Alvecote Wood: The Story So Far

Mature Oaks

Some of our lovely mature oak trees

Alvecote Wood won the Royal Forestry Society Excellence in Forestry award for Small Woodlands in 2013.  So how did we go from complete beginners in 2007 to winning this award in 2013?

First of all, it was never our intention to try and win an award.  All we really wanted to do was taken a neglected piece of woodland, and through good management, improve it as a habitat for wildlife and make it available for use by community groups.

A lot of visitors to our woods ask us why we need to manage it; surely, if it is for wildlife, isn’t it best to leave it alone?  If we were talking about pristine wildwood, stretching over a large area, then this idea would definitely have merit.  Trees would grow and die and fall down, leaving gaps in the canopy into which other trees would go.  Beavers would undertake natural coppicing of waterside trees.  Flexibility and resilience would be built in to the woods by virtue of its size and extent.

Daisies in Meadow

Daisies in our meadow

Sadly there are no wildwoods left in England.  Even worse, the small remnants of ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW) are shrinking and irreplaceable.  Our little fragment of 11 acres of ASNW had also, like many other such sites, been heavily modified by animal grazing over the past 100-150 years, as well as showing evidence of being clear-felled (or nearly so) about 150-200 years ago (no trees over this age, and a relatively even-aged stand of oak).  Grazing increases fertility of the soil, leading to overgrowth with bramble, nettle and elder, as well as depleting the seed stock for natural regeneration.  Grazing by deer and rabbits compounded the problem, leaving almost no room for new trees.  Open habitats are gradually encroached by brambles and nettles, and the net result is loss of habitat niches and loss of diversity.

So management is important to preserve and enhance habitat and expand ecological niches, encourage regeneration, and improve the site for both wildlife and human use.  A large site has some resilience and can recover from extensive human influence over time, but our site was isolated and unable to do this without some help.

So how to do it?  The key things we did to improve our wood were:  get advice, and get more advice; research the history of the site so we knew what we were dealing with; get a management plan in place; get help with costs via Forestry Commission grants;  get good equipment; get training; then do the work.

Traditional or Industrial?

Managing meadows with our tractor

We had excellent advice from a wide range of sources including the Forestry Commission, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, an experienced local naturalist called Maurice Arnold, Pond Conservation, Butterfly Conservation and the Warwickshire County Forestry Officer.  Obviously not all of this advice is compatible and some of it is contradictory, but we pulled it all together, and blended it with our own knowledge of the site (both its current state and its history) to come up with an appropriate plan.

We also needed to secure access around the site, security for the site, and get appropriate equipment.  We were lucky to get some grants for fencing and making forest tracks from the Forestry Commission, and were also very lucky to get a good, if elderly, Massey Ferguson tractor from a local farm auction, and a rotary slasher at a good price from a local dealer.  We do have, and do use, hand tools, but given that there are usually only the two of us, and that I am not in good health, or able to do heavy physical work, we felt that the benefits of using mechanical tools outweighed the disadvantages.  We simply would not have got anything like the necessary work done without them.



Habitats were relatively few in number, with no glades or rides (woodland wildlife predominates around the edges of clearings and rides), little in the way of regeneration, a single silted-up pond, a meadow that, without management, lacked diversity, and a lack of a shrub layer, and lack of diversity within that shrub layer where it existed.  Our response was to institute a programme of clearing rides and creating glades, restoration of the meadow, restoration of land drainage, reduction of bramble, nettle and elder, and targeted planting of species already on the site, but in lower than expected numbers, such as hazel, ash and field maple.  We also re-instated an over-stood coppice, to provide a supply of firewood, as well as rejuvenating the habitat for wildlife and planted a new roadside hedgerow.  Finally, we put in six ponds, as part of a project that involved moving the road entrance, building a forestry road into the site and building a barn building for our tractor and other equipment.


