An inability to tell the forest from the trees is often said to indicate a failure to see the bigger picture. In the Wrekin Forest, however, if you want to find some of the locality’s richest, most enduring habitat you’ll need to adopt a counter-intuitive approach. For hidden in plain sight within these ancient woodlands is a venerable order of hollow, stag-headed nobles notable for the inordinate size of their girths…
Whether traversing old stone quarries, disused reservoirs, or long abandoned limekilns, it’s fairly obvious our connection to the Wrekin Forest has been helping to shape the landscape for many centuries. This is certainly no less true for the area’s woodlands that, as history has dictated, have either been carefully preserved or completely denuded according to society’s needs! While we can say with great certainty that the soils here have remained wooded for thousands of years, the extent of tree and shrub cover has been subject to the influence of human activity. For this reason, much of the locality is classified as ‘semi-natural’ or, where conifers predominate, ‘planted’ ancient woodland.
Nationally, Britain is now among the least wooded countries in Europe but, conversely, it is home to around 80% of the continent’s oldest trees. The key to understanding this conundrum probably lies in the fact our woodlands were able to pay their way for so long. Locally, the long-term plundering of the Wrekin Forest’s resources has almost certainly contributed to the survival of its elder statesmen. The industrial boom that swept across the east Shropshire coalfield from the early 1600s established a constant demand for timber that lasted well into the Twentieth Century. ‘Working’ Wrekin coppice trees were cut back and re-grown over many generations, attaining great age in the process and providing local plants, animals and insects with some of the area’s most valuable habitat.
For an article celebrating long life to suddenly begin championing death and decay might seem unusual, yet that is ultimately where the value of the Wrekin’s elderly tree population really lies. Ancient trees are full of cavities and rotting wood and the older they get, the more they produce — creating exceptionally rich conditions for a wide variety of wildlife. Rot holes and hollows provide food, nesting and shelter for birds and bats, while over 1700 invertebrates depend on the type of standing dead wood only living trees can produce (those communities of insects changing with the decay process itself). Fungi, too, enjoy a dynamic relationship with older trees that changes over time, recycling decomposing organic matter and transporting essential nutrients stored in decaying heartwood that extend the life of both parties. However, to really appreciate the value of the ageing process in supporting wildlife, look no further than our lichens, for which the Limekiln Woods are particularly noted. It can take over 250 years for trees to become suitable for certain species, proving the point that this is truly a habitat that cannot easily be created or replaced.
The idea of maturity in trees is very much relative — what constitutes great age in one species (say, a hundred year old Silver Birch) may only equate to mere youthfulness in another (such as Yew). For that reason, a ‘veteran’ is essentially a specimen that has reached a size notable for its species. In the Wrekin Forest, the oldest and most common of those are oak, ash and beech. The life of a long-lived oak, which might span 900 years, can roughly be divided into three equal stages of growth, maturity (the veteran stage) and decline (a genuine ancient). To cope with the final stage, trees adopt a number of strategies to survive the vagaries of the weather and maximise the nourishment they receive (essentially, the arboreal equivalent of growing old and fat!). Helpfully for us, they display a number of typical characteristics that, if you remember the tip about being counter-intuitive, should help you to separate the trees from the forest. Bear in mind that other environmental factors (such as disease) can also produce premature signs of ageing, while growing conditions and human activities (including coppicing) may also influence their appearance:
* Great Girth: a trunk that appears significantly wider than other trees of the same species.
* Hollow Trunk: with one or more openings to the outside and aerial roots growing down into it.
* Small Canopy: a shrinking crown that appears to be ‘growing downwards’ (a natural process known as ‘retrenchment’)
* Stag-Headedness: dead, antler-like branches that extend beyond the crown (old branches and limbs can often be found on the floor, too)
* Cavities: decay and rot holes (the result of branches breaking away), with the presence of fungal fruiting bodies.
Tree hugging is a pejorative term sometimes used to denigrate the activities of those of us who care about the environment. When it comes to veteran and ancient trees, however, we thoroughly recommend it as a worthwhile shared pastime for families and friends alike! Taken as a finger tip-to-finger tip measurement, a typical hug should extend to around 1.5 metres and can be a very useful way to identify a notable oak, ash, or beech. A girth of two to three hugs could well indicate a valuable conservation tree (especially for the latter two species) while an Oak measuring four or more hugs is very likely to be a genuinely ancient tree.
A tree in its final stage of life is the most important for wildlife. Here are some of the groups of plants, animals and insects you could expect to find making use of an ancient in the Wrekin Forest:
Birds: rot holes, cavities and heavily fissured bark associated with older trees form valuable nesting and feeding sites for a number of woodland birds including: Treecreeper, Nuthatch (the Beech avenue between the Halfway House and Rifle Range is especially recommended) and all three species of British Woodpecker — although you’ll probably need to look very high into the canopy to see the vanishingly rare Lesser Spotted variety.
Mammals: bats are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity and occupy many roost sites throughout the year. Older Oak and Beech trees with damp rot holes, cavities and copious amounts of creeping vegetation, such as Ivy, are particularly attractive to them and, once utilised, are often returned to. Refer to our dedicated Wrekin bat guide for more information about the species found in the forest.
Insects: standing dead wood is the key ingredient in the life cycles of myriad insects but, with their sweeping antennae, there can be few groups as charismatic as longhorn beetles. Adult insects feed on nectar and pollen but dead and decaying wood is a staple for the larvae of many species, and their presence can be an important indicator of good mature woodland. Around The Wrekin, try looking on flowering shrubs and umbellifers for Black-spotted Longhorn (Rhagium mordax) and the Wasp Beetle (Clytus arietis), which begin life as larvae just beneath the bark in the rotting wood of many broadleaved trees.
Fungi: over 400 rare UK fungi species are associated with woodlands, and some share a deep association with the decaying heartwood of our ancient trees (and, resultantly, are just as scarce). Many distinctive plants, such as Bird’s Nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) and Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria), are equally reliant on woodland fungi, demonstrating the type of reciprocal relationships that govern forest life and effectively make places like the Wrekin Forest living entities in their own right.
… If you’re cycling or walking around the south and west of The Wrekin Hill, there are a number of woodland edge and roadside veteran and ancient oaks to be found (head to the downloads section of the site and check the map in the centre of our Wild Wrekin Trail booklet for details of their locations).