As well as the wetland and reed beds, we have quite a range of woodland habitats to look after at Teifi Marshes Reserve.
To the south of the Reserve, heading along the river towards Cilgerran, is an area of ancient oak woodland, which clings to the steep slopes of the Teifi gorge. While sessile oak dominates, lime, ash, wych elm, hazel, elder and holly are also to be found here. In autumn the yellow and red leaves of the wild service tree can be seen.
In former times large numbers of trees were felled to service the ship building industry in Cardigan. Felling and extracting wood on the treacherously steep gorge slopes must have been daunting and draining work for the foresters. Now the woodlands are managed to maintain the balance of native tree species, encouraging a natural canopy of trees of differing ages through natural regeneration. Nearly 200 species of lichen have been recorded in these woods. They thrive in the clean air and moisture of this wildest and quietest part of the Reserve.
Closer to the Wildlife Centre, along the Explorer and Woodland Trails, are areas of mixed oak and hazel woodland. This dense deciduous woodland is potentially ideal habitat for the elusive dormouse. The animal’s name is derived from the French verb “dormir” or “to sleep”, and it is so named for its habit of hibernating for as much as 7 months of the year. Coppiced hazel woodland is a preferred habitat for this drowsy mouse, in which it builds thick spherical nests from grass and honeysuckle bark.
Coppicing is a traditional woodland management technique (which we continue to utilise here) involving repetitive felling on the same stump, at close to ground level. This allows new fresh growth to develop from the stump (known as the coppice stool). So coppiced woodland will have multiple stems growing from low level stools. Coppiced hazel produces particularly thick growths of straight stems, which together form a perfect basket for the dormouse, plus birds and other mammals, to build their nests.
While coppicing appears an extremely invasive procedure, trees which are cut regularly in this way tend to live longer. Trees will naturally “re-trench”, through shedding un-necessary branches, and coppicing acts as a major retrenchment, resetting the aging process and extending the life of the tree. Well managed coppiced woodland will feature varied canopy layers, an understorey, and wide light pathways and glades, which allow woodland floor dwelling plants and flowers to thrive. This all contributes to a high level of biodiversity.
This ancient woodland management technique has traditionally been used to provide reliable supplies of timber for many uses. These include fence posts (sweet chestnut), tool handles (ash), hurdles, canes, bean and pea sticks (hazel), timber for building (oak), and furniture (a range of trees, notably beech). Firewood for industrial and domestic use was also obtained from coppiced woods.
The woodsmen working the coppice provided local sustainable timber and increased biodiversity. Also highly skilled local jobs in the traditional green wood crafts, outlets for creativity. Sadly the use of plastics and cheap mass production means that the vast majority of coppiced woodlands have become unviable. There is limited market for quality wood products. Hence the coppicing cycle has ceased, and woods have become neglected and overgrown.
It remains for conservation charities and enlightened ecological businesses to continue the processes of traditional woodland management, at least across a small proportion of our country’s woodland estate. Everyone can help by using beautiful locally produced unique wood products wherever possible. If more of us were to do so, providing a viable market for woodsmen and their businesses, we would certainly see an increase in the areas of woodland under sustainable management, to the benefit of the environment, wildlife and us all.
Coppicing, and other woodland management tasks such as thinning, removing dangerous trees and creating open areas and wide paths (known as glades and rides) takes place in the winter months. This is to avoid the bird nesting season. The work is noisy (using chainsaws and chippers) and can be hard. The weather is typically cold, or wet, or both, and the days dark, gloomy and short. However the satisfaction to be gained from continuing ancient woodland management makes winter the most enjoyable part of the year to be involved in reserve management.