Lowland Beech and Yew Woodland - Marilyn Peddle
Think of beech woodlands and towering trees with smooth, grey-brown bark and fresh green leaves that light up in the sun come to mind. But in the UK, beech is actually only native to southern England and southern Wales; elsewhere, it has been planted for ornamental use and timber.
Our lowland beech and yew woodland spans a variety of distinctive vegetation types that grow on different soils. Calcareous beech and yew woodland forms about 40% of the total amount of lowland beech and yew habitat in the UK and tends to be found on the limestone and chalk soils of south-east England such as the North and South Downs, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. The canopy can include mixtures of beech, ash, sycamore, yew and whitebeam.
About 45% of our beech woodland grows on neutral to slightly acidic soils (pH 7 to 4). Stands tend to be dominated by beech, with oak sometimes finding a foothold, and bramble knots its way through the understorey. This kind of woodland is common in the High and Low Weald, the Chilterns, the New Forest, the Cotswolds and the Wye Valley.
Acidic beech woodland forms the remaining 15% of this habitat and is usually found on sandy or gravelly soils (pH 3.5 to 4.5). Here, holly dominates the understorey. Typical sites include the High Weald, Hampshire and London basins, the Chilterns and parts of East Anglia.
Where is it found?
It’s thought that there are between 15,000 and 25,000 hectares of ancient lowland beech and yew woodland in the UK; more recent beech woodland brings the total area to about 30,000 hectares.
Why is it important?
On calcareous sites, rare plants can include box, red helleborine, coralroot bitter-cress and the bird’s-nest orchid – an odd species which gets its energy from dead plant litter rather than the sun. More common species found on chalk include dog’s mercury, yellow archangel and nettle-leaved bellflower. On neutral sites, the rare violet helleborine grows alongside more common species like oxlip and early dog-violet; while bracken, creeping soft-grass, wavy hair-grass and marsh violet are found on acid woodland soils.
The standing and fallen dead and decaying wood within lowland beech and yew woodland is an important habitat for invertebrates like the rare violet click beetle, as well as fungi such as the scarce bearded tooth, devil’s bolete and hedgehog fungi.
Birds fill the canopy with song; bullfinch, song thrush, spotted flycatcher, wood warbler and the rare turtle dove are just some of the species to be found in this habitat. Mammals abound in lowland beech and yew woodland with badgers, foxes, and greater and lesser horseshoe bats all foraging and breeding here.
Across the UK, lowland beech and yew woodland has historically been managed as coppice, providing materials for building and crafts.
Is it threatened?
In general, our woodlands are threatened by clearance for development and agriculture, although lowland beech and yew woodland has suffered less due to the high value of beech for materials. Changes in the composition of this habitat are occurring, however, induced by the effects of grey squirrel damage, deer browsing, introduced non-native species like rhodendendron, poor management and habitat fragmentation.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
The Wildlife Trusts manage many woodland nature reserves sympathetically for all kinds of species. A mix of coppicing, scrub-cutting, ride maintenance and non-intervention all help woodland wildlife to thrive. We are also working closely with other landowners to promote wildlife-friendly and traditional practices in these areas.
What can I do to help?
- Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trust for advice on the management of lowland beech and yew woodland.
- Support the work of your The Wildlife Trusts protecting and restoring woodlands across the UK – become a member of your local Wildlife Trust.
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trusts and help your local woodland wildlife; depending on where you live you could be involved in everything from traditional forest crafts to raising awareness about woodland animals.