Wood pasture - what's it all about?

Wood pasture is a particularly interesting habitat type. It is one of my favourites and one that we deal with a little bit in the Solent reserves so I thought that I would write a little bit about it.

What is wood pasture?

Well, the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia) describes it as:

‘Wood pasture is a historical European land management system in which open woodland provided shelter and forage for grazing animals, particularly sheep and cattle, as well as woodland products such as timber for construction and fuel, coppiced stems for wattle and charcoal making and pollarded poles.’

My Higher Level Stewardship document ( the grant system that governs most of what we do in the Trust) suggests that tree cover should be between 50 and 75 trees per hectare with areas of meadow interspersed.

So you can see, wood pasture is both an historic habitat type and somewhere in between a woodland and a meadow. It is an open habitat, with either meadows or heath, interspersed with trees, widely spaced but with patches of thickets, denser trees and scrub.

It is considered a man made habitat and for much of medieval times, the predominant woodland type in northern Europe. In the UK, people were free to graze their livestock in these areas, harvest fuel and fodder from the trees. Indeed, within the Solent area there was the Forest of Bere, much retracted in size nowadays but once stretching across a large swathe of the county.

The confines of wood pasture to a purely man made habitat has been questioned in recent years. Franz Vera published an in depth critique of much of the works in the 20th century on forest ecology and came to the conclusion that looking at pollen records and the composition of trees within Europe, the likelihood was that large herbivores kept a continual mosaic of open habitat, comparable to wood pasture that we have today.

Otherwise shade loving trees such as lime and beech would have taken over much of the landscape. Pollen records however show Oak, Hazel, Birch to be present in large quantities.

Wood pasture in the New Forest

© Chris Lycett

I confess that I am a follower of this theory, though much has been published since to challenge it. However, when I walk through wood pasture it feels primeval. It feels like its right, with such a broad mix of habitats, meadow, heath, scrub, veteran woodland, secondary woodland, it has to provide habitat for such a range of a species, that it could almost be seen as the optimal habitat type.

That isn’t to say that this would have dominated. Vera suggests thickets punctuated the landscape and these ‘thickets’ could be hundreds of kilometers in size.

Why is wood pasture so important?

Well, from purely a landscape view, it is quite rare nowadays. We are lucky in Hampshire as we have places like the New Forest where grazing animals still roam free (though arguably in too great numbers but that is a different discussion). A lot of the country however has very little.

From a species point of view it supports a great deal. There are huge numbers of invertebrates and fungi associated and also many specific bird species such as lesser spotted woodpecker. Early stage wood pasture with scrub and woodland offers great conditions for nightingales and warbler species.

All in all it’s rather good.

What are we doing for wood pasture?

Swanwick is our main area of wood pasture restoration. It has gone through many changes in history, farming and quarrying being the most recent but historically it was part of the previously mentioned Forest of Bere. With that in mind it was decided to revert some of the site and this is why there has been so much thinning occurring in the north east meadow. It is looking good too.

Over the past few years the meadow has established and the wooded areas are steadily opening up and you can see the trees reacting to the light, sending out new branches and morphing from their lollipop image to a much broader canopy.

As the years have progressed the woodland has become thinner but it still needs a bit more work, to give it that open feel. It does however not need to be even. This means that trees need to be irregularly spaced, with clumps of thicker cover and areas more open and some areas of dense scrub.

This is what we are starting to do now. We will be putting up some areas of deer fencing so as to allow some scrub to develop without being chomped to death by deer.

It has been important to start thinking of the future of the wood pasture on site, not just adapting it to work in the present. That is why we have been experimenting with pollarding some of the oaks. Pollarding is the same as coppicing just done higher up out of the way of browsing animals.

Pollarded oak tree

© Chris Lycett

Here you can see an oak tree that I have cut at chest height and how it has reacted, throwing out regrowth. This will form the characteristic pollard shape, a round crown emanating from a high central point.

Veteran pollards provide more niches than many trees that are left in their maiden state as they tend to develop more features characteristic of veteran trees such as rot and dead wood. You have to be very careful doing this as it may shock the tree and kill it.

Older trees need to be pollarded steadily over many years whereas younger trees such as this one can survive and indeed flourish with pollarding, given ample light and good ground conditions.