As autumn surrounds us in its golden glow, there can be no better way to celebrate the season than to wrap up and head out on a stunning woodland walk. Shire takes a look at what makes our local forestry so appealing and how it has evolved into the wooded wonderland it is today
There’s something primeval about a walk in the woods. It’s getting back to nature in the best way, connecting with trees centuries older than ourselves, that have seen more life than we can ever hope to experience.
There’s no better time to enjoy these magical places than now, as the green leaves dramatically change through reds, browns, golds and oranges, leaving a delightfully crunchy forest floor of fallen debris. In Britain, we’re lucky to have a thriving population of native and non-native tree species, which give us a rich display across our hills and valleys.
By inspiring poets, writers, singers or storytellers, our woods have played an important role in our culture over the centuries. Where would Robin Hood be without Sherwood Forest? What other setting would be appropriate for Winne the Pooh and friends than Hundred Acre Wood? What would the wind do without its willows? Where else would those infamous teddy bears have their picnic?
Magic and beauty
Forests provide a magical atmosphere that has inspired writers for centuries. But they’re beautiful places to visit too – where you’ll find dappled light through the canopy, tunnels of trees, and roots and branches taking on shapes that spark the imagination.
As the 1913 poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer says, ‘ I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree’. So make sure you get out and enjoy the woods around us while they’re showing off their finest autumn display.
Our ancient woodland has seen a steady decline for centuries, with large areas grazed out, grubbed up and converted to agriculture long before the Industrial Revolution. In more recent times, there have been bursts of activity and shifts in policy to recognise the value of our woods, whether for raw materials or as places of great beauty.
The amount of woodland cover has increased again, particularly in the 20th century. However, this expansion – triggered partly by the setting up of the Forestry Commission in 1919 – was delivered mostly by large-scale planting of non-native conifers on low-value, remote and marginal land. This masked the fact that large areas of our most precious ancient native woodland were being heavily exploited for much-needed wartime timber and replanted with non-native species.
Since the 1930s, almost 40 per cent of England’s ancient woodland has been lost or damaged in this way. In many cases, the rare wildlife and ground flora are struggling to survive under the dense shade cast by introduced conifers.
Our ancient woodlands are irreplaceable. The combination of undisturbed soils, native trees and shrubs, and the associated ground flora and wildlife are unique – once lost, they are gone forever. They are one of the most significant habitats for biodiversity in the UK.
Ancient and irreplaceable
Those woods in England that can be traced back at least to 1600 are considered ancient. These woods have a direct line of descent from the last surviving areas of wildwood that developed across post-glacial Britain.
The government has pledged to increase the protection for our precious ancient woodland, but a loophole still exists that allows local planning decisions to see ancient woods bulldozed for badly located housing, roads and quarries, and irreplaceable habitat and ancient trees removed to allow space for golf courses, business parks and other developments.
The character of the British countryside is shaped by its many millions of trees, the benefits of which, for people and for wildlife, are increasingly recognised, such as the important role they play protecting soil, cleaning our air and water and helping with flood management.
Despite this, all parts the UK are failing to plant enough new woodland. The government aspiration is for 5,000 hectares of new planting per year, but only 1,100 hectares was planted in 2016/17. In England, new planting rates are at their lowest for a generation.
At the same time, we see continued loss of existing woodland to infrastructure, built development, quarries, roads and golf courses. The government is making little effort to quantify these losses, and with no coordination of datasets and monitoring across departments, it looks increasingly likely that England is slipping unnoticed into a state of deforestation.
For more information about the Woodland Trust and its work to save and restore our precious woodlands, visit www.woodlandtrust.org.uk
Inspired to pull on your wellies and waterproofs and head out on a traditional woodland walk surrounded by British nature in all its autumnal glory? Why not start at one of the local sites in this top 10 guide, put together for Shire by the Woodland Trust
1. Warrington, Cheshire
Lumb Brook is actually a series of connected but different woodlands that consist of both ancient woodland and areas of mixed conifers and broadleaved trees. The mature trees you can see here are mainly oak, silver birch, beech, sycamore and Scots pine. There are surfaced and well-used footpaths, making it popular with locals and visitors alike.
2. Aberystwyth, Wales
This ancient sessile oak woodland surrounds the spectacular and unmissable 100m waterfalls. Look out for red kites as you enjoy the beautiful autumn colours. There are a number of walks to enjoy here, including a 45-minute nature trail that takes in the falls and three bridges. To download maps, visit www.devilsbridgefalls.co.uk.
3. Credenhill, Herefordshire
You can glimpse rare, small-leaved limes and early purple orchids as you walk the tranquil paths of Credenhill Park Wood. The Iron Age hill fort that is an integral part of the site is one of the largest hill forts in England and is thought to have been an Iron Age tribal capital. The walk to the top is worth the effort, with views to Wales across the autumnal landscape.
4. Newport, Wales
Wentwood may be a little further to travel for Shire readers, but it is the largest ancient woodland site in Wales and was once the hunting ground of Chepstow Castle, so we’re sure you’ll think it’s worth the extra miles. This wood is a haven for wildlife, including dormice, adders, lizards and bats. Many bird species have been recorded here – and in autumn, Wentwood erupts with an incredible array of fungi.
