This is a question often asked of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, and many other conservation organisations, especially when some of the practical management work undertaken on our nature reserves can look very destructive. Today, there are very few places in the UK where man has not influenced the landscape. These man-made changes to the environment have, over time given rise to a diverse range of species.
Warwickshire would once have been almost completely covered in native broadleaved woodland often referred to as the ‘wildwood’. It would have been possible to walk from one end of the county to the other without a break in the tree canopy. That all changed as man slowly turned woodland into farmland, clearing areas of forest, rearing animals and establishing permanent settlements.
The process of clearance and regeneration benefited many species capable of taking advantage of these clearings. In the past, this change would have been relatively slow, allowing each species time to adapt.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and the landscape is unrecognisable. The human impact on the environment has never been so rapid as it is today. Many species now struggle to adapt to changes in our modern landscape and our nature reserves are no different. Yet, for many, the concept of a nature reserve is of a place where time should stand still, preserving things exactly as they are. Unfortunately this approach often leads to habitat degradation and a loss of species and biodiversity. If we are to ensure our nature reserves and wild places are in the best condition for nature, they require continued intervention. If we want species such as the dormouse or silver-washed fritillary to survive in the modern environment, we have to manage our woodlands in traditional ways using traditional techniques.
A woodland rich in wildlife requires a diverse structure. Traditional coppicing and felling trees is part and parcel of this with the aim being to have a woodland containing many species of trees and shrubs all with varying age ranges.
The shock of seeing an area of felled woodland always stirs emotions, but in the past all of our woodlands were regularly harvested for timber to build houses and ships. Wildlife management requires that we continue to replicate this if we wish to maintain a diverse woodland structure.
Our human instinct is to be tidy. From neatly cut lawns to perfectly cut hedgerows, we constantly strive to control the natural world around us. However, the natural world doesn’t work in a tidy fashion. Being untidy is great for wildlife because it creates a wide range of micro-habitats. We can scratch that itch in some cases and brashing-up coppice stools is one way to stop deer browsing.
Often we have to use machinery to help undertake woodland management. This is often realistically the only effective way to manage large areas of woodland where we do not have the manpower to do the work by hand.
So next time you’re visiting one of our wonderful nature reserves, consider what makes the place special to you. What would you do to ensure that this remains a special place? Perhaps you would cut woodland rides for rare woodland butterflies like the wood white or volunteer some time to help de-silt a pond for dragonflies or plant reeds for the bittern? One thing is for sure, without human intervention and management, many of our rarest species may have already been lost.
Work undertaken is always done with consideration and balance to the protection of priority species and habitats to ensure there is no loss of value to wildlife. As a result, our nature reserves are strongholds for fragile wildlife populations that may have already been lost in the wider countryside. Our reserves are also places for people where we can enjoy a rich patchwork of habitats and species for generations to come.
Karl Curtis, Reserves and Community Engagement Manager. This post also featured as an article in our members’ magazine.