Bluebells in a thinned area

We didn’t do any of this stuff overnight.  It was very important to nibble away at things a little bit at a time, over the course of our five-year plan, so that no habitat was drastically changed all at once.  This would allow any creatures dependent upon that habitat to adjust to its changed status and extent.  None of it was easy, and we had a minefield of regulations to get through, including a site-wide tree protection order (TPO) on our woods, which meant planning permission was needed for much of our work, including pruning and tree-safety work alongside the road.  A woodland management plan was put in place, together with a felling licence, which allowed us to fell trees provided it was part of the management plan.

Our plans were proceeding nicely when in 2010, three years after buying the woods, we were approached by a neighbouring farmer to see if we wanted to buy part of an adjacent field.  Now this was an opportunity too good to miss, since this would allow us to link our own woodland to a small patch of woodland that we didn’t own, and also create a wildlife corridor linking to land in higher level stewardship, land owned by the Council, and other wildlife sites along the Anker Valley.

Betty's Wood Planting Plan

Betty’s Wood Planting Plan

We were already too busy with our existing woodland, but took the plunge and bought another 9 acres of field, taking the site up to 20 acres in total.  We carefully planned new woodland on this site, to include the maximum allowable open space (40%) to include meadows, rides and five more wildlife ponds in the damp areas of the field.  The woodland was planted in 2011 and included a large segment of native broadleaved woodland (oak, birch, ash, rowan, field maple, hazel, crab apple plus a few others), a large swathe of wet woodland (two types of willow, cloned local willow, alder, poplar, aspen and alder buckthorn), and an area of natural regeneration around the borders (predominantly oak, but including birch, willow of several types, ash and hawthorn).  We also planted a hedge connecting our woods to a ½ acre patch of ancient woodland on the opposite side of the site.  Some trees were planted in curvy rows, taking note of the fact that this site is visible from a country park, the canal towpath and the M42.  We wanted it to look natural and nice for humans to look at, as well as being good habitat.  The rows will mainly be managed as continuous cover forestry, so be thinned around year 15, and then harvested to create areas of light and allow natural regeneration.  Other areas were planted as clumps and will be largely managed as coppice.

Betty’s Wood came into being in a snowstorm, and suffered a drought in the first year, and needed to be watered to prevent massive losses – this scheme worked, and our overall losses were 5% died and 1% stolen.  2012 was the complete opposite, and our struggling alder came into its own in the damp summer.  The meadows were seeded after the last harvest with a grass and wildflower mix, incorporating seed that we specified in consultation with Butterfly Conservation, to form a meadow into which planting took place.  Every tree had a cane and guard (largely to prevent rabbit grazing), and weed control around each tree was carried out.  We did not want to use chemical control but there was really no alternative, given that mulching was too expensive, and you cannot readily weed 6000 trees by hand. All of this work was supported by a woodland creation grant from the Forestry Commission, and tree planting was undertaken by a stalwart group of hardy volunteers.

Four-Spotted Chaser

Four-spotted chaser dragonfly

This has led on to us trying to establish a new landscape-scale conservation effort along the Anker Valley, in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts (Staffs and Warks), and other organisations including Natural England, Environment Agency, Canal and River Trust, and the County and District Councils.  This is moving slowly, but has potential to make a big difference in this area.

Although it is our own private woodland, and has never had public access, we wanted to strike a balance between access and privacy and peace for wildlife.  So we instituted a programme

of open days, which we gradually expanded, so we are now open on the last Sunday in every month, and every Wednesday evening during the summer.  We also hold events for groups, including schools, Scout camps, local wildlife groups, walking groups and others.  Our photography workshops are also popular.  We offer a programme of talks for local natural history, wildlife, and general interest groups.  But it is mainly closed, and mainly kept for the wildlife.

As for the woodland produce – we don’t cut wood for the sake of it, but as part of operations, we have generated a large amount of firewood, which we use ourselves.  This winter we built a wood-drying shed which should allow us to dry enough to sell firewood to other folks too, on a small scale, having been previously limited by lack of drying capacity.  We also do some wood-turning, and a bit of chainsaw carving, and sell these items on craft stalls at open days.

We have seen an increase in wildlife diversity since we started managing the woods, and we keep records for lots of people including records of birds, mammals, butterflies, moths and wildflowers.  It is lovely to see wildlife moving in when we create appropriate habitat, including the brown argus and dingy skipper butterflies that we have targeted.

