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Hertfordshire County Council

Why cut trees down?

There are lots of reasons to cut down trees. Often the idea is to improve the woodland in the long term, but sometimes trees are removed to return the site to how it used to be.

Many places in Hertfordshire have a long history without trees. These places can be really important for wildlife which depends on grassland to survive, but many have been lost along with traditional grazing.

Often it is surprising how recently trees have colonised a place. When you cut down the trees and restore traditional management, the plants and animals that used to be found on the site can quickly return.

This is what CMS is doing at Broxbourne Wood. An area with dense planted conifers and natural regrowth is being progressively cleared to restore traditional wood pasture, where cattle can graze beneath scattered trees.

Why manage woodland rather than leave it untouched?

Woodlands in Hertfordshire have a long history of management by people, and only small fragments of what once existed remain.

Active management is the only way to maintain a variety of habitats in our small woodlands, and to help restore woods where huge changes have taken place in the last 50 years.

Forests once covered much of the UK. Natural events like storms would have created a wide range of habitats – open spaces, young, mature and dead trees. Wildlife could move through the forest to find whatever habitat it needed. In the small woods we have left, that isn’t possible.

If we want to support the widest possible range of wildlife, our only choice is to artificially create a range of woodland habitats at every site. This means the same small woodland can support bats roosting in holes in old trees, moths living in the canopy of mature trees, birds feeding on the caterpillars of these moths and nesting in dense scrub along the edge of sunny rides and wild flowers growing along the paths that run through these rides.

Thinning

In many woods, trees grow too closely together. This isn’t good for their development. Cutting down some of trees helps the ones that remain to mature properly.

In a wood where the trees are too dense, little light reaches the ground, and the wood looks dark and uninviting. Competition for resources makes the trees tall and spindly.

Removing a selection of less healthy trees gives those that remain space to grow. It also allows light into the wood, creating a new opportunity for plants on the ground like bluebells. A healthier wood with more variety should be the result.

One of many woodlands where thinning can make a difference is Bentsley Spinney in St. Albans. CMS has helped put together a management plan there which will involve thinning an area of dense sycamores. Not only will this help the trees that remain, but it will also create an opportunity to plant new native trees.

Felling

Open space and fresh growth in woodland is hugely valuable for wildlife. Felling creates this open space, and makes room for young trees to grow.

Many plants and animals live towards the woodland edge, which offers more light and more opportunities. Cutting down trees creates much more of this special woodland edge habitat.

Newly cleared areas are also good for young trees. Well-balanced woodland has trees of all ages, but many of our woods are much more uniform in age. Cutting down some trees and allowing new saplings to grow helps recreate a more natural age structure.

In woods which have been planted in the past, for example with conifers, felling is an opportunity to restore natural woodland types. A range of native broad-leaved trees can be planted in the space created.

Fixed point photography of felling work in Broxbourne Wood.

Why are there stacks of timber in the woods?

Stacks of timber are the product of woodland management work such as thinning. This is only temporary storage before the timber is taken to be processed. Selling this timber helps fund management which keeps the wood healthy.

Natural regeneration

Once trees have been felled, sometimes it is enough to leave an area to grow back naturally.

New trees grow from seeds which are already in the soil. If they’re species that grow naturally in the area, this is the best way to restock native woodland.

Natural saplings can be protected and encouraged. As the young wood matures, the number of trees should be reduced to favour the strongest. This gives each tree enough space to grow even more strongly.

Restocking

A healthy woodland needs a mixture of trees of all ages. If trees aren’t growing naturally from seed, or if there is a chance to improve the woodland by introducing native trees, planting new trees is a good option.

Planting is only possible where space has been created. Young trees need lots of light, so they won’t grow under existing trees. In fact a space at least twice as wide as the height of the surrounding trees should be made for planting.

To achieve most for wildlife, it is best to choose tree species which grow naturally in the area. These support more insects and everything else in the wood, like birds and bats, benefits as a result. They are also more likely to grow successfully.

Opening up glades and rides

Many woods don’t have much open space, where sunlight can reach the ground. Open spaces within woodlands are fantastic habitat for flowers and butterflies. Bringing back existing tracks increases the amount of open space in a wood and helps wildlife thrive.

Woodland tracks have often become overgrown as woods stopped being managed commercially. But they do still exist, and felling trees along their edges to restore them is an easy way to have a high impact for wildlife.

Restoring rides at Broxbourne Wood had immediate benefits. The new woodland edges were bathed in sunlight, encouraging plants to grow. Silver-washed fritillaries responded immediately, becoming a common sight along the rides in mid-summer.

This work also creates lovely walking routes, which can be full of life. Developing a good network of rides is a great way to help people enjoy a woodland.

