Sheffield’s citizens are exceptionally fortunate to have Ecclesall Woods on their doorstep – it is only a short bus ride from the city centre – and at 140 hectares it is the largest ancient semi-natural woodland in South Yorkshire. It comprises a mosaic of habitats: upland oak woodland mixed with birch that is typical of the sandy soils of this region; the alders and willow that characterise riverside and waterlogged locations; and areas dominated by introduced tree species. This creates complexity, making it an ideal outdoor classroom in which to demonstrate woodland processes and learn about plant populations.
Sheffield Woodland Connections is a group of alumni from the University of Sheffield’s Landscape Department conducting guided walks in Ecclesall Woods. Together we will contribute to the aims of the Woodland Trust’s Charter for Trees, Woods and People by empowering people with a deeper understanding of ancient woodland ecology and what efforts we can collectively take to protect this most precious of resources. To facilitate an ongoing relationship we will both encourage people to adopt a tree of their choice and make ongoing surveys of it in different seasons over the coming years, and make links with volunteer groups already active in the woods.
We want to show people that far from being ‘natural’ habitats, our woodlands have long been shaped by the actions of people. Evidence of this is extant throughout Ecclesall Woods, the most obvious example being the charcoal pits that once provided the fuel to power the Industrial Revolution taking place just a few miles down the road. Other clues reveal the scale of human intervention: the woods are dotted with trees coppiced for poles, firewood and charcoal-making material, creating the distinctive twin or multi-stemmed forms that resprout from coppice stools. Some of these stools may have undergone several coppicing cycles and could well be the woodland’s oldest trees.
As the needs of local industry changed coppicing fell out of favour and instead the woods were allowed to grow into High Forest with the aim of harvesting whole trees to supply timber for construction. This means that single-stemmed veteran trees are uncommon, most of them having been felled, however those encountered will be measured and surveyed where possible. Approximately 190 years ago other species were introduced to the woodland, ones that were not endemic but that were considered to make favourable timber. Prior to this there was no beech, hornbeam, larch, Scot’s pine, sweet chestnut or sycamore present. Our walk will focus particular attention on these, and other deliberately planted species, with the aim of finding the oldest examples.
Although coppicing and pollarding – where the crown is cut but the trunk remains – were all but abandoned during the High Forest period, these management practices have been reintroduced over the last couple of decades. We will be discussing the contemporary reasons for doing this work, namely managing habitats to promote species diversity. The balance of light and shade and soil type is key to understanding where tree and plant species are to be found. We will be examining areas where tree maintenance has been undertaken to increase light levels, and comparing what can be seen on the ground with previous wildflowers surveys.
To support this project a new map has been created noting the positions of veteran trees, examples of coppice and pollards, plus introduced species. Wildflower surveys completed since 2000, including the distribution of bluebells, honeysuckle and wood anemone – all ancient woodland indicator species – are also included. Walk attendees are invited to contribute their own observations, photographs and drawings inspired by the woods so that when the map goes online it adds a personalised layer to the data. The printable map will not only allow visitors to identify particular species by their position but also hopefully recognise individual specimens through visual and written depictions.
Walk with Sheffield Woodland Connections
Sunday 30th April : 10.30 am and 2.30 pm
– meet at J.G Graves Discovery Centre, Abbey Ln, Sheffield, S7 2QZ.
© Fran Halsall 2017
You can find out more about the event on the events poster below.