What are Atlantic oakwoods?
Atlantic oakwoods are identified as habitat of high importance in the European Union's Habitats Directive. The oakwoods are restricted to the Atlantic coastal fringes of Britain, France, Ireland and Spain. They are described in the UK Biodiversity Plan as 'upland oakwoods', and are recognised as Britain's temperate rainforest.
Atlantic oakwoods are found in areas that have a damp, humid climate with high rainfall and acidic soils that have not been altered by human activity, such as cultivation.
How much of the Atlantic oakwoods are in Britain?
Britain has some of the most important examples and the largest area, covering 70,000 hectares.
In England, the main stronghold is in Cumbria, particularly the Furness fells, but Atlantic oakwoods are also found in the south west. In Scotland, Atlantic oakwoods are found clinging to the rocky, exposed west coast and along the southern facing slopes of highland glens. In Wales, Atlantic oakwoods are found in the western coastal areas where the climate is mild and wet. Some of the northern oakwoods are in Snowdonia National Park.
What species live in Atlantic oakwoods?
Over 500 species of plants and animals are associated with Atlantic oakwoods. This includes 35 species regarded as priorities for conservation in the UK Biodiversity Plan.
Species include an abundance of lower plants, such as fungi, ferns, mosses, liverworts and lichens. Bluebells, wood anemone, primroses and other species form a colourful spring display. Atlantic oakwoods are a stronghold for migrant songbirds such as redstart, pied flycatcher and wood warbler. Buzzards and red kites use the oakwoods as nest sites, and great spotted woodpeckers and jays are often seen. Red and roe deer and badgers live in the Atlantic oakwoods, along with red squirrel and pine martens in the oakwoods in the Scottish Highlands. Insects such as wood ants are common and there are rare butterflies, such as the chequered skipper in woodland glades in the west Highlands.
What were the threats to the Atlantic oakwoods?
Atlantic oakwoods have been managed and exploited for their timber, for construction and as an important source of fuel. In the 1600s - 1800s, they provided a supply of charcoal for industrial iron production. This involved coppicing (cutting the tree stems and allowing the stumps to re-sprout) every 15 - 25 years. As part of the process, the bark was also stripped and used to produce tannin for processing leather. During periods of agricultural and forestry expansion, Atlantic oakwoods were often cleared and grazed, or planted with faster growing conifer tree species. Rhododendrons and other invasive shrubs and plants were introduced for amenity and shelter, particularly around the gardens and policies of Victorian properties.
This loss of habitat, limited regeneration and encroachment by native species continued into the latter part of the 20th century.
How we manage our woods
During the 1980s - 90s, environmental organisations and woodland managers started to recognise the importance of Atlantic oakwoods. Some sites were declared sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and more recently as candidate European Union Natura sites. The Forestry Commission in Scotland declared many of the sites in its care as Caledonian Nature Reserves. The Forestry Commission project, Argyll's Atlantic Oakwoods, won the prestigious Ford UK Conservation Project of the Year in 1994. This pioneering conservation project led the way in the management and restoration of Atlantic oakwoods.
The Forestry Commission has made a significant start in restoring Atlantic oakwoods on its estate. Threatening conifers and invasive shrubs have been cleared and grazing by deer and livestock reduced. All this action has improved and restored woodland habitat condition, and started natural regeneration of native trees, shrubs and ground flora.
Forestry Commission local managers are working with a range of partners, including local communities, to make a real difference to Atlantic oakwood habitats and the species they support. The Forestry Commission is also encouraging children, local people and visitors to explore, enjoy and better understand Atlantic oakwoods by providing better access and interpretation at sites and in visitor centres.
Much of this wide ranging and ongoing activity is supported through partnership working and funding, including EU and National Lottery finance.