Scrub is Special – Save our Scrub

Scrub habitat in Betty's Wood - home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub habitat in Betty’s Wood – home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub, as a habitat, is nearly always followed by the words “clearance” or “eradication”. How often do we read the words “it’s only scrub,” as if this is some kind of second-rate habitat to which we must do something.

A brief Google search reveals countless pages relating to wildlife groups, country parks and nature reserves, all talking about “scrub clearance”. Not to mention countless contractors offering their services, machinery, manpower and chemicals to clear scrub.

Scrub has a bad name. It has become something to be controlled, eliminated, pushed to the corners of our fields and woodlands. It doesn’t seem to be wanted, valued or loved.

Scrub is usually regenerating woodland, although in certain special situations, it may be the final, or climax, plant community. Woodland may be regenerating on a woodland site that has lost its trees, through felling, coppicing, or natural disaster, or on a previously open habitat which, for some reason or another, has ceased to be managed and is reverting to woodland. In pre-history, areas of woodland were cleared by humans, used for a while, then the people moved on, leaving the woodland to recover and regenerate via a scrub stage. Before humans made their mark, woodlands were cleared and reverted to scrub after grazing by large mammals, such as elephants. Wildwood has areas that become denuded of trees, and which regenerate. Scrub is always present, although not always in the same area, but there are always patches of scrub into which wildlife that prefers this habitat can move.

Regenerating scrub in Betty's Wood

Regenerating scrub in Betty’s Wood

Scrub will also form rapidly on almost any land that is left for any length of time: heathland, fen, coastal dunes, uplands, bogs, agricultural land and even on urban or rural habitation or industrial sites that have become abandoned.

The problem we have now is that people are not itinerant – they lived in fixed communities. Almost all land has an owner, and a defined use. Woodland is not free to regenerate where it will because land is almost always designated for a purpose – be it generation of timber in woodlands, or preservation as high forest as a nature reserve, or be it arable farmland, pasture, heathland, moorland, bog, fen, coastal dunes and other habitats deemed also to be of great value. There is precious little room for scrub to squeeze into, and people don’t want it. Because other habitats have become vanishingly rare, encroachment of scrub onto these habitats becomes something that threatens them. In towns and cities, we don’t want scrubby parkland, with ever-changing areas of wood, clearings and scrub – we want nice tidy places for people to walk, sit and play – manicured habitats, effectively over-sized gardens. Scrub is perceived as providing cover for anti-social behaviour. So it must be cleared. It doesn’t look pretty.

Even in woodland, there is little room for scrub. Coppicing produces a scrub-like regrowth from the cut stems, or stools, albeit with a more uniform height and species structure. Most of our woodland species are not species of the deep forest, they are species of the forest edge, and of scrub and coppice.   Our wildlife is adapted to the cycle of clearance and regrowth. But this is a cycle that we have broken. Coppice management has disappeared from many woodlands, leaving over-stood coppice and high forest – the familiar woodland that many of us visit and many think is the only way a woodland can or should be. We manage timber-producing woodland by clear-felling and re-planting in dense, ordered stands that produce a uniform structure. Scrub has barely a chance to grow before being overtaken by the faster-growing, more useful and more profitable softwood conifers. It is relegated to small strips around the edge and along woodland rides, if it is allowed to grow at all. Coppicing does survive, as does continuous cover forestry with natural regeneration, both of which help. But many woodlands are simply unmanaged.

Scrub in Betty's Wood

Scrub in Betty’s Wood

If this were wildwood, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Areas would naturally fall in high winds, succumb to fire or grazing, or be felled by itinerant humans or large animals. But it isn’t wildwood, and hasn’t been since humans appeared on the planet. Even worse, most areas of woodland are such small remnants of our forest cover that they are simply too small to support a mosaic of habitats, including scrub, as they stand. They are left to become high forest, with no mechanism to support regeneration, no mechanism to support a cycle of regrowth.

In addition, scrub is not allowed to develop anywhere else. Pieces of woodland are simply not allowed to “contaminate” farmland, river edges, heathland, moorland, fenland or urban and suburban parks and gardens. They are cleared up – sometimes with good justification but very often without. Agricultural stewardship schemes usually require the removal of scrub. Woodland schemes also fail to recognize the importance of scrub, or allow for its management.

So does this actually matter? Well, yes it does, because many important, declining species are actually species that prefer scrubland, and enjoy the variety of species, height of vegetation and density of vegetation that scrub can provide. These include plants themselves, lichens, bryophytes, insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, the adder and common toad, mammals such as dormice, and birds such as blackcap, bullfinch, linnet, reed bunting, song thrust, willow tit, yellowhammer, dunnock, goldcrest, nightingale, tree sparrow and turtle dove. Many of these are disappearing as we over-clear scrub habitats and under-manage woodland.

