Wet Woodland

Wet Woodland - Adam CormackWet Woodland - Adam Cormack

Willow, alder and birch thrive in poorly drained or seasonally flooded areas, growing together to make the woods we call ‘wet woodland’. This kind of woodland is found on floodplains, in fens and bogs, on the banks of rivers, streams and lakes, and along hillside flushes. Wet woodland can be found on a range of soils from mineral-rich alkaline soils to acidic, nutrient-poor soils.

As time goes by, wet woodland may naturally change to a much drier habitat as the water conditions vary and new species grow. This ‘succession’ means that wet woodland often occurs alongside other woodland habitats like upland mixed ashwoods or oakwoods, and with open habitats such as fens. However, such habitats may get overtaken by trees, so it can be necessary to control the spread of wet woodland.

Where is it found?

A rough estimate of the total area of wet woodland in the UK is between 50,000 and 70,000 hectares. Notable concentrations occur in the fens of East Anglia, Shropshire and Cheshire, while hillside alder woods are more restricted to Wales, Cumbria and western Scotland. The best examples of ancient floodplain forest are in the New Forest and northern Scotland. Bog woodlands of pine are confined to Scotland, but birch bog woodland occurs more widely across the UK.

Why is it important?

Wet woodland is an important habitat for animals and plants of both woodlands and wetlands. It is extremely rich in insects, supporting a large number of species like beetles, many of which are now rare in the UK. Dead wood associated with water provides a specialised habitat not found in dry woodland types which supports rare craneflies and the netted carpet moth (UK BAP priority species). 

Although few plants depend on wet woodland, many species thrive here including marsh marigold, marsh fern and greater tussock sedge. The high humidity and damp barks also favour the growth of spongy mosses and liverworts. 

Wet woodland provides vital cover and breeding areas for mammals like the rare otter which has suffered from the loss of other types of wetland habitat. It also supports numerous bat species including pipistrelle, brown long-eared and noctule bats. Many different birds can be seen flitting through the trees; look out for the rare lesser-spotted woodpecker, as well as willow tit, marsh tit, lesser redpoll and siskin.
Wet woodland has long been coppiced for its wood, and this human intervention has had a distinct effect on its structure. Famous for its pendulous catkins in spring, willow was traditionally used for a number of crafts including basket- and screen-making. 

Is it threatened?

Much of our wet woodland has been lost or destroyed over recent decades due to massive clearances and land drainage for agricultural production. Intensive forestry, development, the removal of dead wood and trees, water pollution and the dredging of ponds have also taken their toll on this habitat. Our wet woodland is under threat from poor management or neglect – with the loss of traditional ways of managing the land, such as coppicing, it is slowly being invaded by scrub or drying up.

How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?

The Wildlife Trusts make a significant contribution to the protection of wet woodland by managing nature reserves which contain it sympathetically and by providing advice to landowners on how to look after these fragile places.

Left to its own devices, wet woodland would deteriorate, resulting in the loss of many much-loved species such as the otter. So The Wildlife Trusts are involved in many projects to restore these habitats through coppicing, scrub-cutting and raising awareness about their value 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.