Nature watch: Woodland wonders
The Royal Forest of Dean is a heart-shaped wedge of 20 million trees on the border of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire border, and has been one of Britain’s biggest natural assets for more than 2,000 years. Home to abundant boar and deer, and flanked by the Rivers Wye and Severn, the forest is rooted in fertile beds of limestone and mineral deposits that have been mined for iron and coal since Roman times. It was annexed by Tudor royals as a hunting ground, and near-destroyed in the 1600s to provide the oak for the ships fuelling Britain’s burgeoning military and colonial power. So important was it for this purpose that the invading Spanish Armada of 1588 was ordered to target the Forest of Dean and “not leave a tree standing”.
Now, under Forestry Commission protection, Dean’s ancient oaks, beech and ash and vibrant wildlife are being encouraged to grow wilder. Roman earthworks and L-shaped railtracks, as well as manmade mill ponds, iron ‘delves’ and coal mines strew the forest unused and in various stages of absorption back into the forest’s eco system.
For Sue Warren, founder member of the Forest of Dean Ramblers, it all adds up to a landscape that is utterly absorbing for both mind and senses: “I’ve walked at least twice a month in the forest for the past 30 years, and I discover something new every time. “In summer, the old industrial ponds at Cannop hum thick with dragonflies. In winter, at the heart of the Forest, cobwebs laden with fat dewdrops hang from the bare branches of the trees and bracken.
“Last autumn, I stumbled on an old iron mine hidden under leaves in Lambsquay Woods – the tree roots seemed to grow out of the stones. Now spring is coming, when the slopes of Slade Valley will be coated with great swathes of wild garlic and bluebells. I can smell them from miles away. ”
For a full guide to the wildlife of the Forest of Dean, see the Spring issue of walk magazine, on newsstands now.