We did not set out to win an award.  We set out to do the best job we could for the local wildlife, and then to make it possible for local people to enjoy it, without compromising the wildlife.  We love working at the woods, and are very lucky that we live a little over a mile from it, so we can visit every day.  Why we won, I am not quite sure, but I’m glad our little woods found favour with the judges.  We love it, and were glad they did too.

Heartbreaking – we must all act, now!

Red damselflyYesterday, a groundbreaking report was published as the result of a collaboration between all the major conservation organisations in the UK, entitled The State of Nature.

It is not a surprise to hear that wildlife in the UK is in a very bad way.  Over 60% of species are declining and over 30% are declining rapidly, and over 10% of species are in danger of extinction in the UK.  These declines have continued, more-or-less unabated, for the last 50 years and are still going.  There are isolated examples where species are bucking the trend because of conservation efforts, or by displaying flexibility over habitats – otters, cirl buntings, bitterns, Adonis blue butterflies – but the trend for the majority of species is inexorable decline.  Species that were common when I was younger, such as hedgehogs, small tortoiseshell butterflies and lapwings, are all plummeting.  Even those formerly seen as pests, present in abundance, are on the way out – house sparrows and starlings are examples.

What is alarming about this continued decline is that it is taking place in spite of us knowing all about it, in spite of the presence of legislations, regulations and designation of protected areas, and in spite of the efforts of a plethora of conservation organisations.

There are some fundamental problems here:  nature is seen as something to fit around the edges of human activity; nature is seen as something that hinders economic growth;  nature is seen as having a net cost and thus its preservation is a luxury we can’t afford ;  nature is treated with positive rhetoric and negative action.

Green-veined white butterflyThe fact is that we are fundamentally connected to nature.  Nature is part of human life and our experience.  It is absolutely essential to the economy and delivers benefits that far outweigh the costs – as outlined in the Government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment that places a high economic value on nature ( ) .  On the same day that The State of Nature was released, the Government outlined best practice in Payment for Ecosystem Services (

Yet we give with one hand and take with the other.  The Government commissions reports on woodlands and forests, ecosystems, best practice and the Lawton report Making Space for Nature, and this is good rhetoric.  The problem is that it is not being translated into practice.  Far from it – it is being undermined by initiatives such as HS2, fracking, updated planning regulations that make it much easier to build on green belt land and much harder to ensure that habitats are protected, and withdrawal of resources from police forces who are struggling A White Bluebellto prosecute those who flout existing laws.  Opportunities have been lost to extend statutory protection to ancient woodland, to green belt, to implement marine nature reserves.  We have biodiversity offsetting looming – a way of ensuring that development can occur on high-quality, irreplaceable habitat simply by putting in a larger area of lower-value habitat elsewhere.

The threats to nature are everywhere, but mainly come from reductions in the area, quality and connectivity of habitats.  There are other pressures too, including climate change, use of agricultural chemicals, and changes in patterns of grazing (largely due to economic pressures on farming).  These pressures come from trying to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of the smallest amount of land, and ultimately to ensure that large business interests are favoured at the expense of the small, the sustainable, the eco-friendly, the traditional, the high-quality and thoughtful approaches.

Ecosystems are complex.  Humans are part of them.  What humans are not are masters over ecosystems.  Exploit a system to the point of collapse, and it will have unintended consequences and ultimately, if that is your only consideration, it will cost money.

Why are we allowing this to happen?  However have we come to this?  There is a staggering amount of ignorance, resulting from the disconnection we have from nature.  We think it is nice to see pretty birds, but we really aren’t bothered what they are, and feel only a mild twinge when we notice that they aren’t there.  We favour conservation of the furry and feathery, but don’t care about the insects, plants, creepies and crawlies upon which our whole ecosystems are built (and the State of Nature report shows larger declines among invertebrates and plants).  We think it is nice to have nature reserves and nature parks, but don’t give a thought to the impact we have, every day, every waking hour, in our every action, on the wildlife around us.  We have lost the connection, and with it the respect that we should have.

