The Woods of Hazel

When Wytham Woods were gifted to the University of Oxford in 1942 the donor Colonel Raymond ffennell requested that they be known as The Woods of Hazel in memory of his only daughter who had died a few years previously.  The name did not catch on, but on the north side of the hill there are quite large patches of old hazel. These derive from the former management of the Woods as coppice with standards, but this area has not been cut for over 80 years(Savill et al., 2010). Unlike elsewhere there has been little new growth of ash or oak; the hazel forms a major part of the canopy. In such open conditions it produces catkins, and hence pollen, in abundance, although any nuts get eaten by the grey squirrels before they are ripe. As the bushes have got older some have collapsed but new stems form from the stools – in effect they are self -coppicing.


We usually think of hazel as part of the understorey and eventually the bushes in Wytham may get over-topped by tree regeneration, but in the early post-glacial period hazel had its heyday. Hazel had moved back into Britain by about 10,000 years ago, and from about 9,500 years ago increased in abundance across most of the country.  We know this from the abundant pollen that is found in peat deposits, such as that from Marley Fen at Wytham. Later the pollen of other trees came to dominate the peat record.

There are however places where hazel remains the major tree in the landscape even today.  The hazel woods of the Burren in the west of Ireland have long been a place of pilgrimage for British botanists. Locally extensive stands occur on the steeper slopes of this limestone landscape with unusual combinations of acid-loving heather alongside plants of more base rich conditions such as the bloody cranesbill.


Small hazel woods were also noted on the Scottish islands, and on the mainland at Drimnin, but relatively little attention was paid to them. While I was carrying out surveys for the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) in the 1980s in Argyll, our local officer, Peter Wormell, suggested we looked at a bit of hazel woodland on Seil Island (NM7614) which the British Lichen Society had identified as of grade 1 quality in 1982. I am not a lichen expert, so could not comment on their assessment, but what was impressive to me was the variety in the ground flora.

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There was no doubt that it should be a designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and added to the the Nature Conservation Review list of nationally important sites. Derek Ratcliffe, the Chief Scientist, signed off the proposal, but the designation as an SSSI in Edinburgh stalled with the break-up of NCC in 1991.

In 2014 I had a chance to revisit Ballachuan Hazel Wood; now a Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve, so its protection is reasonably assured. In addition over the last decade or so the ‘Atlantic Hazelwoods’ have received more of the attention they deserve, at a British and European level (

The hazel forms a tight cloak around a low coastal hill.  The western slope is nearly vertical in places while the top the hill is rather open with grass and bracken glades. The eastern slope is a more or less continuous band of hazel, up to about 6m high in sheltered places, but only about 1-2m high where it faces the full force of the westerly wind.  There are few other shrubs, although  eared willow forms a fringe along the wetter ground at the base of the hill. Under the trees, creeping soft-grass and bluebells are abundant, with pignut and greater stitchwort; flushed areas have much wild garlic, while rich fern banks cover rocky areas.

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This hazel woodland can be looked at as perhaps a surviving analogue of the post-glacial hazel forests; but one other thing intrigues me about the site.  On the top of the hill are some old beech. These are I guess from the early 19th century, but it would be interesting to know if whoever planted them was also making use of the hazel on the slopes.

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