Many people are surprised to learn that we spend a lot of our time trying to stop trees growing on the Forest. That is because, for most people, the word ‘forest’ is synonymous with trees. Historically, though, ‘Forest’ was a legal term, denoting an area where it was illegal to hunt deer, which were the property of the Crown. Although most Forests would have had areas of woodland, they would have also have included extensive areas of open ground. They are more densely wooded these days solely because they generally grow good conifers, and as such have been planted up by the Forestry Commission.
Ashdown Forest is lucky in that it has largely escaped the attentions of commercial forestry, but the wide open spaces are continually threatened by the natural growth of trees, particularly birch. Left unmanaged, the Forest would revert to a relatively species-poor secondary woodland, of a type far from rare in the south-east, rather than the internationally-important heathland that it is today.
Open views and scattered trees characterise the Forest
We do retain some woodland, however – the Forest is roughly 40% trees, 60% heathland – particularly because the woodland edge, where it meets the heathland, is an important habitat in itself. Most of the woodland is made up of natives, chiefly oak, birch and beech, and we do ourbest to remove non-natives, particularly rhododendron.
One species we do tolerate out on the heath is Scots pine. This is tricky one; it is native to the UK, but only in Scotland. Everywhere else it has been planted. But it is such an iconic feature of the Forest – the ‘clumps’, in particular, are Scots pine – that we let it stay. But it does spread; every tree we retain sends down a constant rain of seeds, and new seedlings spring up every year.
Scots pine dot the Forest landscape
One species that we will be getting rid of, however, is Turkey oak. This native of south-east Europe and Asia Minor as introduced to Britain as an ornamental, and is now spreading onto heaths and chalk grassland sites. It is the host species of the Knopper Gall Wasp, an insect which damages the acorns of the native oak, so affecting its ability to reproduce.