by Rod Leslie
Yesterday, 8th December 2011, marks a milestone for England’s Ancient Woodlands…
At 11am Professor Oliver Rackham personally felled the last conifer in Chalkney Wood!
Chalkney Wood near Earls Colne in north Essex is one of the ‘Lavenham Woods’ managed by the Forestry Commission that played a central role in the research that led to the concept of ‘Ancient Woodland’. Like so many other ancient woods, the Chalkney that Oliver wrote about in his seminal 1980 book ‘Ancient Woodland’ had been heavily planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission. Despite that he said that ‘Chalkney still gives one of the best impressions of medieval wood’.
I first visited Chalkney, with Oliver, in 1988. 3 years earlier thanks very largely to the work of Oliver Rackham and George Peterken forestry policy had changed dramatically to recognise the unique value of ancient woodland. However, the idea of actually removing conifers was quite revolutionary to the Forestry Commission and in what must be some of the earliest restoration in England local forester Simon Leatherdale had started some tentative felling along streams and ride sides.
Today is the culmination of that early, cautious work. Simon has been working away ever since, gradually removing conifers. All the work has been done at a profit and by local ‘Higglers’, small scale forestry contractors. Support within the Forestry Commission has come and gone over that time: there were still people who saw felling immature trees as sacrilege.
His work has been even more significant than simply restoring these very special woods: in 1985 both Oliver and George talked about woods ‘destroyed’ by conifer shading. Of Chalkney Oliver said in 1980 ‘ the native vegetation partly destroyed’.
Most of us would have agreed at the time: how could ground flora recover when the forest floor was quite bare apart from a carpet of conifer needles ? However, as Simon let the light back in, sometime by thinning, sometimes by felling, it became clear to Oliver that the woodland’s regenerative capacity was far greater than anyone had guessed. In fact today it would take a real expert to identify that many of the earliest restorations had ever had a conifer on them. The discovery gave new impetus to the restoration programme as it became clear that it really was possible to return to something close to the original ancient woodland.
200 acre Chalkney is the quintessential Rackham wood: it is a ‘Pry Wood’ – Pry an ancient name for small-leaved lime. Largely ignored because of it’s absence from the pollen record, in recent times lime has been recognised as a key ancient woodland species. Chalkney is complex: as well as lime there is hornbeam, ash/maple/hazel, oak standards and even two wild service stools. The soils are acid sands and loess but calcareous springs feed the valleys.
Chalkney’s cultural history matches its ecological complexity. A Roman-British road dissects the wood which is still surrounded by intact medieval woodbanks. Once used for keeping ‘wild swyne’, probably after the extinction of true wild boar, there are early 17th century records of wood sales showing that lime bast, the bark used for making rope, was as valuable as the timber itself.