If you had been visiting Castle Hill and Windy Pits 12 or more years ago, your journey into this part of the Forestry Commission’s publically accessible forest in Rye Dale near Helmsley would have been dominated by the dark and dense shade cast by western hemlock and other conifers. The gloom would occasionally be relieved by glimpses of recent small clearings or ‘haloes’ cut in the canopy around ancient oaks to release them from the suffocating shade.
The Veteran Trees Initiative, that ran from 1996-2000, led by English Nature (now Natural England) was at its height. There was growing awareness of the serious risk to light-demanding ancient and veteran oaks of suffocation by being enclosed in dense conifer Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS).
History – There is evidence that much of the area was managed as woodland or wood-pasture for many centuries and may well date back to a deer park thought to exist during the heyday of the Norman Castle at Helmsley. However, the area was only partially designated as Ancient Woodland on the Preliminary Inventory, and should probably have been identified as PAWS which would have flagged it as a priority for restoration. Despite being so overlooked and undervalued as habitat or for its heritage value, local Forestry Commission staff, encouraged by Natural England, took urgent steps to start the restoration of this area to wood pasture and native, open crowned broadleaved trees, a UK priority habitat.
As a general rule, the greater the number of ancient and veteran trees that are gathered together, the more important the collection is for biodiversity as a whole. At Castle Hill, as the conifer plantations were cut back and more and more ancient and veteran oaks were revealed, a very significant number of these very special trees were discovered. We now know that there are over 450 ancient and veteran trees in this area, mainly of oak and lime with some important riverside alders – a huge resource in combination with the similar population at the adjacent Duncombe Park Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Success story – Since then, a series of fungi, insect and bat surveys have proven the importance of the site, and improved processes based on assessing the number of valuable trees has confirmed that this area is indeed one of the top hot spots for biodiversity for its standing old trees and decaying wood in the whole of the UK. Experts in the Ancient Tree Forum would argue that this site is of international importance too. It is excellent news that Natural England has recognised this by extending the boundary of the original SSSI to encompass all the veteran trees – giving them much needed protection.
Special thanks must go to the dedicated staff of the Forestry Commission and Natural England for rescuing and securing a future for this very valuable collection of trees.
Jill Butler, Conservation Adviser (Ancient Trees)