Wildlife column: Taking the bull by the horns to graze

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Epping Forest on the Essex outskirts of Greater London is a nationally-significant conservation site with tremendous numbers of ancient, wizened oaks, beeches, and hornbeams. This was one of a number of major, medieval ‘fuel-allotments’ around London to supply ‘wood’ to the city during what we erroneously call the Little Ice Age.

The system of forest management was one of ‘wood pasture’ with great ‘pollard’ trees cut back regularly but at a height above which animals like cattle and deer cannot graze off the re-growth. This ‘cut-and-come-again’ system supplied wood-fuel on a sustainable, cyclical basis, a little like the coppice system of Sheffield’s ancient woodlands used to produce wood for charcoal to fuel local metal industries.

However, as times and technologies changed, coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice, and then gas, oil, and electricity followed. The ancient system was largely abandoned and this meant the great trees aged and declined, began to fall apart, and many eventually die.

Nevertheless, the system of management and its wonderful trees is essential for the conservation of many rare plants, animals and fungi; and if the trees go so do they. In order to help maintain the special ecology we have to manage the old veterans and create younger trees to grow through and eventually replace them. We also need to graze the grassland beneath the trees to maintain the wood pasture landscape, and this is where the bulls or cows come in. It seems that the ancient systems of pasture woods were the predominant countryside over much of Britain and Europe until relatively recent times. Certainly in Domesday England these were the wooded landscapes across much of the country and some became the medieval deer parks (like old Chatsworth for example) or royal hunting forests (such as Sherwood or the lost Peak Forest). Others were conserved as hunting ‘chases’ like the former Rivelin, Wharncliffe, or Hatfield Chases in our region. Finally, we have the recent discovery of ancient ‘Shadow Woods’ across our region with remnants of the former wood pastures, our ‘Lost Domesday landscapes’. Enigmatic and species-rich, these places may hold a vital key to a more sustainable countryside.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues