Woodland Heritage

Upland oak woodland is the most widespread type of broadleaved woodland on Exmoor, however, internationally this habitat is scarce and therefore action is being taken to conserve and monitor these woodlands as part of international Habitat Action Plans. Upland oak woodland exits on shallow, nutrient poor soils where the climate is cool and wet. Sessile oak and downy birch are dominant, whilst hazel also occurs in some areas. More fertile stream sides often host a greater number of ash. Woodsorrel, bilberry and cow-wheat are the most common ground flora, alongside a range of moisture-loving mosses ferns and lichens.

Trees once extended to 1400 feet (420 metres), covering virtually all of Exmoor. Human intervention reduced the number of trees, firstly from burning to encourage open areas for hunting and from the Neolithic period onwards, woodland clearance for agriculture and construction. There was an increase in exotic tree species on Exmoor from the 19th century, including many decorative species, accompanied by species such as rhododendron that have spread invasively across the region. The 20th century then saw an increase in conifer plantations in a drive to create a strategic reserve of timber after the First World War.

Most of Exmoor's woodland has been managed intensively at some point in the last one thousand years. The slow-grown oak has shown to be an ideal material for charcoal, which was used for tan barking and iron production and was even exported to Wales. Many of these woods were coppiced, often on a fifteen year rotation, which resulted in a landscape covered in a patchwork of coppice coupes of different aged stands. As the coppicing industry declined in the 20th century, many of these coppice stools grew on to maturity. Today, many of Exmoor's woodlands are characteristic of this sudden change in management, with a very even-aged structure, often with only one or two stems from each coppice stool remaining. 

The lowland valleys of the Middle Exe and the Yeo host varied woodland growing on deeper, more fertile soils, in a less hostile climate. Although oak is still the main component of the canopy, the sessile oak of the uplands gives way to the more common lowland species, English (pendunculate) oak, alongside an increasing number of ash, as well as birch, rowan and historically, elm. The shrub layer in the more sheltered lowlands is well-developed, with hazel, guelder rose, hawthorn, blackthorn and holly predominating. Common ground flora species include those found in upland oak woodland but species such as bramble, nettle, herb bennet, honeysuckle, bluebell and ramson are more common.

The many trees and shrubs in lowland woodlands have been used to create a vast array of woodland products. Large, straight oak and elm has been used in houses and ships, whilst smaller diameter material has been burnt as firewood, or worked into a variety of coppice products, or processed into charcoal.