Ecosystems: Bringing our woods back into balance

Ecosystems are out of balance and bringing pine martens back into our woods is just one way we can realign that natural balance.

Pine martens were extinct in the Wye Valley, but thanks to a partnership led reintroduction programme they are back living and breeding and playing their role in woodland ecosystems once more and helping us bring our woodlands back to balance.

The Wye Valley and Forest of Dean is one of the most wooded areas in England with precious areas of irreplaceable ancient semi-natural woodland. The Woodland Trust is managing our woods within this complex specifically to bring back stable ecosystems that supports a variety of woodland plants and animals.

Wye Valley

Wye Valley

What is ancient woodland?

Most ancient semi-natural woodland has been used by humans, often for timber but they have had woodland cover for at least 400 years and some for at least thousands of years. As a result, they are a unique and complex communities of animals, plants, fungi, insects, and other microorganisms forming an ecosystem. But if an element is removed the ecosystem is thrown out of balance.

Why is it out of balance?

Our woods evolved alongside centuries of sympathetic human activity such as coppicing for charcoal production and timber production. Wild cattle and horses roamed through them too. All of which created a mosaic of scrub, glades, grasslands mixed with trees would have occurred rather than the distinct juxtaposed difference between dense woodland and fields we see today.

Areas of ancient woodland have, in more recent years, been felled and replanted with non-native trees as a crop. These species are often fast growing and out compete our native trees; the unique ecosystem is removed. We have lost many of our ancient trees (ones that have been around for centuries) and their predecessors. These ancient trees provide many diverse types of habitats including homes for birds, bats, many insects, and pine martens.

Ancient tree - Claire Miller

Ancient tree - Claire Miller

What are we doing to bring our woodlands back into balance?

Firstly, we are removing non-native trees. This must be done gradually to protect the soils and balance the light conditions to give the ancient woodland species the chance to thrive.

We are protecting our ancient trees. These have lots of different micro habitats, including dead wood, and hollow cavities which used by a range of creatures including the pine marten. We are protecting our veteran (future ancient) trees by removing non-native species from around them. Again, this must be done gradually to allow the trees to adapt to changing conditions in order to thrive. It is vital that there are different age trees as certain species live in trees of a certain age. For example, the Cosnards Net Winged Beetle lives in ancient beech trees and will need to find another home when its existing habitat starts to die.

We are leaving trees to decay naturally. Deadwood is an important habitat with a whole suite of fungi, beetles, flies, and other species relying on decaying wood.

We are supporting wildlife including reintroductions where appropriate. Pine martens became extinct in many areas of England because of woodland clearance, demand for their pelts and predator control by Victorian gamekeepers. We are supporting a pine marten reintroduction project led by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Forestry England, Forest Research, and Vincent Wildlife Trust and supported by the Woodland Trust and Forest Holidays.

Pine marten - Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Pine marten - Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Why pine martens?

Pine martens sit at the top of the food chain, as opportunists they eat what is plentiful including small mammals, and fruiting trees such as rowan, cherry, and hazel. They will eat birds and their eggs but mostly what is common and that includes jays, magpies, and other corvids which themselves predate on songbirds. They, along with all species in the food chain are vital for a healthy, balanced ecosystem.

There is growing evidence that grey squirrels may be displaced where pine martens venture. Grey squirrels have an impact on the ecosystem balance, by selectively stripping bark which can kill trees or prevent them from reaching full potential as well as out-competing and removing red squirrels from much of England. We are supporting Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to research the impact on squirrel damage as part of the pine marten reintroduction.

Following extensive ecological and social feasibility studies, 18 pine martens were translocated to Gloucestershire in the autumn of 2019. These animals were tracked for around one year following their release using radio collars, and continue to be monitored now using camera traps and scat surveys. In spring 2020, the project team confirmed that some of the reintroduced martens had given birth to kits. These kits are now fully grown and carving out territories of their own. Many of the animals have taken up residence in the Forest of Dean and look set to stay, while others have wandered into neighbouring counties, a promising sign for the expansion of the future population.

The team at GWT will continue monitoring this pine marten population as it expands, training up local volunteers to help with surveys now and into the future. This work also includes squirrel monitoring to shed more light on the complex relationship pine martens appear to have with the invasive grey squirrel and the tree damage they cause.

Pine Marten Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Pine Marten Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Our ancient woods provide irreplaceable and valuable habitats. We need to protect and care for them. In the Wye Valley the Woodland Trust cares for and manages several woods. Two examples of these are Little Doward Wood and Cadora Wood. Why not visit these beauty woodland habitats and enjoy seeing nature up close, though you are unlikely to meet a pine marten, you may find its poo A.K.A scat.