Upland Birchwoods - Calum McRoberts
Found on acid and infertile soils, upland birchwoods can be found at high altitude across the UK (250 metres or more), but are especially common in Scotland where birch accounts for nearly half of all broadleaved woodland.
Three birch species are native to the UK: silver birch, downy birch and dwarf birch. In Scotland’s upland birchwoods, dwarf birch grows as a low shrub. In the wet and windy climate of the north-west Highlands, downy birch is the dominant species; whereas in the cool, boreal climate of the east and central Highlands, the delicate silver birch prevails, alongside other species such as rowan, ash, willow, juniper and aspen.
Birches are pioneer trees which can rapidly colonise disturbed ground. Young birches spring up on previously un-wooded areas, often in response to human management such as fire and changes in grazing. As adjacent woods mature, so the regeneration of these young stands give the impression that our birchwoods are ‘moving’ across the landscape. This mobility has shaped the wildlife that can be found in upland birchwoods.
Where are they found?
Very little information exists on the extent of upland birchwoods in the UK, but it’s thought that about 45,000 hectares may be present.
Why are they important?
On poorer soils, few other trees can be found alongside birch other than rowan, the odd holly and sessile oak, and Scots pine. But on more fertile sites rowan, ash, aspen, alder, goat willow, gean, bird cherry, hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn may grow. Common juniper, a UK BAP priority species, sometimes forms an understory in the upland birchwoods of the eastern Highlands.
On all but the most acidic sites, birch ‘improves’, allowing wildflowers and grasses to push their way through. Although very few plant species are confined entirely to birchwoods, they favour the herbs and grasses which are less common outside woods like chickweed wintergreen and globe flower. They are also rich in bryophytes.
Upland birchwoods provide valuable habitat for woodland birds, such as pied flycatcher, wood warbler, redstart and black grouse, while the small population of resident redwing in northern Scotland is largely dependent on these woodlands.
The wood itself rots quickly and provides valuable deadwood habitat for fungi, beetles and hole-nesting birds. Upland birchwoods are important habitats for a number of invertebrates: over 300 specialist insects are associated with birch including the rare pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly and the aspen hoverfly (UK BAP priority species).
Upland birchwoods provide valuable services to people too. We use them for recreation, shelter and grazing for livestock, and as habitat for some game species. However, their wood is generally only used for firewood and currently has little commercial value.
Are they threatened?
In general, our woodlands are threatened by clearance for development and agriculture. In particular, upland birchwoods have been degraded by extensive deer browsing, overgrazing, poor management and habitat fragmentation.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
Across the UK 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. We have a vision of A Living Landscape: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country, which are good for both wildlife and people.
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 woodland habitats.
- Support the work of The Wildlife Trusts protecting and restoring woodlands across the UK – become a member of your local Wildlife Trust.
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust 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.