The vibrancy of wildlife in active woodlands

Nigel Lowthrop is a biologist with 40 years’ experience of research, countryside management and conservation. Alongside his wife Karen, he founded Hill Holt Wood, an internationally renowned environmental social enterprise, and partners on Making Local Woods Work. Nigel also delivers specialist advice as part of the project. In light of the recent report into British wildlife, we asked him whether there was potential for thriving wildlife in working woodlands. His answer? A resounding ‘yes’…


Back in 1995 we arrived at Hill Holt Wood as the new owners and settled down in a small clearing in the Rhodendron ponticum to enjoy a celebration picnic. My wife, Karen, observed a significant issue: the lack of bird song. The only sound was the traffic on the A46.

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As a nature reserve warden, I had been in the middle of a major agricultural ‘improvement’ when farming practice in the White Peak moved from hay making to the production of silage, leading to the loss of a grassland ecosystem. As I type this an item on the news announces that a number of conservation organisations blame intensive agriculture for the largest loss of British wildlife in 45 years.

Human activity does not have to be negative, and today – in fact, as I write this – I can sit in my glazed office looking out at a kingfisher sitting on the back of a chair just a few metres away. The sound of the birdsong even penetrates the triple glazed windows, and living so close to nature I regularly see behaviours that are new to me: grass snakes living in burrows in a sand bank on the northern side of the lake; a moorhen climbing my apple tree to feast on the apples, and a sparrow hawk sitting on the garden table crossbar waiting for breakfast to fly by.

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As I travel around I usually discover woodland with similarities to Hill Holt when we arrived, rather than the vibrant ecology of today. Very often there is resistance to human action in woodland (which can be positive) alongside an acceptance of farming practices that so obviously are having a negative impact on wildlife.

My view is that virtually no woodlands in Britain could be described as ‘natural’ and many, possibly the majority, owe their existence to human intervention. Removal of that human intervention has been invariably negative and community woodlands have a huge opportunity to bring back positive management.

Nature will in turn return innumerable benefits to individuals and society when we play a positive role in managing woodland. Enjoy your woods.

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