Managing the woodland at the Knapp in Sidmouth

Wildflowers growing where light reaches ground (not the Knapp)

Allowing light to reach the ground encourages growth - Credit: Kate Tobin

There will be some felling in the woodland at the Knapp over January and February. During this time, access may be limited. 

The woodland in the middle of the Knapp was planted in the 1990s. Native species were chosen to create a wood for wildlife and it has grown incredibly well.

However, as a new woodland grows, it is good practice to thin it gradually, by taking out some trees and allowing others to flourish and their roots to spread.

The young wood at the Knapp was never thinned, and only coppiced once, so all the trees have grown up together, tall and thin, with small crowns.

As you look through the woodland, you see lots of tree trunks, but not much bushy structure at eye height, and not much light down to the woodland floor.

That means that birds and dormice don’t have enough connecting shrubby trees and bramble to nest in or travel through, and the wildflowers on the ground can’t flourish, nor the insects that thrive in sunny wooded glades, nor the bats and birds that feed on them. 

Some of the trees are starting to get blown over in the high winds that are happening more and more often. At the same time, Ash Dieback is taking hold, affecting Ash trees throughout the reserve. 

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This means that, now the Sid Vale Association has taken ownership of the Knapp, there is quite a job to do to stabilise the trees, by felling some in order to allow others to spread their crowns and root systems and become the canopy trees of the future.

Most of the felled trees will regrow and create a nice thick bushy structure that provides plenty of nesting habitat for birds, aerial runways and food source for dormice, and sunny patches throughout the woodland for butterflies and bats to flit through and feed over. 

Coppicing involves felling all the trees in a small block - known as a coupe - in order to allow light down to a bigger patch of ground so the stumps of the felled trees sprout lots of new stems which all grow up together, quick and thick. 

Coppicing was traditionally done to create lots of straight poles, e.g. for hurdles, tools, fencing, charcoal. Coupes are cut on rotation throughout the wood, to provide a constant supply of poles. 

Nowadays it is more often done for wildlife, to create the bushy structure in a wood which is so valuable, especially for species like dormice, which have recently been discovered along the ancient hedge banks at the Knapp. 

Felling seems pretty drastic and worrying when it takes place – the noise of the chainsaw, the cut stumps, the gap where the trees used to stand – and can be quite upsetting to people who have grown to love a woodland, and its tranquillity. 

But sometimes felling trees is necessary and a sustainably managed woodland is usually better for wildlife than an unmanaged woodland. 

Trees and woodlands are protected by law and, in most cases, felling licences must be applied for from the Forestry Commission. The SVA has a felling licence for the Knapp until 2026 for thinning. 

Much of the felled timber will be kept on site to create deadwood piles for invertebrates and the wildlife that feeds on them. An ideal woodland for wildlife has really high volumes of standing and lying deadwood.

New woodlands don’t have the deadwood that longstanding woodlands do, so they need a helping hand. Some felling will be done for safety reasons too, mainly because of Ash Dieback, but where veteran trees can be left standing, they will be.  

The work won’t all be done at the same time; it is an ongoing job, which is always done in the winter, before the bird nesting season starts in March.

The SVA trustees are employing a local professional contractor to fell the larger trees, with the Monday volunteer group doing some coppicing and replanting. 

New volunteers are always welcome; email info@sidvaleassociation.org.uk.