4th April 2017
A day in Dallington
‘Woodlands are under-valued for their veteran trees’ said Jamie Simpson, in his introductory talk about the area of the Dallington Forest he manages. Forge Wood is made up of a mosaic of gill woodland (identified by its geological features of ridges and valleys with streams draining into them) with ancient and other veteran beech trees, ancient coppice and areas likely to be remnants of wood pasture.
Dallington, in East Sussex, is one of the most remote large forests in the South East of England, and it is fragmented through multiple ownership. Jamie (pictured below) has managed Forge Wood for 10 years, and had invited the ATF to see his conservation work. Management over the years has included removal of rhododendron, pollarding of some of the younger trees, management of veteran trees, maintenance of rides, and re-establishment of coppicing.
Dr Peter Buckley, an ecologist with an expertise in coppice management, led discussions about the management and value of the woodland’s three areas of coppice, which are mostly of hazel, hornbeam and beech with standards. The scale of coppice restoration at the site is very unusual, and Jamie pointed out that there can be a tendency elsewhere, to convert old coppice to high forest, but that the hazel coppice at Dallington is doing well. The trees can have a very long life through regeneration from the coppice stool.
The coppice and scrub makes excellent habitat for birds, and it was also noted that the coppice stools themselves can be good for saproxylic invertebrates like the lesser darkling beetle. Whilst the percentage of species supported by the coppice is relatively low due to the limited age structure, the continuity of habitat in an area of coppice with standards means that there can be a high density of those invertebrates that benefit from coppice stools and sunlight. The standard trees suitable for timber production would have been retained in the past by woodsmen for their economic value, but nowadays they are kept for their biodiversity value. Jamie has retained those with veteran features, like the oak (pictured below) which was damaged in the 1987 storm and now has wild honey bees living in one of its cavities.
The Wealdon gills are of international importance due to their humid microclimate and unique range of associated plant species including mosses and liverworts. Another feature at Dallington are the ‘hollins’, thought to be remnants of open pasture, where holly trees were kept as fodder for stock in the winter (pictured below).
One advantage of the private ownership in the woodland is that Jamie has the opportunity to experiment with veteran tree management. Discussions during our visit covered topics including the advantages and disadvantages of retrenchment pruning, which is now commonly carried out on ancient and other veteran trees to prevent catastrophic failure, but which can mean loss of veteran features, and result in reiteration at the cut. Jamie is trying different approaches, but where possible he aims to ensure that interventions are as close to natural processes as possible. Reg Harris (pictured below), spoke about pruning of old trees, and discussed whether it was time to rethink the concept of staged pruning. Could old trees be managed as high canopy veterans, without the need to reduce them significantly in height? He suggested that they could maybe be reduced selectively, by carefully shortening over-elongating limbs only, which would help conserve their unique biodiversity and aesthetic beauty.
Ensuring continuity of habitat through succession was another topic explored. Luke Barley (pictured below) explained the importance of bridging the gap between old pollards dying, and new ones being available as habitat for saproxylic invertebrates. He and Jamie advocate producing an individual plan for each new tree to be pollarded, and ideally studying the tree for at least two years before cutting it. Their guidance on pollard creation included considering the way different species respond, and never simply cutting to a prescribed height (as described in an article for the Quarterly Journal of Forestry on oak pollard creation).
Other speakers on the day stressed how the woodland has been shaped by its history and human impact. As well as woodland being coppiced for charcoal, wood was used to supply fuel for the iron industry. Dr Nicola Bannister focussed on woodland archeology and features like the network of sunken trackways which were used to take wood products to a forge, and a saw pit (pictured below). ATF trustee John Smith, who has been carrying out a tree survey in the woods, talked about areas where landscaping may have taken place for aesthetic purposes, perhaps in order to create a picturesque destination for a carriage drive.
It is rare to find so many ancient and veteran trees within ancient woodland, rather than just on the edges, and this is one of the reasons for the importance of Dallington Forest, explained Jim Smith-Wright of the Woodland Trust. His concluding comment, which seemed to be echoed by many of those who attended the event, was that management of Forge Wood is exemplary. Jamie Simpson’s detailed knowledge of the trees, his experience and his open mind mean that he is able to take a very considered approach to the management of this special site.