Late last week TNG and I took time out to go in search of bluebells. We are lucky enough to live very close to the Lower Woods Nature Reserve – known locally as Wickwar Woods. Managed by a combination of the Gloucestershire and Avon Willdlife Trusts – and backed by numerous volunteers – this is one of England’s largest oak-ash woods. The Reserve is over two miles long, and has been managed woodland for hundreds of years. Because it has been continuously wooded since prehistoric times it is far richer in wildlife than those more recently wooded, and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
There are actually 23 separate woods and coppices in the reserve, separated by grassy trenches and rides like the one above, Horton Great Trench. This wide grassy ride has probably been in existence since pre Roman times, and was once the main route from Wotton-under-Edge to Bristol. Others are more recent, only dating back to C17. “The Walk” was created to provide a view from the Lodge house to Wickwar Parish Church!
Most of the individual woods and coppices are separated from the trenches by woodbanks. The woods were managed as coppice-with-standards. Mature oak standards were grown for large timber while hazel, field maple and ash were coppiced (cut down to ground level) on an eighteen year cycle. When a wood was coppiced the banks were topped with dead hedging to protect the regrowth from grazing animals for 9 years. Then the wood was opened up for 9 years before coppicing again. The result was a wonderful habitat for wildflowers, butterflies, dormice and birds. A combination of local woodsmen, trust staff and volunteers continue to manage around 14% of the woods in the traditional manner, selling charcoal, hurdles, hazel poles etc. and more recently, removing non-native and invasive Poplar (planted for timber in the late C20) to allow oak standards to flourish and the wildlife to return. The Spring growth makes the structure of the banks hard to see at the moment, but the photograph above, taken at the beginning of March, shows it quite well.
The result of this management is a rich and varied environment, from oak woods like the one above, Lower Wetmoor, to coppiced clearings like the one below.
It’s a magical place, full of wildflowers. We saw Cuckoo Flower or Ladies Smock…
…Common Dog Violet…
… wood anenome (no fussy doubles here!)…
Don’t be fooled – I had to look a lot of these up when I got back! I was particularly excited to see orchids – albeit the common Orchid mascula:
Not everything was pretty though, I find Lords and Ladies a rather sinister – and rude – plant, with obvious aggressive tendencies where dead foliage is concerned!
The woods are normally extremely wet – they are based on heavy clay, and the drainage problem is probably one of the reasons the woods have remained fairly intact down the centuries, clearing the land for farming or building has never made sense. One of the reasons for this dampness is that the Little Avon River runs through the reserve, creating yet another different habitat.
Aside from the magical quality of water running through woodland – and a perfect bridge for Poohsticks (I lost 2-1) – there are carpets of Wild Garlic down here, filling the air with fragrance, and providing a welcome pep to our lunchtime salad later.
Down near the Poohsticks bridge is an abandoned hurdle-making shed, beautifully made from hazel poles and woven branches.
Wonderful though it was to have seen so many wildflowers, and to have wandered through so many different kinds of wood, we were in search of one plant in particular – the Bristish Bluebell:
Heading through “The Grubbings” into Littley Wood, we were not disappointed. Bluebells everywhere, filling the air with scent.
Drifts of blue, sometimes seeming purple in the dappled light.
I loved seeing all the wildflowers, wandering through so many different types of woodland, spotting my first Orange Tip butterfly, but the sight of carpets of bluebells stretching out under the trees for as far as we could see is something that will live on in my memory for many years.
Gluttons for punishment – or bluebells – can see more images in the gallery below. More pictures from the Reserve are on the photo page.
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