the best woodland for wildlife has fewer trees and much more light, so flowers can grow, insects can thrive, and predators and prey can see each other a bit easier.
Wood pasture paintings have been used to exemplify Englishness for years, they even featured in Second World War propaganda posters telling possible recruits: ‘Your Britain. Fight for it now.’
“I love the English countryside,” said John Boyle, after lugging a series of felled beech trees out of ‘The Sheffield Plantation’ at Longshaw, just over the Sheffield border in the Peak District.
“I had to spend quite some time abroad, and I missed all of this, so when I came back I wanted to do something to help.” Ever since his return to England almost 40 years ago, John has been volunteering to restore traditional landscapes like wood pasture.
He was one of a team of volunteers I met early in the Covid pandemic, toiling outside, a metre or two apart, while they all got a workout clearing densely planted trees out of the old Sheffield Plantation, originally set up 200 years ago as a money making scheme by wealthy Sheffielders with apparently more money than sense, seeking an ill-judged timber fortune. (Their chosen close-planted conifer trees were never going to be happy high on the Derbyshire moors).
The Duke of Rutland bought the plantation out a few years later, and modern owners the National Trust planted some larch, pine and beech trees to be used for fencing and building work on the estate, until more recently the conservation world began to see the value of the old open woodland that had been growing long before the Victorian plantation.
Some of the oldest oak trees at Longshaw have been living among livestock for generations. There are several sessile oaks wider than they’re tall, probably well over 200 years old. Their branches scrape the ground, maybe encouraged to grow that way long ago so more acorns could be eaten by pigs, but they’re still quite small, as trees are slow growing in cold and windy moorland winters.
Longshaw is one of the nearest places to see a wood pasture landscape to Sheffield, and rangers like Chris Milllner have been working for over twelve years to try and restore more wood pasture alongside the small numbers of cattle and sheep browsing around a mixture of very old and very new native trees.
Existing wood pasture, like the patches already visible at Longshaw, might have been common land in the distant past, says Chris, where commoners could graze their livestock. In England, ancient large trees (or ‘standards’) were often left growing tall in the landscape, preserved when land was enclosed, or in fashionable deer parks, whereas on the continent big trees were often cut down for ships or war materials.
Restoring a more open landscape allows veteran trees to thrive and new native broad leaf trees to grow, potentially into the ‘standards’ of the future. One definition of a more open woodland, like wood pasture, is that the crowns of tall trees don’t meet to block out the light, says Chris Millner.
And grazing animals, in small enough numbers not to crop the grass to a billiard table and to allow some growth in young trees and bushes, are essential to a wood pasture site, says the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, not least because their dung is a joy to mushrooms, spiders and other insects, and to fungi. Lots and lots of trees is not always a good thing, says Chris Millner.
“They can harm or hide what you’ve already got in the landscape.”
So the National Trust volunteers will be hard at work this winter clearing out more of the planted conifers and beech trees. Some of the older native trees, and Scots pines native to more northern parts of the UK, will remain.
The site of the old Sheffield Plantation at Longshaw has a long history of human management since the Bronze Age. People lived here over 1,000 years ago, and the location’s wildness kept it as common land until the Sheffield businessmen bought their plantation, then the Duke of Rutland added it to his shooting estate.
But over recent years, the National Trust has begun to clear the dense plantations of the past, plant native species like oak, holly, and hawthorn, and allow more areas of wood pastures to develop. Now, says Chris, the results are beginning to appear, with young oaks taking advantage of the space and light to race upwards and outwards, ready to establish themselves as subjects for future landscape artists.
The open wood pasture landscape, with old decaying trees and new young trees growing up in the sunlight, will often support more wildlife, including woodpeckers, woodcock, finches, fungi, and a host of insects and wild flowers missing from denser forests. Roe and red deer have also moved in at Longshaw.
“Before we started this work, you could hardly walk into the plantation, because the trees were so tightly packed together,” says Chris Millner, adding that although beech trees grow elsewhere in the Peak District, they’re not native to an upland environment like Longshaw.
“I can remember bringing a school group here in 2008, and we had to get down on our hands and knees to get into the plantation, it was so densely planted,” says Chris. “On the ground there were just beech leaves and pine needles, there was nothing growing. We’ve been nibbling away since then, to open it all up and let the light in. I am pretty excited about what we’re seeing now.”
Over the stumps, young oak, birch and rowan trees are already growing up into the sunlight. In the spring and summer, mounds housing ant nests will seethe in the sun as trails of wood ants travel to and from the nearby trees, picked off by warblers and thrushes as they go, while owls and other birds of prey make their homes in the older trees and forage for mice and voles on the wood pasture floor.
It looks like this kind of landscape could be promoted by governments in future, says Chris, with farmers encouraged to reduce livestock numbers and plant more native trees back into the landscape.
At Longshaw, a team of ten or so volunteers work with rangers on the wood pasture project every week. New volunteers are always welcome, says Chris Millner.
John Boyle said he occasionally gets people arguing with him for chopping down trees, until he starts explaining from his years of experience that most of the UK’s woodland has been planted or managed in some way in the past.
Fellow feller Andy Burn said: “Doing this clearance work makes the landscape more sustainable, rather than just having a lot of rather unhealthy trees. But it is a never-ending project,” he said, picking up another log to be recycled.
“You have to have a bit of a vision for the future,” says Chris Millner. “I won’t see all the results of what we’re doing here myself. But maybe my great grandchildren will.”
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