The Woodlanders

PUBLISHED: 11:08 22 October 2007 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

The Woodlanders

The Woodlanders

As the Royal Forestry Society celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, 'Somerset Life' finds out more about the organisation. Founded by working foresters and nurserymen at Hexham in Northumberland in 1882, the RFS remains an organisation dedic...

As the Royal Forestry Society celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, 'Somerset Life' finds out more about the organisation. Founded by working foresters and nurserymen at Hexham in Northumberland in 1882, the RFS remains an organisation dedicated to sharing knowledge and the management of forests and woodlands. Today the RFS has more than 4,000 members, many of whom work as foresters and arboriculturalists. They also include estate managers, ecologists, students, academics, timber processors and people who love trees. The Society covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland through its 21 local divisions and also manages three woodlands.

The Society's Somerset and Dorset Division has more than 180 members and every year its programme of events takes them to estates throughout the region where they not only have an opportunity to see woodlands that are not normally open to the public, but also to talk to and learn from the experienced men and women who look after them.

The world's rarest trees are native to remote islands, some known only from single wild specimens, such as the St Helena Olive. Britain's own native trees include the Bristol whitebeam (Sorbus bristoliensis), which grows naturally only in the Avon Gorge.

Somerset is actually one of the least wooded counties, with only some 6% of its land area covered by woodland. The pattern of woodland cover is dictated by the underlying geology. To the east we have the limestone Mendip Hills, while to the west the older, hard rock areas of Exmoor, the Brendons, the Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills are all heavily wooded in their lower parts. In the middle, the great swathe of the Somerset Levels is almost treeless, except for willows growing along the drainage channels.

Britain's own native trees include the Bristol whitebeam, which grows naturally only in the Avon Gorge

On the Mendips, once the scene of much mining activity in ancient times, some of the infertile hilltops are now planted with conifers, whilst many of the steeper hillsides support old semi-natural oak, ash and hazel coppice woods. These were developed to support the former mining industries and for local use. A notable feature of several Mendip woodlands is the presence of the rare Service Tree (Sorbus sp).

The Exmoor and Brendon Hills are damp, bleak and windswept. Their tops are almost treeless, apart from their characteristic beech hedges. Their steep-sided valleys are well wooded, with extensive old coppice woods. Many still support semi-natural woods, but others have been replanted with conifers. The semi-natural areas are mostly upland sessile oak woods previously coppiced for bark, used in the tanning industry and for charcoal. Mixed oak, hazel and ash woods occur in the lower valley sides, with alder frequently alongside streams.

The Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills are also fairly well wooded. Those on the Quantocks are similar to the woodlands on Exmoor. However, the most extensive woodlands in this area are recent conifer plantations on former commons. Along the northern edge of the Blackdown Hills there are the remnants of the Neroche Royal Forest, once enclosed by Charles I in his efforts to raise funds.

The southern portion of Somerset is prime agricultural land noted for its cider orchards. Woodlands tend to be scattered and isolated. The area is also notable for its country houses, such as Montacute Estate and Barrington Court, and associated amenity plantings.

Divisional chair John Sanders explains: "The character of Somerset is shaped, in part, by its woodlands, which in turn have been cared for and developed by generations of woodland owners and foresters."

Prior to the 12th century much of the woodland in the region was in coppice management for generations, helping to feed local industries such as charcoal production and tanneries.

Dr John Jackson, the Society's Chief Executive, says, "There is widespread public interest in conservation and the countryside, but people do not always appreciate that the woods and forests they admire look the way they do because they are well managed. Left alone, woodland quickly becomes overgrown and as the tree canopy spreads and keeps light from reaching the forest floor, so plants such as bluebells and primroses start to decline, as well as other creatures such as butterflies. Most of our woodlands were planted by man and managed to produce wood as crops for centuries, with regular activities such as coppicing, thinning and felling, which need to be continued if they are to maintain their beauty and biodiversity."


Why not go during the Tree Council's Tree Week from 22 November - 2 December and celebrate the start of the winter tree-planting season? As well as tree planting at sites throughout the UK, activities include tree dressing, woodcrafts, walks, talks, songs and storytelling. For further information call 0207 407 9992 or visit

Woodland Trust

The Woodland Trust manages some excellent woods in Somerset, perhaps the highlight being Dolebury Warren Wood (ST4559) on the northern escarpment of the Mendip Hills. Other WT locations which particularly merit a visit include Towerhouse Wood (ST4771) near Wraxall, Adcombe Wood and Woodram Copse (ST2217) in the Blackdown Hills, Henlade Wood (ST2722) near Henlade, and Greyfield Wood (ST6368) near High Littleton. For further information visit or call 01476 581135.

Somerset Wildlife Trust

The Somerset Wildlife Trust preserves some important woodland sites in the county. Here's four of the best: Bickham Wood (ST2708) near Chard, Aller Woods (ST4030) and Beer Woods (ST4131) near Langport, Great Breach Wood (ST5032) near Compton Dundon, and Harridge Wood (ST6448) near Shepton Mallet. For further information visit or call 01823 652400.

National Trust

There are also lovely woods to see within several of the Trust's estates. Most notably are Horner Woods (SS8945) on the Holnicote Estate on Exmoor where there are some lovely circular walks from Horner and Webber's Post, and Leigh Woods (ST5574) near Bristol, which is one of the finest broadleaved woodlands in the South-west. The NT owns about a third and the Forestry Commission owns the rest. As you walk the trails, look for the rare Bristol whitebeam on the steep slopes above the River Avon. For further information visit or call 0870 458 4000.

To find out more about the Royal Forestry Society Somerset and Dorset Division contact Valerie Staley, Divisional Secretary, on (01460 77071 or visit

Have you got a favourite wood in Somerset? Share your woodland walks with other readers on the Forum.



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