In the 1920s much of the hill land in Durham and Northumberland consisted of vast tracts of moorland managed as grouse moor and sheep farms.
Very few remnants of the native woodland cover remained except in some stream sides, (cleughs), where willow, alder, birch, hawthorn and a few oak and ash lingered on.
A handful of larger areas of ancient woodland existed such as those at Holystone in the Coquet valley. These areas probably survived because they were managed and used by the local population. A few gnarled pines remain to this day at Williams Cleugh in the upper North Tyne, giving rise to speculation that at one time, Scots pine was the native tree on higher ground.
The brief of the early foresters was to grow a strategic reserve of timber and this was achieved very effectively with large areas of coniferous forest, mostly spruce, planted on the moorlands between the 1930s and the 1960s. At a time when conservation was of lower priority than today, the forests of the north east became vast even-aged blankets of conifers with little open space and limited diversity.
After 50 years much of the original plantings is ready for harvesting (currently some 1000 hectares are felled each year) and, with the modern day emphasis on conservation, public access and recreation and with the need to take full account of the environmental impacts of forestry, woodlands today are being managed with multi purpose objectives. Today, not only is the forest managed for timber production: a high priority is also placed on other aspects most notably design recreation and conservation.
Creating habitat diversity
The keynote to managing the forest both for timber production and wildlife conservation is to create maximum habitat diversity. The forest is being restructured into a mosaic of uneven aged areas where the aim is to ensure a significant age gap between adjacent crops.
Each stage in the developing forest - bare ground, young plantations and mature crops - then provides a different habitat which will, in turn, favour different wildlife species.
Clear felled land is quickly recolonised by plant communities and is rich in invertebrates. Small mammals like the short-tailed field vole reach high numbers in these conditions and provide food for raptors like kestrels and tawny owls.
As the trees grow towards thicket stage they provide song posts for birds like whinchats and warblers while the shelter and grass provide optimal conditions for roe – the only species of deer found in Kielder.
In mature stands, life is somewhat limited on the forest floor although many fungi like the damp shaded conditions. However in good seed years the tree tops are alive with seed eating birds like crossbills and siskins. In turn, these small birds provide food for forest nesting birds like sparrow hawks. The native red squirrel also thrives on conifer seed.
In an even-aged forest, species change and disappear as the forest grows from young seedlings to maturity. In today’s diverse, restructured forest, the variety of different niches ensures a place for all species throughout the forest.
Watercourses wetlands and open spaces
There are some 600 kilometres (370 miles) of stream sides in the north-east side of the district, often with ground which is more sheltered and sometimes better drained than the surrounding land, making this an ideal location for planting broadleaves.
Native broadleaves, similar to existing natural remnants, are established in small scattered groups, the aim being to diversify species, density and structure. The open stream sides are home to birds like the dipper and grey wagtail. Dippers feed on aquatic insects and, as much of the underlying geology is carboniferous sandstone, the water pH is quite high, ensuring a healthy aquatic fauna.
By keeping conifer planting away from stream sides, the flushing into streams by heavy rain of acidic, air-borne pollution trapped by tree foliage, is minimised. All drains are stopped well back from watercourses to avoid silt entering the streams.
When opportunities arise ponds are created. Pond edges are quickly colonised by water plants such as pond weed, spearwort , flag iris and bottle sedge, while the insect life can be rich - up to eight species of dragonfly have been identified on certain ponds. Mallard and teal are attracted to these habitats, and snipe frequent the wet margins.
Open space, deliberately created along watercourses and within restocked areas, is recolonised by residual flowers. Such plant communities are diverse, varying from damp, herb rich communities with meadow sweet, water avens, valerian and marsh thistle, to acid grassland dominated by purple moor grass. On sunny days butterflies such as orange tip and green vein whites fly in the open glades.
In time these watercourse conservation “corridors” and open spaces will constitute some 20% of the total forest area.
Species conservation measures
While many wildlife species benefit from the increasingly diverse forest conditions, some species attract attention because of their rarity or for scientific studies.