Coppicing and pollarding

Many woodlands managed traditionally through coppicing have fallen into neglect, as the market for their products disappeared. Restoring this traditional management is an excellent way to improve woodlands for wildlife.

In a coppiced wood, trees are repeatedly cut at their base. This encourages strong new growth with lots of shoots, which can be harvested once they are old enough to use. Usually the coppiced trees are mixed with ‘standards’ – scattered full-grown trees which allow enough light to reach the coppice. These standards would have been left to grow for 100-200 years before being used for timber for buildings.

In Hertfordshire, the normal tree used in coppices is hornbeam, with oak standards. Its original use was for charcoal, which was in great demand in 19th century London, but it’s now starting to regain its value as firewood. It’s slow-growing, which means it can only be cut once every 20 years.

Coppicing is so good for wildlife because it results in woodlands with trees of many ages. This variety creates habitat for threatened species like the dormouse. Flowers benefit from the sunlight reaching the ground after cutting, and birds can nest in the thick regrowth a few years later. Older coppice and mature standard trees complete the picture.

CMS has begun the process of restoring coppicing to Bencroft Wood. A small area of old hornbeam coppice was cut and, several years later, is growing back strongly, bringing fantastic new variety to the woods.

Pollarding is slightly different – trees are cut higher up the trunk but then grow back in the same way, with lots of small shoots. This stops grazing animals eating the regrowth. Because it extends the life of a tree and promotes new growth, it means the same tree can be many things for wildlife – old dead wood and thick young growth at the same time. In an urban setting, it’s a good way of keeping trees at a controlled height.

Dealing with deer

The abundance of deer in the Hertfordshire countryside makes management of our woods more difficult. Their grazing limits plants on the woodland floor, and makes it hard for young trees to grow.

The most effective way to control this in Hertfordshire’s busy woodlands is to physically prevent deer from grazing plants, either individually or across larger areas.

Tree guards, which are plastic tubes fixed around the trunks, protect trees from grazing animals. They are simple, cheap and effective, but they do need to be remembered – they should be removed after a few years once they have done their job.

Fencing makes a difference in larger areas, like after coppicing a block of woodland. When deer are excluded from a piece of woodland, it can make a huge difference to plants growing there.

Dead wood and old trees

When trees die, they don’t stop being part of the woodland environment. In fact dead wood is hugely important for a whole range of wildlife.

The best way to deal with dead trees is to leave them where they are, whether standing or on the ground, as long as they pose no great danger. Building piles of dead wood also creates a great opportunity for wildlife.

All sorts of creatures use dead wood – birds, bats, beetles and mushrooms to name just a few.

Why have you cut down healthy trees and left dead ones?

A healthy woodland needs both living and dead trees to support a full range of wildlife. Standing dead trees and dead wood on the ground are good for different things, so it’s good to have both. This means that if a dead tree is in a safe place, away from paths, it’s much better to leave it.

On the other hand, there can be good reasons to cut down healthy trees. This could be to help stronger trees develop, or to bring more light to the woodland floor, helping plants on the ground.

Can I help myself to fallen wood rather than let it go to waste?


No. As long as it is safe to do so, we leave dead wood on the woodland floor because it benefits wildlife. This wood is the property of the owner of the woodland, so removing it is actually theft.

Is ivy on trees a problem?

Many people think ivy damages trees, but this isn’t the case. In fact it’s a climbing plant, using trees for support and nothing more. It provides excellent habitat for birds and insects, and it’s a great thing to have in a woodland.

Its flowers provide a very late nectar source for struggling UK bees, and it produces berries later than other plants too. An added bonus is that it keeps its leaves through the winter, providing a splash of colour in otherwise bare woods.

Heavy growth of ivy is likely to be a symptom, not a cause, of a decline in health of a tree. Ivy does compete with the tree for resources, but a healthy tree won’t allow enough light through for the ivy to dominate.

Control of invasive non-native species

Some plants which don’t originally come from this country have invaded our woodlands, damaging native wildlife.

One of the most common and most problematic is rhododendron. It forms dense thickets which smother other plants, and poisons the ground with toxic chemicals from its roots. Eventually there is nothing left but the rhododendron and the trees above it. Removing it, and then preventing it from returning, will help wildlife in the wood.

Sycamore is very common in our woodlands. But it isn’t a native tree, and it supports a much lower variety of wildlife than other trees. Selectively felling sycamores and replacing them with other species can be a good idea in some situations.

Contact the Countryside Management Service

northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk

01992 588433

Countryside Management Service Office (Car Park H)
Environment Department (CHG001)
County Hall
Hertford
SG13 8DN

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