5. Llangollen, Denbighshire
This wood offers a delightful mix of ancient semi-natural woodland containing pockets of seasonal flowers such as bluebell and anemone, a conifer plantation, archaeological features and some lovely walks.
6. Abergynolwyn, Gwynedd
As you explore this ancient Snowdonian oak woodland, you’ll discover that the sound of the Nant Gwernol River is never far away as it cascades down from the hills and through this picturesque gorge. The diverse habitats support a wide range of wildlife and, in spring, pockets of bluebell and anemone adorn the woodland floor.
7. Maentwrog, Gwynned
Explore the extensive network of well surfaced paths through a landscape of rocky ridges, fern-clad gorges and little streams, with some perfect picnic spots along the way. The wood is bordered by the Ffestiniog Railway, so look out for its steam trains as you walk.
Llangain, near Carmarthen
Green Castle Woods contains two ancient oak woods as well as more recently planted woodland. There are also hay meadows, wet pasture, ponds, a stream lined with willow and alder, and a delightful waterfall, all of which make this a botanically rich area. The whole wood is criss-crossed by centuries-old hedges, walls and pathways, including the Camarthen coast long-distance footpath.
The woodland of Windmill Hill is alive with birds, including owls, woodpeckers and chaffinches, while frogs, toads and newts inhabit the ponds. Its network of paths links with longer routes, so you can extend your walk to include the Bridgewater Canal and Norton Priory.
10. Pepper Wood
Fairfield, near Bromsgrove, Worcestershire
Just over Shire borders, this is a stunning fragment of medieval England, alive with butterflies, birds and badgers, still managed much as it was 500 years ago. A community group coppices the hazel, oak and birch, as people have for centuries, and plenty of deer still roam.
For more information on
any of the above, as well as routes and walking plans, visit www.woodlandstrust.org.uk
Many of us have worried about the changing landscape of our countryside. Here, the Woodland Trust explains the changes that have occurred to our forested areas over the centuries and the impact they’ve had on the wider population – both animal and human
When it comes to information about our woodlands, there is no better source of expertise than the Woodland Trust, the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity. The trust owns and manages more than 1,000 woodland sites across the UK, extending to more than 26,000 hectares. All these sites have sustainable management plans independently assessed and awarded FSC certification. It has more than 500,000 members and supporters, and supports a vision for a UK that’s rich in native woods and trees, for people and wildlife.
Through a range of programmes, the trust plants around two million trees every year across the UK, almost one million of which are planted in and around towns and cities through the ‘free trees packs’ available to schools and communities. It also champions ancient woodland and trees, working to protect our surviving irreplaceable ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees from further loss, destruction or damage by built development, new infrastructure and inappropriate land management.
The trust regularly challenges individual planning applications that will damage or destroy these natural assets, as well as working to influence policy to secure increased protection.
While humans may occasionally venture into the woods for a stroll, for thousands of (often endangered) species they are home. Discover the animals to look out for the next time you take a stroll
As hundreds of children’s storybooks will tell you, our woods are home to a thriving society of creatures. From the adventures of Ratty, Badger and Mole to the more recent exploits of the Julia Donaldson’s mouse in The Gruffalo, forest creatures have always held a particular fascination to the British public. But it isn’t just fiction – these habitats play host to weird and wonderful animals who rely on them for shelter and food.
Out of the storybooks
The badger is one of our most popular mammals and can often be spotted at dusk in the woodlands, while the beaver – back in Britain after centuries of absence – can prove harder to find. In certain areas you can easily find magnificent red deer, our largest native land mammal, or its smaller cousin the roe deer, known for its speed and agility.
These large mammals are joined by the fox, who is at home in the country as it is and towns and cities, similar behaviour to that prickly favourite the hedgehog, whose numbers are in a dangerous decline.
Harder to find, and increasingly rare, is the adorable dormouse, who relies on the forest habitat for survival. Common wood mice also play a key role in the woodland food chain.
Flying mammals also need the cover our trees offer for nesting and hunting, and the UK’s woodlands are home to more than a dozen different bat varieties, as well as a wealth of owls and other birds of prey.
The native red squirrel, one of our most iconic mammals, has disappeared from most of our woods, but its grey cousin thrives. The stoat – one of the UK’s top predators – enjoys a forest hunting ground and can take on prey more than five times its size, while its smaller family member, the weasel, makes up for what it lacks in size with its voracious appetite.
Thanks to the dedication and hard work of conservationists and organisations such as the Woodland Trust, several species are making a successful comeback to our countryside.
The elusive pine marten can now be spotted in various locations and there is a particularly successful colony thriving in Shropshire. Meanwhile, the wild boar, which was extinct for centuries, is back and roaming UK woodlands once more.
Whichever animal magic you hope to encounter, make sure you have your camera with you if you visit your local woodlands. If you’re a keen nature lover, a visit at dawn or dusk is usually your best bet, as that is when these woodland residents are most likely to be on the move.