Signs of Life
As we walk through Fingle Woods today, it is a good time to remember and reflect on what has been achieved through more than five years of the ‘Bringing Fingle Woods Back to Life’ project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. In the early days, the newly developed working partnership between the Woodland Trust and National Trust was taking its first tentative steps into a new world. Fingle Woods had just been acquired by two large conservation organisations who had never worked together before, and the site was as large as the task ahead – nearly a thousand acres of neglected and unloved ancient woodland was struggling to maintain itself as a potential refuge for wild species. The visionary idea of restoring a vast woodland site was ambitious but there was a well-placed optimism in the ranks of workers and volunteers who, undaunted, would willingly take up the careful task of rescuing and replenishing life in this deep Dartmoor valley.
The first five years of restoration work has brightened up Fingle Woods – the process of recovery has begun
Massed ranks of shady Douglas fir, a native of the western flanks of north America, had been planted to grow timber over a hundred years. It is a grand and beautiful tree but, when planted in single species blocks, compressed into lines with their limbs arching over tracks, only flickers of light were penetrating to ground level and it was only going to get worse. Native wildlife was being blotted out, it was under intense stress to survive so, the timing of the beginning of the management of Fingle was perfect. Conservationists and woodland managers brought their collective experiences together; plans were quickly devised, and an emergency rescue began. It was time for some woodland first aid.
Several years later we can see how, through creating small sunny glades, open track edges and thinned conifer plantations, a whole new diversity and abundance is creeping around the woods. It has been a great start and the changes haven’t gone unnoticed. It is clear that the darker days are behind us, the sunlit glades welcome us to a more diverse and optimistic place as a taste of what’s to come. Though the obvious signs of progress might be in the greater mix of habitats and the light piercing through the coniferous canopy, the restoration story can also be told by looking for the small things. If we take time to lower our gaze form the treetops to ground level, vibrant life is returning to the once brittle brown forest floor. Among these delicate plants that emerge from the dormant ancient seeds are long-lost woodland treasures that, though small, are symbolic of the fight for survival. There are also some records of butterflies and beetles, birds and bats that show us where life is returning to Fingle Woods. Together, the recovering plants and animals demonstrate the true meaning of restoration as they retain their rightful place in the Teign valley. When you take a walk in the woods, you can look at a few brighter areas where wildlife is recovering and where the actions of woodland managers and volunteers is making Fingle a better place for some special plants and creatures.
Ivy-leaved bellflower and royal ferns are important woodland plants that need damper soil to thrive
Much of Fingle Woods is covered with well-drained soil which tends to remain dry for much of the time. Wet woodland is an important part of a diverse habitat mix but is quite rare at Fingle Woods. As in many places, water courses have previously been straightened as land has been intentionally drained, but this is beginning to change. Several volunteers’ tasks have concentrated on building small dams to block streams and ditches to create slower flows and areas of standing water. A lot of the forestry attention has been paid to the riparian zones where more native vegetation is being encouraged to grow, allowing fast flowing streams to slow down. This is where the water table can rise and where streams can become braided, creating more damp ground and, in a few short years, it is working. A recent survey showed that some of the key conservation plant species are not just appearing in new places, but established patches of vegetation are spreading.
One of these damp soil specialists is the ivy-leaved bellflower, a fine stemmed, low growing plant with elegant blue flowers. In other parts of the woods this plant has been found where ‘historical’ records have re-emerged. Another plant of conservation concern has also been recorded in a few places where expanding damp ground and greater levels of light have brought about the return of the lesser skullcap. The appearance of these tiny pink flowers is not only among our indicators of success, but they bring a little more beauty and interest to the woods as well.
Lesser skullcap is a delicate plant with pink flowers that is reappearing in the forest glades where the soil is wet
In these brighter places where the water has slowed down and plants are beginning to recover, we can also see an increase in the diversity and abundance of some sparkling dragonflies and damselflies. The growing presence of these attractive creatures is telling us that we are doing something right and repay us with their appearance in the sunny glades along the waters’ edge.
On the patches of drier ground, brighter glades are opening up and species rich grasslands are making a comeback. Ancient woodland plants and wildflowers are all signs of a positive future, but Fingle is also home to one of the country’s rarest plants. Tucked away on some sun-soaked rocky outcrops, a few remnant plants of the toadflax-leaved St John’s wort are hanging on. This species relies on the Dartmoor valleys as its national stronghold where 90% of all the plants in the UK are found. This situation gives Fingle a pride of place in the botanical map of the country but also passes us a responsibility to make sure we keep it that way.
The marbled white butterfly is extending its range at Fingle Woods Toadflax-leaved St John’s wort – a nationally scarce plant that is being protected at Fingle Woods
Running between and connecting up these wildlife hotspots, the ancient boundaries and wood banks are slowly expanding, as vibrant growth of shrubs along the broadening wildlife corridors becomes home to many butterflies and small mammals. For those that take part and people visiting this wonderful valley who can see these changes, there is a feeling of optimism. Though there are the looming threats of climate change that will be increasing pressure on wild species, we have an opportunity, we can do our bit to offer them refuge. The first few important steps have been made and, though this funding stream may be over, the work doesn’t stop. There is so much more we can do with a ‘can do’ attitude and a new push for the next tranche of funds. Fingle is not only a vital refuge for wild woodland species, but it has become a special a place for all those who have toiled among the trees and taken it to heart. The Woodland Trust and National Trust have immense gratitude to all those who have contributed funds, time, skills and energy into this woodland restoration venture and look forward to continuing progress in the future.
by Matt Parkins