Ringbarking trees at Hertford Heath

Ringbarking trees at Hertford Heath

Following several comments from residents regarding the ring barking of trees in the woods, the parish council requested an explanation form Herts and Middx Wildlife Trust.  Here is their response.......

It’s really important that we manage the woodland and heathland at Hertford Heath to keep it in good condition and look after the full range of wildlife it supports.

In the case of the woodland at Goldingtons, a healthy woodland includes trees of a variety of ages, from young saplings all the way to dying veterans. It should contain glades and rides in order to allow light onto the ground to encourage a diversity woodland flora, and it should contain plenty of dead wood, both lying on the floor and standing.

In the case of the Roundings, the heathland here is one of the last remaining tracts of heather heath in our county. This rare heathland is hugely important for wildlife that relies upon low-nutrient, acidic soils. Having too many trees here threatens this open habitat: trees shade out rare heathland flora and their fallen leaves add nutrients to the soil. Heathland habitats rely on soils being nutrient poor in order to prevent fast-growing plants like brambles and nettles out-competing slower-growing heathland vegetation.

Ring-barking is a common habitat management technique employed across the country.

In woodland it benefits wildlife by creating diversity in the tree structure and allowing light into the woodland, benefitting woodland flora as well as regenerating oak saplings, which need lots of light in order to germinate and survive, and struggle to do so under a closed oak canopy. It also creates standing deadwood, without which many species of invertebrates, fungi, mosses and lichens would not be able to survive. These species in turn provide food for other species, such as woodpeckers. Dead trees also provide important nesting and roosting features for woodland birds and bats.

Out on the heathland at the Roundings, ringbarking prevents seeds spreading from trees and germinating onto the heathland and allows light down onto the ground to encourage heathland flora to grow.  

When selecting trees to ring-bark in both woodland and heathland, we ensure that we choose trees whose canopy is large enough to cover an area that can benefit from increased light levels, whilst not choosing ancient or veteran trees (trees that are older than 400 years or have habitat features of equivalent value), which already hold lots of hollow areas and deadwood and are therefore already of extremely high value for wildlife.

The work that we undertake in the woodland mimics that of large herbivores, ancestors of modern day cattle, which would have “managed” woodland across the country after the last ice age by moving through our forests, browsing scrub, pushing over trees and stripping bark. They would have created and maintained diversity across the landscape in a natural way, creating habitat for an enormous array of wildlife up and down the food chain. A healthy forest contains much more dead wood than we are used to seeing in our modern day woodlands, as most of our woodlands have had dead and fallen trees cleared away throughout the years.

At the Roundings, our conservation work mimics that of local commoners who would have grazed the heath with cattle and other livestock, cut down trees for timber, and cut turves and bracken for animal bedding, up until the early 20th century. These traditional farming practices by commoners over many centuries allowed specialist wildlife to thrive across heathlands in Britain, but died out with the turn of the last century and the beginning of the industrial age.

We know that ring-barking doesn’t look very nice when it is first done however in several years’ time, it will look much more like a naturally dead tree. We will clear holly underneath the trees at Goldingtons, and the light will then be able to reach the woodland floor. At the Roundings, the ringbarking compliments our bramble and sapling removal as well as topsoil scraping in order to remove nutrients and encourage a healthy diversity of heathland plants, protecting this rare habitat into the future.

Laura Baker
Nature Reserves Manager

Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust 

March 2020
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