There is evidence that the main Wapley Bushes woodland is ancient, meaning that the land has been wooded for at least 400 years. This is indicated by a number of “indicator” flower species which are often found growing in woodland of this age. Among these are bluebells, dog’s mercury, wood anemone and yellow archangel.
The woodland was left unmanaged for quite a long time, so the woodland canopy is made of fairly even-aged ash trees. The instability of this was seen during the storms of 1990 when areas in the middle of the wood were blown flat.
To encourage a diverse structure and age range of trees, different species have been planted in the gaps left by storms. This also increases the variety of habitat for animals and plants. Ash, oak, field maple, holly and a single crab apple are also found in the wood. The tall trees make a good nesting site for rooks, which can usually be seen or heard. Shrubs and small trees to look out for include elder, hawthorn, dogwood, holly and hazel.
As you follow the path that runs all the way round the Ancient Woodland you will see that many young trees have been planted in the wood. The high canopy of the woodland is mainly ash, and this will fall victim to Ash Dieback Disease. The new trees are a mixture of native species that will grow tall and provide a suitable replacement habitat for our birds, insects, mammals, lichen etc. Look out for unusual trees like the pollarded “Dragon Tree” on the Lower Path, and the pair of “Dancing Trees” on the Upper Path.
The scrub layer consists of dense thickets of privet, blackthorn and bramble. It is managed by cutting to prevent the wild flowers from being swamped and out-shaded and to allow the planted trees to grow in the gappy areas. Other areas of scrub are allowed to grow to provide cover for wildlife and nesting birds.
The heart of the wooded area is the Ancient Woodland. As you wander through the wood, notice how the ground flora changes. Damper areas attract ferns such as male fern and hart’s-tongue fern, and next to the seasonal stream you will find the rather rare loose-spiked wood sedge (and if you’re very lucky, a toad)
The Centenary Wood lies between the Ancient Woodland and the Upper Meadow. This planting was undertaken as a community planting scheme on Mothers Day 1994. It is a very special place when it snows – you can get away from the crowds sledging on the Lower Meadow, into a forest setting that looks like Narnia, where the only footprints apart from your own are the birds and the woodland creatures. Unfortunately most of this area is semi-mature ash, which will have to e removed soon because of ash dieback disease.
The sloping Western Wood was planted in 1986 on a former allotment site. As it matures the ground flora will gradually diversify. To diversify the woodland habitat still further, an open area called a ride has been created along the south-east edge of the wood between Wapley Bushes and the Western Wood. Butterflies and other insects are attracted to these warm, sheltered areas.
There is always something to see in the woods. For example in early autumn you can try to count the number of types of fruit – everything from the berries our local birds love to the dangling bunches of “keys” on the ash trees. There are many different types of fungi – some on the ground, and bracket fungi such as King Alfred’s Cakes and some which can grow to the size of dinner plates.
As autumn advances, look closely at how the leaves change colour. The coldest, more exposed parts of the wood will change first, so the colours change from the top down and from the outside in.
The woodland serves as an excellent habitat for many bird species including chiffchaff, blackcap, song thrush, bullfinch, green woodpecker and goldcrest. Rooks have been breeding in the woodland since at least 1937 and the rookery in the south eastern part of the woodland is occupied each year, when it becomes a noisy place. There are some butterflies to be found in the woodland including ringlet, speckled wood and holly blue and common pipistrelle and other bat species patrol the outside edges of the woodland hunting for insects on summer evenings.