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

The problem is that scrub does need some kind of management, whether you want to keep it or not. This can include resumption of coppicing within woodlands or at the woodland edge to create scrub, cyclical cutting of scrub to ensure a steady supply for scrub species, selective conservation grazing of low intensity by relatively hardy livestock, or by leaving small areas of scrub to develop around the edges of other habitats. Keeping scrub as scrub, and developing a good mosaic requires management, or it will revert to woodland or coppice – so attention needs to be paid to ensure that a wide variety of species, density and height are achieved. This is not easy to do, and there is a lot of debate about how to do this, or whether to do it.

In our own woods, we have some good areas of regenerating scrub at the edge of Betty’s Wood. And into this scrub we have attracted willow tit, whitethroat, yellowhammer, bullfinch, linnet, song thrush, goldcrest, dunnock, woodcock and others. Coppicing will, in time, produce a rotation of scrubby habitats for species to move into, as well as allowing the next generation of mature trees to emerge, and producing a sustainable crop of wood for crafts and firewood.

Our Coppice - varying ages and densities

Our Coppice – varying ages and densities

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The problem is that management of scrub has been seen as synonymous with clearance or eradication, despite it being quite clear in the Scrub Management Handbook, and the JNCC Report, that this is only ONE option, and even then, where possible a patchwork of scrub areas should usually be allowed to remain. Maybe this is because the focus has been on removal of scrub, so there has been more research into, and thus the handbook provides more information on this aspect of management. Certainly the other options given in these documents – create, enhance, preserve – seem to have been forgotten.

In addition, on woodland nature reserves and other public wooded spaces, the public perception is that these should be left alone, and that high forest is best. There is undoubtedly an argument for leaving some areas wild, and ancient woodland and veteran trees undoubtedly support a very biodiverse ecosystem, but leaving everything alone will result in a closed canopy woodland with lower diversity than a managed woodland that includes ancient and veteran trees.

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring – ancient and diverse high forest habitat

People don’t like to see trees being cut down, so managers of public land don’t cut them down – it is the easiest option. It would be lovely if areas of woodland were extensive enough to allow natural processes of regeneration to take place – but few sites are large enough. The average size of a piece of woodland in England is about 8ha. So the management methods that create scrub are not being carried out, nor is scrub being created naturally. At the same time, people are receptive to the idea of clearing scrub – the combined effect is that scrub is reduced in extent and diversity, and often confined to margins of roads and railways, and to derelict urban sites awaiting development.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

High Forest – the popular perception of what woodland should be like

We hardly ever see the word “scrub” in management plans for nature reserves unless it is followed by the word “clearance”. There are clearly habitats where scrub needs to be cut, or it will overwhelm other valuable and vanishing habitats, but it is really important to ensure that an area of scrub is left, and managed on rotation, so there is always somewhere for scrub species to go. There is a need to question whether complete scrub removal is required. Areas of scrub also need to be left in urban and suburban green spaces. They are amazing places for children to explore, and learn, as well as being repositories of wildlife. They may not look tidy, but neither do uncut road verges – yet many councils are taking up Plantlife’s campaign to leave some area of verge to grow wildflowers, so why not take up the cause of scrub, and leave some areas of urban parks to develop as scrub habitat?

There seems to be a real need to educate people as to the value of scrub, and the related woodland coppice habitat, so that they can understand the need to keep some scrub, and to create coppice. To do this, the mindset that cutting down trees is “bad” and clearing scrub is “good” needs to be changed. In addition, there needs to be support for scrub habitat – not just the specialised communities in rare scrub habitats, but good old-fashioned lowland scrub – within stewardship schemes, woodland grant schemes and within urban and suburban green spaces.

Not all scrub is bad. A lot of species depend on scrub, and on an ever-changing and evolving patchwork of vegetation from open meadow to high forest, and everything in between. The in between bits are important. Scrub is important. Save our Scrub!

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species that depends on scrub habitat

Resources:

JNCC Report 308: Mortimer, S.R., Turner, A.J., Brown, V.K., Fuller, R.J., Good, J.E.G., Bell, S.A. Stevens, P.A., Norris, D., Bayfield, N. and Ward, L.K. – (2000) – The Nature Conservation Value of Scrub in Britain – Available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2445

FACT in conjunction with English Nature (2003) The Scrub Management Handbook – ISBN 1 85716 745 7 – Available from http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/72031

Fuller RJ and Warren MS (1995) – Management for Biodiversity in British Woodlands – Striking a Balance – from British Wildlife (1995): 7; 26-37 – Available from http://www.britishwildlife.com/classicarticlesview.asp

Fuller RJ and Warren MS – Coppiced Woodlands: Their Management for Wildlife (1993) – available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2640

Gough SJ and Fuller RJ (1998) – Scrub Management for Conservation in Lowland England: Practices, Problems and Possibilities

BTO Research Report No. 194 ISBN 0 903793 96 2 – available from http://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/u196/downloads/rr194.pdf

See Also

A great album of photos of scrub regenerating on Exmoor – by Hen

 

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.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch

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

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.