14th November 2017
Ancient oaks in Somerset
Forester Jon Burgess, of Forestry Commission England, writes about the Piddle Oaks, which the ATF Devon group visited during their field event at Castle Neroche in Somerset last Autumn.
On top of the hill overlooking the Taunton Vale, in an landscape surrounded by ancient earthwork fortifications, hidden deep within the wood are a wonderful collection of ancient oaks. As with all things this old there remains a bit of a mystery about the history – were they on the edge of the royal hunting Forest of Neroche, or within a separate park pale that survived after the forest was broken up?
We can be certain that these were at one time open grown trees, and many display a pollard form. During the 1950’s the surrounding landscape was afforested and the block surrounding the oaks was planted with beech, which now forms established woodland. The trees are surrounded in close proximity by another ten slightly smaller, and probably slightly younger trees but all still categorisable as veteran/ancient. Further out are many oaks that are of veteran status and in a healthy vigorous state of growth but just beginning to reach the point of senescence where they will become very interesting. Overall this is an incredible site.
I took over this site four years ago and was taken to see them as part of the handover. It was clear that some work was needed, not to the trees themselves but on the vegetation surrounding them. As happens on the fertile soils round these parts the brambles were the dominant ground flora but were so vigorous that they were reaching up over the lower branches of the trees and shading the trunks where we would hope to find a rich growth of lichens. Surrounding the trees was a thicket of growth of young hazel and ash, and whilst these formed a good native woodland habitat they were beginning to shade and threaten the lower branches and epicormic growth on the trunks of the ancients.
With just a few day’s work we cleared back the bramble and sapling growth to reveal the trees in all their glory, and it now became possible to see one tree from the next which revealed just how rich the landscape was. Identifiable is a line of six truly ancient trees which suggest they may have been part of a defined boundary.
With the immediate threat to the trees removed I could now take a step back and draw up a plan for the management of the wider area. The ten-year forest plan was due for renewal at this time so it was a perfect opportunity to input into this process to ensure the sympathetic focus was given and the value of these trees was highlighted.
The vision here is to widen the halo around the group of ancients by felling the beech, but rather than simple felling, creating an additional interest to the area by pollarding some of the younger beech which should be easily able to respond. This work will begin next year.