A look at our lowland beech woodland

A look at our lowland beech woodland


Posted 31st October


Image courtesy of Marilyn Peedle

Beech woodland and towering trees with smooth, grey-brown bark and fresh green leaves, that light up in sun are a truly beautiful sight

However, in the UK, it's only native to southern England and southern Wales; elsewhere, it's been planted for ornamental use and timber.

Our lowland beech and yew woodland spans a whole variety of distinctive vegetation types that grow on different soils. Calcaereous beech and yew woodland forms around 40 per cent of the total amount of lowland beech and yew habitats in the UK, and will typically be found on the limestone and chalk soils of south-east England such as the North and South Downs, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds.

The canopy can include mixtures of beech, ash, sycamore, yew and whitebeam.

Around 45 per cent of our beech woodland will grow on neutral to slightly acidic soils (this has a pH of 7 to 4).

Stands tend to be dominated by beech, with oak sometimes finding a foothold, while bramble knots its way through the understorey. This kind of woodland is common in the High and Low Weald, the Chilterns, the New Forest, the Cotswolds and the Wye Valley.

Acidic beech woodland forms the remianing15 per cent of the habitat, and will usually be found on sandy or gravelly soils (pH 3.5 to 4.5). Holly typically dominates the understorey, with sites including the High Weald, Hampshire and London basins, the Chilterns and parts of East Anglia.

Where is it found?

It's thought there are between 15,000 and 25,000 hectares of ancient lowland beech and yew woodland in the UK; recently, beech woodland brings the total area to around 30,000 hectares.

Why is it important?

On calcareous sites, rare plants can include box, red helleborine, coralroot bitter-cress and the bird's-nest orchid - this is an odd species which gets its energy from dead plant litter rather than the sun. More common species found on chalk include dog's mercury, yellow archangel and mettle-leaved bellflower. On neutral sites, the rare violet helleborine will grow alongside the more common species such as oxlip and early dog-violet. In comparison, bracken, creeping soft-grass, wavy hair-grass and marsh violet will be found on acid woodland soils.

The standing and fallen dead and decaying wood within lowland beech and yew woodland is an important habitat for invertebrates, such as the rare violet click beetle, and also fungi such as the scarce bearded tooth, devil's bolete and hedgehog fungi.

Birds will fill the canopy with song, including bullfinch, song thrush, spotted flycatcher, wood warbler and the rare turtle dove which are just some of the species to be found in this habitat. Mammals abound in lowland beech and yew woodland include badgers, foxes and the greater and lesser horseshoe bats, which are all foraging and breeding here.

Across the UK, lowland beech and yew woodland has historically been managed as coppice, providing materials for both buildings and crafts.

Is it threatened?

In general, woodlands are threatened by clearance for development and agriculture, although the lowland beech and yew woodland has suffered less due to the high value of beech for materials. Changes in the composition of the habitat are occurring, however, being caused by the effects or grey squirrel damage, deer browsing, introduced non-native species like rhododendron, poor management and habitat fragmentation.

The Wildlife Trusts are managing many woodland nature reserves sympathetically for all kinds of species - it's a case of coppicing, scrub-cutting, ride maintenance and non-intervention to help woodland wildlife to thrive. They are also working closely with landowners to promote wildlife-friendly and traditional practices in these areas.

Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts





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