Spring in the woods

Wood anemone
Wood anemone
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Many of our region’s woods are called ‘springs’ or even ‘sprynges’ or ‘springwoods’. Think for example of Parkwood Springs, Ladies Spring, Newfield Spring, Nether Spring, and many others. This is nothing to do with the time or year, or even with water ‘springing’ from the bedrock. Rather, these are woods, which were cut back to their base or a ‘stool’ and ‘sprang’ back as a cut-and-come-again crop of wood or poles. These were coppices and provided a sustainable production of wood for things such as fuelwood, for charcoal and locally whitecoal, and for small building works. Importantly, this was not timber, which is the big stuff from tree trunks. Most coppices were harvested on a cyclical process with cutting periodically, often every 10 to 25 years, depending on the product and on the site conditions. This management of the woods produced alternating periods of light and dark shade at the ground floor, which in the lighter times encouraged a rich vegetation of woodland wildflowers. Most of our coppices were abandoned from the mid-1800s onwards, mirroring a trend countrywide.

Following abandonment, some woods were simply not managed a lot, were grubbed up and the land turned to other uses. The remaining woodlands, for example Ecclesall Woods, were converted piecemeal to what is called ‘high forestry’, mostly with exotic tree species including conifers like larch, Scots pine, and broadleaved species like beech and sycamore, with local natives such as ash, oak and elm. This system was intended to produce a harvest of tall, straight timber trees, and was imported as a style from continental Europe. Modern forestry, nothing to do with the medieval forest, was invented as a growing and harvesting system of sylviculture in Germany and in France. The ancient forests did not always imply or involve trees, but a legal system to provide hunting lands for the Crown. (If you want to know about the medieval Forest and in particular, the Forest Laws, try reading my recent book on Sherwood Forest & the Dukeries published by Amberley and available from all good booksellers!).

In Sheffield, we have long embraced a naturalistic system of woodland management known as natural regeneration. This is as opposed to forestry replanting which in many ways converts a semi-natural ‘wood’ into a plantation. Indeed, while replanting can have its uses in woodland creation and management, the system and the trees are essentially artificial imports, essentially a system of glorified gardening on a big scale. If you walk through our woods with an experienced forester, they will often be able to point out the trees, which were genuinely native and those native species, which were imported from European nurseries in the 1700s and 1800s. The differences remain today and the local stock is genetically distinct from the imports.

n Sightings: At this time of year, watch out for interesting birds moving through the region, for example a kittiwake seen around Orgreave Lakes. A remarkably early migrant is a lesser whitethroat seen in an urban garden since January. It apparently loves mealworms and aggressively protects its food against tits and blackcaps. Thirty or more lesser redpoll were observed around Canklow Woods, and at Sothall, six waxwings have been present on Collingbourne Avenue since January.