The plantations in Wytham Woods

We tend to focus on the more natural aspects of Wytham Woods, but quite a lot of the trees are planted or the descendents of planted trees from the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, although there is no evidence for earlier planting we cannot rule out that acorns might have been collected and dibbed into the ground to fill gaps where new standards were wanted; and almost certainly hazel was layered to maintain the high density desirable in a worked coppice.

Grayson and Jones (1955)  in their history of the Woods report significant planting instigated by the 5th Earl of Abingdon after he succeeded to the title in 1799. Various new shelterbelts and blocks of woodland were planned and a forest nursery created. Both hardwoods and softwoods were planted. Beech, common lime, sycamore and wych elm were widely used with smaller amounts of sweet chestnut, horse-chestnut, Turkey oak, hornbeam, false acacia and tree-of-heaven. Larch, Scots pine seem to have been the commonest conifers, although some Norway spruce was also used. Much of the planting was on formerly open ground creating new shelterbelts and groves, but some of it was into the ancient woodland where it appears that any former coppice was largely removed in the process.

Early 19th Century plantations in Wytham, with subsequent ash regeneration.

What is the legacy of this planting? Most of the conifers have now gone: a few scattered pine remain and the odd dying larch. I have never seen false acacia or tree-of-heaven, so if they were planted in the main wood, they did not survive. Occasional large sweet chestnut and horse-chestnut can still be encountered but they rarely regenerate. A large and distinctive hornbeam planted just inside what is now the main gate to the Woods unfortunately blew over a few weeks ago. Ash and sycamore fill any gaps created.

hornbeam by gate 16_6 

This big hornbeam probably dated from the 5th Earl’s plantings, but fell in 2020.

As far as we can tell there was no significant beech stand at Wytham prior to 1800. However the now-mature beech on the limestone cap to Wytham Hill do not seem out of place, given that Wytham lies in between the Chiltern beechwoods to the south and those of the Cotswolds to the north. The original plantings, now about 200-yrs-old, make an important contribution to the dead-wood habitats. However like the hornbeam, each year a few more large branches or whole trees blow down.

045 15_3 fallen beech

Remnants of early 19th century planted beech, now collapsing through windblow.

The flora beneath them is what might be expected of a calcareous beechwood and includes two unusual species ,yellow bird’s-nest and white helleborine. These are often thought of as ancient woodland indicators, but are not in any of the ancient woodland at Wytham. Perhaps some of the planted beech were saplings dug up from woods elsewhere and that seeds or vegetative fragments of the helleborine and bird’s-nest came in on the accompanying soil.

The common lime has done well and are some of the tallest broadleaves in the Woods now. As we contemplate what species to consider for the future, could we use their growth as an indication of how well small-leaved lime might do, if we decided to re-introduce it? Mature elms that survived into the 1970s died from Dutch Elm Disease; regrowth has occurred but then dies back again.

common lime 1981

The sycamore introduced to parts of the Great Wood is locally dominant and regenerates well, although not as abundantly as ash. However, it has not spread much beyond these stands in the last 200 years. As the ash dies back, we may be grateful for its contribution to the canopy in these areas.

There were some small areas of planting in the northern woods in the 1930s, but the next major spell of planting occurred in the 1950s after the Estate had passed to the University of Oxford. The Woods were being managed by the Department of Forestry who were keen to be able to demonstrate good forest practice to their students. Open ground and gaps left by wartime fellings were filled by a range of different trees, as pure stands and as mixtures, in an intricate mosaic of stands.

1950s plantations

The long-term aim in the management plans was for predominantly broadleaved high forest and many of the conifers have now been thinned out or felled, although some blocks do remain. The oak and ash stands are developing a flora not dissimilar to that of the ancient stands. The beech plantations from the 1950s seem to have been targeted to areas of sandy calcareous grit soils and now offer some of the best displays of bluebells in spring.

Bluebell under 1950s beech; bramble under 1950s oak

Since the change in management policy for the Woods in 1962 there have been  a few small areas of planting where blocks of conifers were clear-felled and a few individual oaks have been put in at ride-sides.  There are no plans for more extensive plantings although this will be kept under review depending on what happens as Ash Dieback progresses.

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