True "Ancient Woodland" is thought to no longer occur in the UK, but Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW) descends from the wildwood that once covered much of the landscape. ASNW has been managed for thousands of years and has developed in response to man's use of it.
In the few centuries following the last ice age, much of England, in the absence of human intervention, developed into a natural wooded landscape – the so called "wildwood". Elk and brown bear roamed the woods, whilst thousands of other species of insects, birds, mammals and plants colonised the woods over thousands of years.
As the human population grew, demands for food and shelter increased and slowly but surely, large areas of the wildwood were cleared. The woodland areas that remained were managed and tamed so that their structure became semi-natural, rather than being truly wild. For centuries "management" may have been sporadic felling for firewood, building timber or providing shelter for stock. Eventually, Exmoor's woodlands became a central part of a huge charcoal industry, whilst timber was also used to provide wood for heating, housing and even ships.
In the last 100 years towns, cities and agriculture in Britain have expanded and the continuing need for timber meant that many ASNWs were replaced with fast-yielding exotic tree species. These changes have resulted in an overall reduction of ASNW so that today the total area of ASNWs cover just 3% of the UK's land area.
Special Qualities of Exmoor's Woodlands
The greater Exmoor area harbours nearly 2500 hectares of ancient semi-natural woodland. It is vital that we work to conserve and protect these irreplaceable woodlands; after all they provide a range of unique benefits.
Exmoor's exceptionally rich woodland habitat hosts a myriad rare and highly specialised species. Exmoor is renowned for its populations of woodland birds, and is one of few regions to host all 17 of the UK's bat species. A number of rare lichens and moss communities inhabitat the wet woodland found across the region.
Exmoor's woodlands conceal a wealth of archaeological features. From Roman iron smelting sites, to charcoal burning platforms and ancient boundary systems, these woodlands act like living museums.
If managed carefully, woodland can provide a renewable source of timber without jeopardising other benefits. The country's growing demand for wood products presents new opportunities for many local growers.
Threats Facing Our ASNWs
Despite the importance of ancient semi natural woodlands, many are still under threat from factors such as:
Rhododendron Rhododendron ponticum dominates the understorey of some of Exmoor's woodlands, shading out native ground flora. Each plant can produce millions of seeds each year, and it is a vigorous competitor. Much work has been done by woodland owners throughout the National Park to control it.
Lack of management In the last 100 years there has been a dramatic decrease in the demand for Exmoor's timber. Unmanaged woods become dark and single-aged; because of this the wildlife rich-shrub layer and ground flora die back.
Climate change Small, fragmented ancient woodland communities will be at greatest risk from climate change. We must work to buffer these areas with planting of new native woodlands.
Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) Many ancient woodlands have been felled and replaced by exotic coniferous plantations. Many of these plantations are in urgent need of restoration, to help conserve any remnant ancient woodland features.
The Exmoor Ancient Woodland Project was set up to help tackle these issues.
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