Woodlands are dominated by tree cover, with a diverse range of animals and plants, some of which rely entirely on this as a habitat. Irish woodlands are characterised by trees like oak, ash, hazel, holly etc and contain plants include bluebells, bugle, primroses, wood anemone and wood avens; animals include pygmy shrews, red squirrels, badgers, bats, pine martens and many insect species.
At only 11% of the land, Ireland currently has one of the lowest tree covers in Europe. Most Irish ‘forests’ are in fact non-native plantations; only 6% is considered to be semi-natural. These fragments of native woodlands are the most valuable for biodiversity as they host plants and animals adapted to rely on them. As such, it is vital to protect and improve the biodiversity value of our native woodlands wherever they occur.
What’s there already?
The first step in improving the value of any farm habitat is to understand what’s currently living there. Understanding what animals and plants are living in your woodland will help you to tailor your actions to best suit its wildlife. This is especially important for noting any rare or protected species that are living in or visiting the woodland as they may require specific actions such as the red squirrel, pine marten, Kerry slug and lesser horseshoe bat. As such, understanding what areas are being used by different species is an important first step in maintaining your woodland. A healthy woodland will have a variety of habitats to suit its varied inhabitants.
Keep areas of dead wood: either standing or fallen trees
- Standing dead wood is an important nesting site for hole-nesting birds.
- Dead wood in semi-shaded conditions is good for fungi and invertebrates.
Have a variety of tree ages
- Having trees of different ages gives the woodland a structure and allows natural regeneration over time.
- Coppicing* can be used to thin dense areas of similarly aged trees and allow light to reach the smaller plants on the ground.
- When planting new trees, ensure you use native species preferably from local stock.
- Where possible, allow the woodland to regenerate naturally.
- Coppicing is a type of woodland management where areas of suitable woodland are cut down to nearly ground level. This allows the trees to regrow without replanting. This allows sections of woodland to be cut for stakes, walking sticks, use in thatching hurdles each year on a long rotation while allowing coppiced areas to regrow.
Keep wet areas and natural features
- A mix of sunny, shaded and sheltered streams benefits wildlife. Wet areas and ponds are also great for insects. Temporary pools can be used by frogs and insects.
- Do not remove natural debris such as fallen logs as these are important wildlife spots.
Woodland structure is important for wildlife
- Having a diverse range of structures including glades, buffer zones along rides (pathways) and woodland edges, ground vegetation, shrubs, and the tree canopy encourages a wider range of wildlife.
- Considering adding these areas into new and existing woodlands where possible.
Maintaining open areas
- Low intensity grazing can maintain open areas such as glades provided newly planted trees / shrubs are protected by fencing or thorny-scrub – mimics parkland grazing. (Fencing may be temporary, e.g. length of fence-life – perhaps 15 years.)
- However, long-term grazing of unprotected seedlings / saplings can affect woodland structure and prevent natural regeneration.
- Deer fencing may be needed to allow the woodland to regenerate without grazing pressure.
Connect your woodland to other habitats
- As with any habitat, connectivity is important. It is harder for wildlife to move through fragmented habitats so try and avoid isolating different sections of the woodland from the rest.
- Try and link your woodland to other wildlife areas such as hedgerows, ponds and wet grassland using buffer strips. If planning a new woodland, consider how to connect it to existing habitats ahead of planting.
Managing woodland rides
- Rides are tracks through the woodland for people and machinery provide opportunities to vary the width, shade and cutting regime of woodland to favour varied biodiversity
- Cut the plants along the rides in small segments on a rotational basis as needed.
- You can create a variety of habitats by cutting the grassy verges of the track or buffer zone every 1-3 years, about 25% of the small shrubs every year on a rotation, and then coppicing* the larger shrubs and small trees at the woodland edge on a piecemeal rotation every 8-20 years.
- To avoid negative effects on invertebrates. coppicing* and mowing should be done in autumn or winter.
Managing buffer zones
- The buffer zone between the edge of your woodland and the other habitats is an important area for wildlife.
- Allowing a 6m buffer of vegetation to grow along the edge of your woodland improves its value for wildlife. This area creates a gradual change from woodland plants at the edge to small trees and shrubs giving way to grassland; it will be easier for wildlife to move between the different areas. Edge grassland can be rotationally cut in a similar method to the woodland rides explained above.
Create and protecting homes for wildlife
- Bats and birds may roost and nest in your woodland, particularly in old or hollow trees.
- Protecting such areas from destruction or disturbance will benefit wildlife.
- Adding new bat and bird boxes can encourage more of these species into your woodland.
- Bat boxes should be placed at least 4m high in sunny, sheltered locations away from artificial lights. Place in a location where there is at least 1m radius of free space around the box to allow the bats an easy flight path.
- Bird boxes should be at least 2.5m high in sheltered, sunny positions away from other nest boxes or bird feeders.
- Detailed advice on installing bat and bird boxes can be found at the below links.
- The Woodland Improvement Scheme – A government forestry programme with a broad range of options to support native woodlands and a new continuous cover forestry scheme: see here.
- For general information on other woodland grants go here.
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