More than 200 tawny owl boxes are in use, providing not only nest sites but also the opportunity for detailed studies on this species which is successful in upland spruce forests.
The Goshawk is now well established, and, as it favours larger trees for nesting, nests are surveyed each year and careful harvesting planned to ensure that such sites are not disturbed.
While bird populations are well monitored and documented, there is much to be learned about the bat population. Bat boxes erected in strategic locations are monitored annually to give data on species such as Pipistrelle and Noctule, while watercourse surveys are used for Daubenton's bats. Seven species of bat are found in Kielder, of the 16 found nationally.
Amongst the mammals, red squirrels and otters receive special attention, both are species listed as requiring priority attention in the UK biodiversity action plan.
Red squirrels are very scarce in England due to competition from the American grey. The large forest areas in the north of the forest district such as Kielder and Kidland will hopefully provide a safe haven for reds in the face of the advance of grey squirrels. Otters are widespread in Northumberland and Durham.
The opening up of watercourses, as part of the restructuring process, should help provide better conditions for otters, and surveys have shown a steady increase in otter numbers for several years.
There are 15 Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Forestry Commission land, in North East England, covering some 7000 hectares. This represents around 3.4% of the total SSSI area in England. These SSSIs represent a range of habitats including ancient woodland, haymeadows, moorland and wetlands.
Two habitats of national importance are blanket mires and upland oakwoods, both of which are listed as requiring priority treatment as part of the UK biodiversity action plan process.
Two blanket mire areas, which are managed in partnership with other agencies such as Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Northumberland National Park, are Kielderhead Moor National Nature Reserve and the Border Mires. These areas have been given additional protection by being designated as Special Areas of Conservation, (SACs), an EU designation, and some of the mires are covered by the RAMSAR convention on wetland habitats.
Kielderhead Moor is a very large area of unspoilt moorland, 4300 hectares in extent straddling the English/Scottish Border. It supports a small population of wading birds like golden plover and dunlin, raptors like merlin and peregrine falcon and a wide variety of moorland vegetation and scrub communities. An additional interest is a population of feral goats. Management includes monitoring and security of the raptors, and removal of self seeded spruce trees to maintain the habitat.
The Border Mires are a group of fifty seven internationally important wetlands totalling over 2000 hectares. The Mires are active blanket bogs with rare plant and invertebrate communities, and management here revolves around restoring the hydrology of each bog largely by ditch blocking and by the removal of unwanted spruce regeneration or innapropriate planting. All statutorily designated mires are now in recovering condition.
The most extensive upland oakwood areas in the forest district are at Holystone Common and Holystone North Wood, where there are 40ha of oakwood which have survived since at least 1600. The plan for the area is to increase the oakwood to over 100ha by a staged removal of the existing conifer crop and replacing it with oaks grown from local seed.
As well as conservation of wildlife, the preservation of buildings and other ancient monuments is considered to be most important. The earliest remains of man made structures are burial cairns dating back to 3000 BC. There are several Romano-British Settlements, and a ruined village from the 15th century can been seen at Deadwood in Redesdale.
The Border area has had a turbulent history, particularly during the 15th and 16th centuries when Border Reivers battled with each other for land and livestock. The remains of their fortified houses or bastles can be seen in the forest at several locations, particularly in the Tarset Valley. There was a period of industrial development in the late 19th/early 20th century when coal mining was widespread in the North Tyne and the remains of mines, railway lines and buildings are of interest to the industrial archaeologist.
All the areas of conservation interest are recorded both in a series of schedules and on the forest district geographical information system. This information is used in two ways:
- It is included in the forest design planning system where strategic decisions are made, for example to leave mires unplanted or expand native woodlands.
- Operational foresters need to know where the areas of conservation interest are when making up detailed plans for felling and replanting operations.
All the SSSIs in the forest are managed to a plan agreed with Natural England and similarly all Scheduled Ancient Monuments are managed to plans agreed with English Heritage.