A missed opportunity?

The University of Oxford acquired the Wytham Estate in 1942-3 and its Department of Forestry was given responsibility for developing a management plan for the woods. This was a logical decision, as there had been informal discussions with the previous owner, Colonel ffennell, before the war about using the woods for forestry teaching. It paralleled the Department of Agricultural Sciences taking over part of the farmland as the University Farm.

The forestry department’s plans reflected the government’s priorities for forestry in the immediate post-war period – the need to rebuild the nation’s timber resources which had been severely depleted by the war effort.  Between a third and half of the woods across the country had been cut over between 1939 and 1945: the 1947 census even had a special category of ‘devastated woods’ for those from which all useful timber had been removed (HMSO, 1952). Moreover, many broadleaved woods had not been in a very productive state even before the War: they were often former coppices (with or without standards) which had been abandoned because the markets had shifted towards mainly high forest grown timber and to softwoods rather than hardwoods.

Devastated woodland image from the 1947 census report (HMSO 1952); long-neglected coppice with standards of no particular production value.

The 1949 management plan for Wytham (Anon, 1950) recognised restrictions on how the woods might be re-organised including that the ‘amenities and natural beauties of the woods are to be maintained’ (hence certain defined areas would be managed separately, for example as biological reserves); and ‘that the woods are not to be regarded primarily as a financial asset’. The objectives were to ‘improve, maintain and utilise the existing woodlands ….in accordance with the practice of good forestry’ through two approaches: developing an irregular mixed broadleaved high forest over about 260 ha, with 34 ha of coppice for which there was still to be a small local market (although this had disappeared by 1960). Conifers were to be used primarily in mixtures as nurses for the broadleaved final crop, being removed over a 50 yr period. A combination of planting (in the larger open areas) and natural regeneration was to be used, although natural regeneration would depend on the shooting tenant being able to ‘destroy effectively all rabbits in the woodland’.

Small-scale planting patterns on Radbrook Common; a view of the plantations in 1958

Initially there does not seem much concern about these plans from the ecologists such as David Lack and Charles Elton who were starting to work in the woods (Kirby, 2016). A draft Wildlife Policy for the Woods was drawn up by Elton in 1946 and discussed at the Advisory Committee noted that forest operations offer ‘numerous chances of conducting biological operations and experiments on vegetation and other wildlife’ . Elton records that in April 1953 primroses ‘are multiplying wherever there has been thinning or other opening’; in December 1957 that the young plantations  were attracting wintering red-polls and that ‘the whole of this complex and varied mosaic of plantings on Radbrook Common would begin to repay a survey now’ (Elton, 1942-1965).

The possible dovetailing of production and research interests implied by the above never really materialised. The ecologists were not that concerned about the management of the new plantations on the mainly open ground and had control of the management (largely minimum intervention) of the Biological Reserves (about 40 ha). However the areas in-between, physically and philosophically, a mixture of old coppice, mature 19th century broadleaved stands, old trees on former common land now surrounded by young ash and sycamore became a source of dispute. The Forestry Department planned to work through them, clearing out the older, poor quality growth and replacing them with younger productive stands in line with national policies to increase home-grown timber, such as their students would be expected to help implement elsewhere in Britain. There was discussion as to whether the area managed for production might be reduced but in the end the forestry Professor Laurie would not accept that compromise. The University decided in favour of the ecologists and the Forestry Department withdrew more-or-less completely from involvement in the management of the woods (Kirby, 2016).

The plantations established in the 1950s were still there and in recent decades have been thinned out; in addition, as Grayson and Jones (1955) record, more of the mature broadleaved stands originated as 19th century broadleaved plantations than many ecologists perhaps appreciated. However there have been few ecological studies at Wytham that have compared the plantations (of whichever era) with the more semi-natural parts of the woodland to assess what effects management has had on woodland biodiversity and how management for production might be improved from a conservation perspective.

Some beech and oak plantations from the 1950s as they are today.

So, to my counter-factual scenario: where would we be if foresters and ecologists at Oxford had managed to work out a compromise in Wytham in the 1960s? According to the 1949 plan the even-aged plantations would be well on the way to being converted to mixed age, irregularly structured stands and virtually all the conifers would have gone. Given Elton’s interest in open space in woodland and vegetation structure, might we have seen research-based guidance on ride and glade management for working forests emerge in the 1960s; would he have been better able to get foresters to appreciate the importance of dead wood and how it might be maintained and increased in production stands? Would we now have long-term studies from Wytham of how long it takes for different groups of plants and animals to move into plantations of different origins and whether this is quicker or slower than in naturally-regenerated stands? As it was these issues did not really start to get addressed until the mid-1970s or later, and research in Wytham has contributed very little to those developments.

Structured ride edges and retaining some dead wood are now common elements of broadleaved production forestry.

I think this ‘missed opportunity’ is relevant today because it reflects some attitudes in national and local meetings where effective wood production is seen as largely incompatible with rich ecological communities; and sometimes even calling yourself a forester (as I am privileged to do) feels a bit like being the ‘spawn of Satan’. Yet most of our native woodland, including that at Wytham, has a long history of management, and, as Elton recognised, many species benefit from that management. We depend for about 80% our timber and other wood-products on forests managed by foresters, mostly overseas. We should be aiming to reduce that outsourced environmental footprint by increasing home production, albeit in a more sustainable way than in the past. That can only be achieved if more ecologists and foresters work in the middle ground where production and conservation have equal status.

ANON 1950. Working plan for 1949/50-1959/60 for the Woods of Hazel, Wytham, Berkshire, Oxford, Unpublished MS.

ELTON, C. S. 1942-1965. Elton Archive: notes on the Wytham Area 1942-1965 [Online]. Available: http://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:89c5e479-6003-45ba-bd78-8a8a12858bf1 [Accessed].

GRAYSON, A. J. & JONES, E. W. 1955. Notes on the history of the Wytham Estate with special reference to the woodlands, Oxford, Imperial Forestry Institute.

HMSO 1952. Census of woodlands 1947-1949, London, HMSO.

KIRBY, K. J. 2016. The transition of Wytham Woods from a working estate to unique research site (1943–1965). Landscape History, 37, 79-92.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s