Establishing best management practice is crucial to developing new woodlands in Uttlesford and contribute to the battle against climate change. In the past month, I was involved in visits to two local woods where volunteers have been active in planting and managing trees: West Wood near Great Sampford and the “SSE wood” in Broxted. The two woods are very different – West Wood is an ancient woodland and one of the largest in the district, while the SSE Wood is a small woodland created as part of a community initiative in partnership with a local farmer.

Different models of achieving growth in woodland cover are needed to raise Uttlesford’s woodland cover from the pitifully low 6% at present to the 13% national average or the 17% that the UK needs to achieve to get net zero carbon emissions. For Uttlesford to reach this level, we need to be ensuring good standards of woodland management in existing woodland areas, including restocking, creating small community woodlands, developer contributions in new housing developments, and planting a new forest on scale of at least the size of Epping Forest.

West Wood: Maintaining and Improving Existing Woodland

West Wood is a 60-acre ancient woodland, one of the largest woodlands in Uttlesford and site of special scientific interest (SSSI). It was originally comprised of native ash and oak – a remnant of the forests that used to cover our land 2,000 years ago. Once owned by the Knights Hospitaller, the wood was never brought under cultivation because it is very wet – it is a source of the River Chelmer. The oak were heavily exploited for timber for war ships in the past, while the ash are being decimated by the chalara fungal disease that is rampaging through English woodlands.

Hazel coppice in West Wood during the summer

The woodland has been managed by Essex Wildlife Trust for about 30 years. I was a conservation volunteer at West Wood for over 10 years, from shortly after the Trust gained ownership and have seen it go from a neglected woodland filled with Norway spruce to one that is in full coppice rotation.

I felled an acre of Norway spruce in 1999, opening up the woodland floor to light

I introduced Ruth Angrave, the Trust’s Landscape Conservation Area Officer for North-West Essex, to Cllr Louise Pepper (Uttlesford District Council’s environment portfolio holder who is forming a climate change working group), Cllr Barbara Light (who is spearheading the Uttlesford Eco Action Group), Saffron Walden Green Party town councillor Trilby Roberts, and Saffron Walden resident Ian Wolter (who is leading an initiative to work with private land-owners to plant trees).

Ruth showed the how the Trust was restocking the wood with new trees, such as hazel, to ensure the structure of the woodland is not diminished as a result of ash tree decline. Also, she emphasised the need for deer population management, such as fencing and selective culling, to minimise the extent of damage to trees. The Trust’s management has enabled biodiversity to flourish with ride widening and coppicing helping to boost orchid, oxslip and other woodland flowers and replacing spruce and declining trees with new trees.

Possible action points to come out of this visit include:

  • Greater public awareness of ash dieback and its management.
  • Support for existing woodlands to ensure they are well managed, thereby enhancing biodiversity.
  • Due to the scale of demand for trees in nurseries, local residents and schools could help grow saplings in pots for transplanting after two or three years’ growth.

SSE Wood: Community Co-operation to Create Small Woodlands

Cllr Alan Barnes, chair of Stansted parish council’s open spaces committee, and I were invited by Stansted resident Ray Woodcock to visit a small 400-tree woodland in Broxted which was planted by the campaign group Stop Stansted Expansion 17 years ago. The land-owner had agreed to allow the trees to be planted on his land and the local community had helped fund the project.

Cllr Alan Barnes and I discussing woodland planting at the “SSE Wood” in Broxted

The woodland is comprised of hazel coppice with some hawthorn, blackthorn and cherry mixed in. It appears to be doing well with some management of the hazel, although there is evidence of deer and rabbit damage on some trees which has affected their longevity and health.

The SSE woodland in Broxted is an example of how investment in a community-led initiative could work and succeed. It is vital that a civic group is involved from the outset and is not just lumbered with a struggling woodland asset foisted on it by a housing developer or green-washing by a corporation.

Other models of woodland development could also be explored, from utilising spare amenity land – without compromising public need for playing fields – and urban trees to large-scale reforestation. However, volunteer involvement and community education are central to the success of these initiatives.