Image for The plan to revive the UK’s ancient woods (and seven species that live in them)

The plan to revive the UK’s ancient woods (and seven species that live in them)

Ancient woodlands like Fingle Woods in Devon have provided sanctuary to rare species for some 400 years. With help, there’s plenty of life in these old woods yet

Ancient woodlands like Fingle Woods in Devon have provided sanctuary to rare species for some 400 years. With help, there’s plenty of life in these old woods yet

We underestimate the elderly at our peril. They may look gnarly and a little unkempt, but Britain’s ancient woodlands are our richest terrestrial habitat, home to more threatened species than any other. They’re also vital in tackling the climate crisis – storing an estimated 77m tonnes of carbon.

Now more than ever is the time for us to get our boots on and get to know, love and protect these beautiful habitats. We’ve lost more than half of our ancient woodlands since the Industrial Revolution, and the ones that remain are weather-beaten, worn and in need of some support. This is why the Woodland Trust is on a mission to revive more than 34,000 hectares of damaged woodlands back to their former glory. Working with donors and members of the public, the UK’s biggest woodland conservation charity is planting millions of trees and reviving these damaged but magical environments.

Plans are already under way at Fingle Woods in Dartmoor’s Teign Valley, south-west England. The Woodland Trust and National Trust worked together and bought the site – a mixture of ancient, broadleaf and upland wood habitats – in 2014, and have been restoring it ever since.

Habitats like Fingle Woods in Devon are sanctuaries for rare species. Image: Nilfanion

At first, the woodland was dark and overcrowded. Many of the native broadleaves had been felled in the early 20th century, replanted with conifers to meet demand for timber. These giants cloaked precious oaks and beeches in shadow and caused surrounding fora and fauna to decline.

By carefully clearing the interlopers, the Woodland Trust team has restored light and life. Sleepy old oaks now sprout fresh shoots, while wildflowers including daffodils, primroses and foxgloves carpet the forest floor. Standing among these living monuments today, you might hear the rap of a lesser spotted woodpecker or spot the marigold flash of an orange-tip butterfly. Here are seven species that are flourishing at Fingle Woods, thanks to the work of the Woodland Trust.

1. Common beech (Fagus sylvatica)

With its impressive domed crown, the majestic beech is often considered the queen of British trees. In woodlands where they thrive, so too do rare wildflowers like orchids, including red helleborines, alongside several species of butterfly.


2. Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

One of the UK’s fastest-declining bird species, you’ll have a better chance of hearing one of these secretive creatures than seeing one. Around the size of sparrows, they rely on old trees for survival – drumming at the wood with their powerful beaks in order to find insects.

Image: Yuriy Balagula/iStock

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3. Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Cuckoo’s boots, granfer griggles, witches’ thimbles – bluebells go by many names. But the arrival of these bell-shaped blooms in May remains delightfully consistent. Not to be confused with their Spanish cousins, the daintier native variety is associated with ancient woodland.

Image: Michael Maggs

4. Fallow dear (Dama dama)

Introduced by the Normans a thousand years ago, these white-speckled deer thrive in woodlands such as Fingle. Though common, they are shy. So, for the best chance of spotting them, visit during dusk and dawn when they are most active.

Image: Heather Smithers

5. Lungwort lichens (Lobaria spp.)

Once used for respiratory ailments (hence the ‘lungwort’ part of their name), these overlooked lichens tell us a lot about the quality of the air as they only thrive in spots with low pollution levels. In the UK, they’re only found in the far west.

Image: Bernd Haynold

6. Violet click beetle (Limoniscus violaceus)

Found at just a handful of locations across the UK, this extremely rare beetle lives mostly in ancient ash and beech trees. Though present at Fingle Woods, they are notoriously tricky to spot. 4he best time to try is between February and May.

Image: Lamiot

7. Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

These early spring blooms are ‘ancient woodland indicators’, meaning their presence could be a sign that you’re standing in a special habitat. Easily identified by their pretty white petals, you can spot them on the forest floor at Fingle Woods between March and May.

Image: Lilly M
Main image: Yuriy Balagula/iStock

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