Visitors to the Wood will have noticed that most of the trees behind Abbey Park and Bluebell Drive have recently been felled.
In the short term this has converted the beautiful woodland we know and love (Photo 1) into an area of apparent desolation (Photo 2).
"Is this not an act of sacrilege?" you may ask.
Well - No. It is an example of a traditional form of woodland management known as "coppicing", which has the effect of both producing a timber crop and enhancing the floristic diversity of the woodland.
Part of the woodland prior to coppicing
Coppicing refers to clearing an area of woodland by felling the mature trees and allowing them to resprout from ground level. In this way the woodland regenerates itself over time without need for replanting. Often, as in Omers Gully, occasional trees are left unfelled. These are known as "standards", and the resulting vegetation as "coppice with standards" (Photo 2).
Part of the woodland now: coppice with standards.
Photo by Royce Longton.
Typically several main stems develop from each felled individual so that, as they mature, the new trees tend to comprise several trunks arising from a common stool. Many of the felled trees in Omers Gully were of this form, as are many of those surviving in the untouched area behind Hunters Hill and Southwood Gardens (Photo 3). They provide evidence of former coppicing in the area.
A single previously coppiced ash tree.
Photo by Royce Longton.
Indeed coppicing was formerly one of the most widespread forms of woodland management in southern England. Cutting typically took place once every ten to twelve years, yielding timber of value for fencing and similar uses, but the practice has declined over the years and has not been carried out in Omers Gully for many decades.
A Boost to the Woodland Flora?
It is generally accepted that coppicing has a strongly beneficial effect on the woodland flora.
Oliver Rackham, in his book The History of the Countryside (Dent, 1986) wrote "The magnificent and spectacular plant communities, the displays of primroses, oxlips, and anemones, are in part the product of coppicing. Most woods have had years of light followed by year of shade, going back in cycles beyond the memory of records.
Their plants, on the whole, do not like continuous shade. Primroses and other spring flowers flourish in the years of light (Photo 4); they also require years of shade to suppress the tall grasses and other non-woodland plants which would overwhelm them outside woods.
Primroses and Celandines are among the flowers that can be expected
to flourish as a result of the coppicing.
Photo by Caroline Booth (30 April 2005)
So we can expect to see an even greater abundance of flowers such as primroses, anemones and bluebells that already thrive in the Wood. Other plants may appear that have survived the recent years of shade only as seeds in the woodland floor: red Campion is a strong possibility. However, Rackham also notes that "Coppicing plants are gloriously unpredictable, and each wood has its own specialities", so it will be exciting to monitor the changes in Omers Gully Wood over the next few years.
The present coppicing operation (Photo 5) has been carried out by the Englefield Estate in the part of the wood within its ownership. Felling is now complete, but it will be necessary to fence the cleared area for about three years in order to prevent the tender young regrowth of the trees being eaten by deer. It is planned to install a kissing gate at each end to provide access to walkers and their dogs.
Coppicing in progress