What can we do?  What we cannot do any longer is deny responsibility for it.  By this I mean personal responsibility, as well as grumbling about what Governments and Corporations do, although this is also important.  We all have a responsibility to do all we can to halt this decline.  This means changing the way we live and the way we think, and most of all, it means we all need to act both individually in our own houses and gardens and parks, as well as acting to put pressure on Governments, Corporations and Businesses and the EU to change things.  Nature must not be seen as something that is in the way, but something that needs to be incorporated into our lives, as a blessing, not a curse.

A small spiderState of Nature is an indictment of our inaction – conservation organisations work hard, have a little success, but it is not enough.  If we want nature to be here, providing the benefits it does for society, then we must start caring for it, all of us, all over, in every part of the country.  Blame the Government? Maybe, but we elect the Governments, and are ultimately responsible for the way in which parties draw up policy and must lobby to get these policies changed.  We cannot brush this under the carpet.  Ultimately, our own survival depends upon it.

Nature at the Centre

Nature conservation.  We all (well most of us, anyway) think it is a good idea.  Making sure that nature is preserved, conserved and kept in good condition for the next generation.  Except, of course, despite decades of dedicated work, nature is not being conserved.  It is shrinking.  That is not to decry the efforts of those involved in conservation work – I am sure the situation would be a lot worse if we had done nothing – but it simply isn’t holding back the tide of human influence on the landscape and on the species that live there.
There are some species that are doing well, particularly those that are adaptable and can live with humans in towns and cities.  But mostly, numbers are falling, particularly of specialist species that need a habitat that has taken thousands of years to develop – woodland butterflies, woodland birds, farmland birds, grassland flowers and plants, whole hosts of other insects and the creatures that feed upon them, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, fungi.  Nature conservation feels like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a leaky bucket.
The problem is, nature conservation is seen as something that you do on nature reserves.  But these will never be enough.  They are too diverse, too scattered, not connected to each other, and much, much too small.  And vulnerable.  Nature cannot be preserved by keeping it limited to special areas.
Whenever I travel about, I very much get the feeling that human activity is only borrowing land from nature – the trees, bushes, grassland, shrubs, flowers, hedgerows and other habitats are sitting there, just waiting to reclaim what we have borrowed from them.  Occasionally, you come across an old building, completely overgrown with trees, flowers and plants, providing homes for foxes, rabbits, birds and insects.  Very frequently, it seems these buildings have been occupied until quite recently.  We are only borrowing from nature, and borrowing for a short while.  Nature has the power to take things back.
What we cannot do is borrow too much, in the wrong places.  We need to recognise that we are borrowing, not taking, or dominating, or controlling.  Nature needs to be put at the centre of everything we do, not shifted out to the fringes, where we grudgingly make space for it.  It needs to be seen as a benefit for everybody, not a cost, not a regrettable overhead, not an unnecessary expense, not a drag on business and a brake on development.  Putting nature at the centre means that everybody, in their daily lives, and in their businesses, need to think what they can do to make their lives friendly for nature.  And the thing is, it doesn’t need to cost much, or anything at all.  Even taking a human-centred view, there is plenty of research showing that a pleasant working environment, and an environment full of greenery and trees and plants, results in less sickness, better staff morale and better productivity.

We need to see development, such as houses and businesses, as fitting in around nature and not the other way round.  They also need to be fitted in in the best way possible, and where damage needs to be offset, this needs to be high quality habitat, provided in the right place, preferably locally, and result in a net gain, and improvements in connectivity of habitats, so people can enjoy the benefits if they have paid the price of habitat being lost.  And no habitat that is irreplaceable should be lost.
Ambitious targets for conservation will not be met without a fundamental shift in thinking.  We fit in around nature, not nature around us.  If nature is not put at the centre, then nature conservation efforts will repeatedly fail, and will habitat loss will turn into a rout.  We will continue to bail out the sinking ship with a leaky bucket.  Nature at the centre of all we do.  It is the only way to stem the tide.