Into the shadows

Victoria Franklin – Conservation Graduate Trainee

Thanks to archaeologists and historians we know a lot about the people who lived and worked in the historic landscape, but less about the shape and ecology of the landscape. There have been a lot of theories by ecologists such as Frans Vera and George Peterken, who suggest that the landscape was fluid with more wood pasture rather than the closed canopy dense woodlands we’re more familiar with today.

Historic woodlands were a hub of life, providing fodder for livestock and materials for villagers, farmers, tanners, blacksmiths, carpenters, broom whittlers and charcoal makers. Trees were even a source for medicine, for example the bark of Pedunculate Oak Quercus robur was used as an antiseptic and Ash Fraxinus excelsior was steeped into tea and used to aid kidney problems. This eco-cultural hub seems a far cry from how we see woods today, often used as a place of tranquillity, for bird watching or to seek refuge from everyday life.

Over the past year I’ve been researching ‘Shadow Woods’ – areas where there was woodland in the past that is no longer there. These, now shadows of a former landscape, can be identified in a number of ways. As a starting point for the search, the Doomsday Book and historic Tithe and Enclosure maps can give an indication of how the landscape once looked. Researching old place and field names such as ‘Hagg’ meaning an area where trees were felled or ‘Hollin’ historically a word for Holly or browse, also give clues as to the location of previously wooded areas.

With permission from land managers, we followed up on potential sites by surveying for any ancient woodland indicator species, ground flora that has colonised over generations and gives an indication that the area has been continually wooded for a considerable length of time. These species will change from woodland to woodland and throughout the country, but include Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum, Ramsons Allium ursinum, Wood sorrel ‎Oxalis acetosella, Early purple orchids Orchis mascula, Primroses Primula vulgaris and Climbing corydalis Ceratocapnos claviculata. These plants continue to flower long after the surrounding woodland has gone. The residual flora and soils in these spaces are irreplaceable.  

Primroses Primula vulgaris, Wood anemone Anemonoides nemorosa amongst bracken and Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna scrub. Copyright NYMNPA.
Primroses Primula vulgaris, Wood anemone Anemonoides nemorosa amongst bracken and Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna scrub. Copyright NYMNPA.

Early purple orchids Orchis mascula and Primroses Primula vulgaris, strong evidence that the area is a Shadow Woodland. Copyright NYMNPA.
Early purple orchids Orchis mascula and Primroses Primula vulgaris, strong evidence that the area is a Shadow Woodland. Copyright NYMNPA

Any remaining veteran and ancient trees were surveyed for signs of being worked, which gives another glimpse into the past history of the wood. Coppiced trees such as willow were cut at the base when they are relatively young and the wood was used to make fences and shelters. Pollarded trees were cut just above the trunk to provide timber and fodder for animals leaving the tree alive to produce more wood in future years. An historically pollarded tree can be identified by having multiple branches.

Historically coppiced Willow.. Copyright NYMNPA.
Historically coppiced Willow. Copyright NYMNPA.

Ancient and Veteran trees are home to a whole host of deadwood beetles, fungi, lichen mosses and plants that cannot live anywhere else. These trees, botanical indicators and the soil of ancient and shadow woods are irreplaceable micro-habitats that have taken generations to create, once lost they will be gone forever.

The Shadow Wood sites surveyed within the North York Moors National Park were all in upland locations, many in remoter areas with little human disturbance since they were worked woodlands. The majority of these sites have been classed as grassland or as scattered parkland with a small amount of ancient or veteran trees. This classification strengthens the idea that the historic landscape was often open wood pasture rather than closed canopy woodlands.  

The hope is that identified sites can be targeted for woodland creation in the North York Moors National Park, therefore continuing and restoring life in these magical habitats, that are not only home to some amazing species and important trees but are a little bit of folklore too.

Image of Shadow Woodland in the North York Moors. Copyright NYMNPA.
Shadow woodland in the North York Moors. Copyright NYMNPA.

The Shadow Woods project within the North York Moors National Park has only been possible due to the dedicated work of Professor Ian Rotherham. His book Shadow Woods: a search for lost landscapes and publication Shadow Woods and Ghosts Survey Guide by C. Handley and I. D. Rotherham have provided invaluable research into these almost lost landscapes.

Recipes for meadows

Aside

Coming up this Saturday (1 July) is National Meadows Day.

Wildflower meadow in the Hole of Horcum. Copyright NYMNPA.

There is a partnership project called Save our Magnificent Meadows, led by Plantlife and largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund which promotes the importance of hay meadows and other species rich grassland types for the country’s natural and cultural heritage..We’re not one of the landscapes where the project is directly working but we have similar aims and objectives for North York Moors grasslands too. Save our Magnificent Meadows has a really useful Advice and Guidance resource which can help land managers work out what kind of grassland they have (e.g. acid grassland, neutral grassland, calcareous grassland, cornfield flowers), what type it currently is (e.g. improved, semi improved, unimproved) and then how best to manage it for conservation benefits. In the North York Moors we have a lot of improved grassland like most places, but we still have an amount of unimproved grassland and a bigger amount of semi improved grassland. Semi improved grassland – i.e. some characteristic species found in low frequency – can have great potential for biodiversity enhancement.

North York Moors Top 10 flora

Gallery

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Ami Walker – Lead Land Management Adviser These are my Top 10 of wild flowers and grasses that you can see round about now in the surviving meadows, uncultivated grasslands and road verges of the North York Moors. These are some … Continue reading