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Upland Oak Woodland

Upland oak woodlands are characterised by a predominance of oak Quercus spp. and birch Betula spp. in the canopy, with varying amounts of holly Ilex aquifolium, rowan Sorbus aucuparia and hazel Corylus avellana as the main understorey species. Such woods are often rich in mosses, liverworts, lichens and ferns and often hold a distinctive assemblage of breeding birds which includes redstart, wood warbler and pied flycatcher. The upland oak woodlands of Britain and Ireland are considered to be of international importance because of their extent and distinctive plant and animal communities.

Current status

There are no precise figures for the total extent of this woodland type, but it is believed to be between 70 000 and 100 000 ha in the UK, with major concentrations in south west Scotland, Cumbria, Gwynedd, Devon and Cornwall.

Within the Region, upland oak woodlands are mainly found within the North Pennines and the Northumberland National Park. Typically they occur as fragments of woodland surviving on steep sided valleys, with few blocks exceeding five ha in size. No reliable figures exist for the extent of the habitat but rough estimates have been made of 550 - 600 ha for Northumberland and 925 ha in County Durham.

Threats

  • Overgrazing by domestic stock, deer and rabbits, leading to a loss of ground flora, difficulties in regeneration of tree species and changes to the woodland structure.
  • Upland semi-natural woods have declined by around 30 - 40% in area over the last 60 years as a result of replanting, development and conversion to grazing. Recent policy changes (eg by the Forestry Commission) have greatly reduced the amount of inappropriate planting that takes place in woods. 
  • Invasion by species such as Rhododendron spp. which shades out the ground layers and eliminates much of the conservation interest.
  • Development pressures, such as new roads and quarries.
  • Air pollution may affect lichen and bryophyte communities within woodlands.
  • Grazing by the introduced Muntjac deer can be particularly destructive of woodland ground flora, and the expansion of the species within the region is a potential threat.

Opportunities for protection and enhancement

  • Enhancement through fencing to eliminate/reduce grazing; supplementary planting, bracken spraying, gap creation, scarification and other practices to encourage natural regeneration of tree species; creation of links between existing woodlands and boundary features.
  • The Forestry Commissionís Woodland Grant Scheme gives grants for the planting of new woodlands. The Annual Management Grant and Woodland Improvement Grant make payments for the management of existing woodlands. The New Native Woodlands in National Parks Challenge scheme and the Jigsaw Challenge within the North Pennines are targeted at creating new native woodlands, extending and linking existing semi-natural ancient woodlands.
  • The Northumberland National Park enters into woodland management agreements with landowners to secure the management of existing woodlands.
  • A number of upland oak woodland sites are managed as nature reserves, for example Holystone North Wood is a Northumberland Wildlife Trust reserve.
  • Forest Enterprise are carrying out restoration of native broadleaved woodland on some sites as part of their forest design plan process.