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Establishing Trees and Wildflowers

Creative conservation Think of broadleaf woods and you are likely to picture not just trees but also woodland wildflowers. Yet the vast majority of woodland creation in the UK makes little initial allowance for the establishment of wildflowers. Important components of many habitats, wildflowers offer food and shelter for a range of invertebrate and bird species, including many of the essential pollinators that support our agricultural systems. But wildflowers have experienced steep declines in both number and area; in the past 70 years the UK has lost up to 97% of its wildflower-rich meadows. Forest of flowers Since 2003, the Woodland Trust has worked on several wildflower projects with three key objectives: conservation, new ways to establish native woodland, and improving visitor experience. One key programme was the Forest of Flowers (FoF) project, a partnership between environment charity Landlife and leading woodland conservation charity the Woodland Trust. The main aim was to trial alternative methods of establishing naturalistic native woodland that included factoring in ground flora from the very beginning. The UK is currently one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with only 12% woodland coverage compared to a European average of 44%. Tree planting has benefits for biodiversity, flooding, societal health and air quality, but newly-planted sites often lack floristic or structural variety. Increasing woodland diversity more quickly is vital; it is extremely beneficial to wildlife, including many endangered butterfly species. Woodland plants eventually move into woodland-creation sites but their dispersal can be slow, as can colonisation by specialist woodland fauna. Locating new sites next to mature woodland has been demonstrated to aid this process, but for areas with little existing woodland other techniques are required. Deep ploughing One factor deemed critical to successful colonisation is soil fertility. High-fertility soils, with a history of intensive artificialfertiliser application, enable generalist ruderal and grass species to outcompete woodland or meadow specialists. The first Woodland Trust FoF site was Wheeldon Copse, an improved pasture site, in 2004. It used a new planting approach: deep ploughing. The technique, developed in Denmark, uses an imported Bovlund machine to turn over the top 75-100cm of soil; burying the over fertilised topsoil and its seed bank, including agricultural grasses and ruderals that would compete with the trees for moisture. The weed-free, less-fertile soil brought to the surface does not require damaging herbicides. Deep ploughing promotes good tree growth, even at low densities, as the trees root into the soil at a lower horizon. Roots grow down towards the more fertile upturned soil and the buried humus layer, creating better support and stability for the young trees. Results show tree growth is more vigorous. The site was quickly transformed by annual species, seeded to give short term colour and show, but woodland perennials (such as bluebell, foxglove and red campion) were also sown. As the trees grow so the woodland ground flora establishes itself, creating a more diverse wood in a shorter space of time. The saplings were planted in an irregular pattern and spacing to mimic the natural colonisation of trees.

No grass was seeded, so the soil remained open and exposed to natural colonisation by wildflower and tree species. Dense grass growth can reduce diversity by preventing other seeds from reaching the soil to germinate. Just 29 wildflower species were originally sown, but a survey in August 2006 recorded 83 plant species and 20 grasses. The project gained huge public enthusiasm; letters were left on the gate thanking the Trust for the beautiful display. Wildflower successes Penguin Wood, Derbyshire, is another FoF site that used deep ploughing. But instead of planting saplings, tree and wildflower seeds were scattered over the land together. Few trees have propagated from this, although wild cherry seems to be doing well. It is thought the abundance and height of the wildflowers over shadowed the slower-growing tree seedlings, a lesson for another time. Saplings will be manually planted on the site. Again, visitors and passers by expressed their thanks for the wildflower spectacle. There was also an increase in invertebrate and bird numbers using and benefitting from the site. Richard Scott, Senior Project Manager, of Landlife (who donated the images) said, We believe the soil inversion work we completed with the Woodland Trust at places like Wheeldon Copse and Hedley Hall, and more recently for private landholders, have set important new standards in combining trees with wildflowers. Bluebell seeds sown at the same time as the cornfield annuals at Wheeldon Copse are now flowering in increasing numbers each year, and the public reaction in all project locations has been astonishing. We have greatly enjoyed the Forest of Flowers project; its thrilling to see nature make its own way given a good start. Fordham Hall took a different approach to creating permanent open meadow. The site had been primarily arable before the Trust intervened and was dominated by thistle and ragwort. A conservation grass mix was sown and cut for a year to deter ruderals. Hay was then collected from a local meadow, scattered across several acres of land and gathered back in after a few weeks. The resulting mulch was used as organic weed control around newly-planted trees elsewhere on site.

The hay-seed bank took a couple of years to come through; results can take longer than seeding, but the area is now deemed one of the best wildflower meadows in Essex. The hay gives a greater floral diversity than is offered by seed mixes, creating a more natural look, and has produced some unexpected delights. The meadow constantly changes as each year different species dominate the floral community, which includes bee and southern marsh orchids. It is harvested once a year. At George Henry Wood a more natural look was achieved by sowing a calcareous grassland flower mix to complement the soil type. Deep ploughing and wildflower seeding has also been carried out in the glades and rides of several existing woodland sites, including Foxley and Royal Tigers. This created areas of high visual impact and interest, popular with visitors and wildlife alike. Benefitting all The Woodland Trusts wildflower projects boost biodiversity, contribute to local wildlife populations and support the UKs dwindling pollinators, benefitting ecosystem services and ultimately humankind. They have received rapturous public support and contributed to societys mental well-being. Only with a full range of plant layers (herb, shrub and canopy) can a group of trees truly be woodland. For more information on the Forest of Flowers partnership project go to

The Woodland Trust, Kempton Way, Grantham, Lincolnshire NG31 6LL.

The Woodland Trust is a charity registered in England and Wales no. 294344 and in Scotland no. SC038885. A non-profit making company limited by guarantee. Registered in England no. 1982873. The Woodland Trust logo is a registered trademark.