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Woodland Ecosystems in the UK

Woodland in the UK now covers around 2.8 million hectares representing nearly 12% of the UK land area. Many different woodland ecosystems exist although the greatest land cover is still represented by coniferous forest at around 60% of the total. This article describes the most common woodland ecosystems.

natural broadleaved woodland Broadleaved woodland
Natural broadleaved woodland consisting of ash, beech, field maple and hazel. The ground flora consisting of dogs mercury and wild garlic are indicative that this is ancient woodland. Natural broadleaved woodland is now most common in the south of the UK in counties like Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex where high levels of woodland cover remain. These counties have around 19% overall woodland cover - 42% of this being ancient woodland.

broadleaved plantation woodland

A thinned broadleaved plantation of beech about 50 years old. Broadleaved plantations are usually thinned on a regular basis before the mature trees are harvested between 60 and 150 years - fast growing trees like wild cherry are typically harvested first with oak as much as a century later. After final harvest the woodland is replanted. Plantation woodlands are a development of the late 19th and 20th Centuries and have little in common with traditional woodland management that has existed for centuries.

natural mixed woodland Mixed woodland
Natural mixed woodland in the UK is quite rare simply because there are few native conifers (yew and scots pine) and their distribution is now very limited. The image illustrates mixed ash, beech, whitebeam and yew woodland.

mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland Mixed plantation woodland is common throughout much of the UK. Typically a deciduous timber tree like ash will be grown amongst a faster growing spruce or pine crop. Elsewhere it is possible to find coniferous forest trees that have been planted amongst natural broadleaved woodland. The practice which was common in the 1950s and 60s is now being reversed as it is recognised as environmentally damaging.

natural coniferous woodland Coniferous woodland
Natural coniferous woodland in the UK is now a rare habitat. Only a few remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest that covered large parts of the Highlands with scots pine now remain. Further south, small areas of yew woodland are all that remain.

plantation coniferous woodland Plantation coniferous woodland is widespread in the UK. In the East where the climate is drier, trees like Corsican Pine will dominate. In the West where the climate is much wetter, the unfairly maligned sitka spruce dominates. There are now about 1.6 million hectares of coniferous woodland in the UK representing around 6% of land area.

coppiced sweet chestnut Coppice
Pure broadleaved coppice used to be widespread but is now a comparatively rare ecosystem. In the main the tree species found are sweet chestnut, hazel and willow. The image illustrates sweet chestnut that is coppiced on a 10 year rotation where the cut material is chipped and used as fuel source in a wood burning boiler.

coppice with standards Coppice with standards
This is much more common than pure coppice and in some areas is the dominant natural woodland. Coppice with standards is a management system that grows a mix of coppice interspersed with timber trees that are felled at 70 - 100 years. Felled trees are replaced, either through selection of a nearby sapling or by replanting. The system is now neglected and most standards are allowed to grow too old, as in this image.

Short rotation coppice Short rotation coppice
Short rotation coppice is the practice of growing small sized timber for energy use on a 3 or 4 year rotation. The most successful trees for this purpose are very fast growing cultivars of willow although poplar is also used. Short rotation coppice (SRC) is mechanically harvested and in most respects more like an arable crop than a woodland system. The area grown is still small but we anticipate significant growth in the coming years.

agroforestry system Agroforestry
There is very little agroforestry in the UK although in other countries like New Zealand it is more widely practiced. In this example grazing grass, hazel and poplars are all grown together. In theory each part of the system provides some benefits to the others allowing the tree systems to be grown without much loss to the grass or arable crop. Trees spacings are typically 5 - 15 metres apart.

widely spaced poplar plantation Poplar plantations
Poplar is almost always grown in pure stands. After thinning the trees will be spaced at 8 metre centres and harvest will occur at about 25 years. Although poplar is a broadleaved tree, the timber resembles the properties of coniferous softwood. Typically it is used as a basic construction timber.

recently pruned cherry trees that are are being grown for premium timber Premium timber woodland
Some species of tree lend themselves to be grown for butts of prime quality timber that will be mostly used in the veneer trade. These butts rarely result by accident and pruning of young trees will be essential. Typically tree choice involves either wild cherry or walnut although holly, laburnum and yew are also grown.

Statistics for Woodland

Broadleaved - area UK
(000 hectares)
1131 1131 1143 1155 1165 1178 1187 1197 1207 1213 1220
Coniferous - area UK
(000 hectares)
1663 1660 1658 1652 1651 1647 1642 1640 1635 1628 1625