Trees and woodlands
One of the most wooded areas in England, the Chilterns is famous for its beech woods and rich woodland heritage.
The Chilterns is a heavily wooded landscape, with its famous beech woods being the jewel in the crown. The changing colours of these woods, through spring-green above carpets of bluebells, to rich, autumn golds, adds variety and beauty to the landscape. The area has been well-wooded for hundreds of years and is still one of the most forested parts of England, with over one-fifth of it covered by woodland. As well as beech, ash, cherry and oak are widespread, and the area is host to the largest native box woodland in the UK.
Woods that are known to have persisted in the same area since the 1600s (when mapping became more accurate) are called ‘ancient woodlands’. Ancient woodlands cover just 2% of England, but in the Chilterns, this figure is much higher at 13%. These kinds of woods have been relatively undisturbed by human development over many centuries, allowing them to become rich and complex habitats that are home to many threatened species. Fungi and beetles rely on the rich soils and decaying wood, birds and mammals make their homes among the branches, and rare wildflowers fill glades of dappled sunlight.
Ancient woodlands can be classified into two types. Ancient semi-natural woodlands are places that have been used and managed by humans for timber and fuel for centuries, affecting their composition and communities. Plantations on ancient woodland sites are places where native species have been felled and areas replanted with non-native species, such as conifers.
When you’re out and about it might not be obvious you are visiting an ancient woodland if there are relatively young trees planted on a site that has been wooded for hundreds of years. However, there are some tell-tale signs: a spring carpets of bluebells is a real giveaway as they can take hundreds of years to spread. Other indicators include wood anemone, primrose, lily-of-the-valley, wild garlic, dog’s mercury and red campion. You may also spot evidence of the woods being used by people through the centuries, from boundary banks to the remains of sawpits used to cut up trees.
The Chilterns also has a rich heritage of parkland, wood pasture and common land, with high concentrations of veteran trees. These stands of trees and their associated habitats and dead wood host a wide variety of species, from woodpeckers to waxcaps, pipistrelle bats to stag beetles. Traditional orchards, particularly cherry, were also once important in the Chilterns and the mix of old fruit trees and grassland now provide valuable shelter and food for wildlife.
Please follow the Countryside Code and any rules for the place you are visiting when you’re out and about. Remember: Respect, Protect and Enjoy – and help this special landscape and those who live and work here.
Types of trees and woodlands in the Chilterns
Lowland beech and yew woodland
Growing on both acidic and calcareous soils, these woodlands span a range of vegetation types, but have been historically managed as coppice and wood-pasture. Trees include beech, ash, sycamore, yew, whitebeam and, less commonly, oak. Rare plants, such as red helleborine, box and bird’s-nest orchids, adorn the forest floor, and carpets of bluebells appear in spring. Woodland birds include woodpeckers, bullfinches, owls, nuthatches and warblers. In the Chilterns, these woods often cling to side of chalk slopes, where beech was managed, felled and replanted for use in the furniture industry.
Lowland mixed deciduous woodland
These woodlands grow on a full range of soils and are often semi-natural. Those that existed before the 1600s and are still here today are considered to be ‘ancient’. Oak is common, alongside a range of other tree species, such as lime, hornbeam, ash, elm and field maple. These places are often carpeted with bluebells in spring and fungi in autumn, and support a range of mammals, woodland birds and invertebrates.
Wood-pasture and parkland
This is type of land has been managed through grazing. It may be of ancient or more recent origin, perhaps starting life as a medieval hunting forest, wooded common or a landscaped estate. Trees are often pollarded (the crowns taken off) and stock may graze the grassland beneath. A mix of habitats can be found here, including open areas, dead and decaying wood, and more enclosed woodland. Deer are a common sight, birds like woodpeckers flit between trees, and beetles and fungi thrive in the dead wood.
Traditional orchards are essentially crops, planted in low densities to grow fruits and nuts. Beneath the trees, short grassland, grazed by livestock and generally unimproved with fertilisers and chemicals supports a rich wildlife. Mature and gnarly trees, with split bark and hollows, make perfect nesting sites and shelter invertebrates. Fungi are abundant on both the trees and in the grasses below, and birds like redstarts and fieldfares feast on berries and fallen fruit.
Traditional hedgerows were used to divide field boundaries or keep stock in or out. Now, they provide shelter for woodland and field species moving through the landscape, such as hedgehogs and finches. Typical hedge species include hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple and hazel, often covered in climbers like honeysuckle, ivy and traveller’s-joy. Veteran trees can be found dotted through the hedges, with species like oak and ash providing nesting and roosting spots.
Why are woodlands important?
Woodlands under threat
Woodlands are naturally growing and evolving. Yet, a lack of appropriate management means that important woods, species, or trees can be lost easily. There are many other threats to the survival of our woodland heritage, too, including climate change, disease and habitat loss. Find out how we are tackling these threats and how you can help.
Managing our trees and woodlands
Chalk, Cherries and Chairs
The woodlands of the Chilterns are one of the themes of the Chilterns Chalk, Cherries & Chairs project – a five-year landscape partnership that aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns. The project also has a wealth of information about the Chilterns’ furniture-making industry and the chair ‘bodgers’ – how the local craftsmen were known.
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