Botany, Bees and Butterflies
Since the early days of the Fingle restoration project the ever-changing plant life has been recorded; monitoring progress towards the conservation goal of bringing life back to the woods. The variety and abundance of plants around the site are used as an indicator of the health of the habitats and, as the conservation management progresses, the vegetation responds. When the conifers are thinned out, more light creeps in and more ancient woodland plants make a return. At least, that’s the theory and, in the search for proof, a more scientific approach is used. Over the last five years of restoration work at Fingle Woods, a series of professional ecological surveys have recorded plant life along the Teign valley. In their recent ‘Review of Reports’ Devon Wildlife Consultants have looked back at the initial Conservation Plan alongside the subsequent annual botanical surveys and compiled an overview of the changing plant life and what this means to Fingle’s wild places.
If you were to take a walk through the whole site, starting at Fingle Bridge in the west, you would see a mix of woodland habitats, each with their own interesting features. Some are already homes and havens for many species while others are habitats in waiting. As you enter the woods, a tumbling stream emerges from the woods above. Here are fragments of ancient oakwood, much changed through human activity over the centuries but considered a priority as Upland Oakwood.
Higher up the slope there are larger areas of this oakwood, multi-stemmed trees of a similar age stand as a reminder of the bygone charcoal industry over a carpet of bilberry. This is the habitat frequented by many woodland birds from the migrant warblers and flycatchers to the resident woodpeckers and nuthatches. Further up the hill you might find a small fenced area. These deer ‘exclosures’ are strategically placed around the wood to demonstrate what would happen to the regeneration of plants if the herds of deer had no access. In the last two years, the vegetation surveys have reported, “an increase in species diversity within the exclosure” and, “continuing evidence of deer browsing outside the exclosure” indicating the pressure applied by many large herbivores roaming the valley.
Bilberry flowers Oak trees of a similar age Upland oakwood
Butterdon Ball Wood
Walking further east, as you enjoy the rolling flow of the Teign you will pass by scrubby woodland edges that were dark and crowded with conifers only a few years ago; quite oppressive in places. Anecdotal comments about the brighter surroundings are good but, what about the science? In their latest review the ecologists studied the riparian zone alongside a stream and other areas of wet woodland. Adding to the diversity of the site overall, this area was described as “a wet flush area that supports wet woodland and carr, some sections would qualify under the Wet Woodland Priority Habitat. There are stands of greater tussock sedge, wood sedge and a single plant of royal fern.” All of which adds to the botanical interest of Fingle and provides good habitat for species including the marsh tit. On the other hand, there are areas of long degraded habitats that are still struggling to regenerate after the first round of thinning. The report states that there was “no considerable change over the 3 years of surveying.” The soil under the conifers is often poor but, given time and additional sunlight, this is one to watch for the future.
Riparian zones – stream sides are worked to improve wildlife corridors
Around Wooston hillfort
The stream to the west of the hillfort was cleared of tree cover under the previous ownership, revealing wet areas where a large stand of royal fern, greater tussock sedge and yellow sedges grow well. On the hillfort itself are patches of acid grassland and grass heathland. Several alder buckthorn shrubs stand here, an essential food plant for the brimstone butterfly.
Wildlife Consultant, Kitty Straghan commented, “That’s pretty typical of climbing corydalis. It seems to be one of the first species to occur when an area is clear felled or disturbed and it can be quite prolific. It is an annual and establishes quite early in the season and it burnt off very quickly last year because of the hot summer.”
Rickwood’s Bank was bare earth only a few years ago Climbing corydalis – wildflowers recover after the disturbance of the hillfort archaeology
The report also states that “the hillfort vegetation is crucial for pearl bordered fritillary” and other scarce butterflies and, in the support of butterflies, the recent clearance of dense Douglas fir from the hillfort is already showing a positive effect. “The ground flora is increasing in diversity and cover after recent felling. The open glade … is recovering from felling disturbance in 2017 and there is a greater abundance of grasses and bracken. The area should transition into a bristle bent community if left undisturbed.” Other transitional habitats are providing optimism for a more butterfly friendly habitat too. Down towards the river, the trackside plot known as Rickwood’s Bank “is showing increasing species diversity and abundance”.
During times of busy restoration work, one or two areas of the woods become thoroughfares due to necessity and the track between the hillfort and the sawmill shed is one of those pinch points. The report noted that “along the verges of the track … there has been a loss of species diversity and an increase in bare ground. This is considered a temporary loss due to track widening works.” With the recovery of species in other areas as a guide, this should become another healthy habitat very soon.
The threatened pearl bordered fritillary can be found around Wooston hillfort Toad flax leaved St John’s wort is one of the rare plants in the Teign valley
Hitchcombe Wood and Langland Wood
In the area of Fingle near Clifford Bridge there are some interesting developments, not least the recent acquisition of Riversmead. This riverside meadow will add to the overall diversity of the woodland complex, bringing in an area of recently planted trees with woodland glades on a low lying area by the River Teign. But, back in the established woodland, the consultants’ report says that this area “contains many large old trees including oak, hazel, sallows and hawthorn. It also contains very rich ground flora, perhaps the most diverse in the Fingle complex.” They did, however, point out that there is evidence of deer browsing and a temporary increase in bare ground, thought to be due to track widening work. Future botanical monitoring will demonstrate how these issues progress over time and will inform the management plan.
Halls Cleave and Coleridge Wood
Back in 2014, this part of Fingle was noted to be in poor condition for wildlife when plans to convert the conifer plantations to more diverse woodlands made a start. Today, this area looks quite different after an enforced felling of 15 hectares of phytophthera infected larch trees, the re-routing of a forest track and the construction of three ‘beaver’ dams along the stream.
The larch clear felling was done with care and now, the remaining shrub layer is recovering well, supported by the planting of hundreds of broadleaved trees. The re-routed track passes through a new glade where standing deadwood and new ground cover will provide more varied habitat for plants and animals. The area around the stream is now more open and varied and will, in time display some interesting changes in vegetation. As these areas are gradually opened up, “an increase in flora diversity and abundance” has been reported but attention is also drawn to a mire in the south of this zone where it is “dominated by rushes, grasses, saplings and sphagnum mosses.” It will be important for management interventions to avoid “scrubbing over of the mire” and some further work will be needed to maintain and improve diversity here.
The old track, now reserved for wildflowers, is greening up Speedwell along the ‘new’ track
Working your way to the eastern end of Fingle you will find Cod Wood where there are areas of remnant oak woods between large stands of conifers. Along the river corridor are some mature and veteran oak and ash trees and this is one of the best areas to see wild daffodils in the Spring. At the furthest end of wood is a meadow undergoing restoration from regenerating woodland scrub to a diverse hay meadow. The report notes that, “the area is slowly reverting to grassland rather than scrub, though some coarse and tussocky grasses are starting to appear which require grazing or topping to keep under control.” Work on this meadow has clearly gone well so far and will continue. It is a good example of where botanical surveys can help to remind you of what has gone before but, more importantly, where we are going.
Bee fly on cuckoo flower Oil beetle in the meadow at Cod Wood
It’s difficult to get a general picture of the vegetation across the whole of Fingle Woods, particularly when there is so much activity and transitional habitat, but it does look promising. There are some clear successes and other areas where we will continue to wait for the positive signs of restoration.
The ecologist’s report makes a number of recommendations for further management work that will favour certain species and areas where more targeted monitoring could reveal some further botanical interest followed by the birds, bees and butterflies that will find a home in Fingle.
Basking in Cod Wood meadow
by Matt Parkins