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Wed 27th September 2017
Floristic links between woods and meadows - George Peterken
This is a summary of a talk by George Peterken to a meeting arranged by Plantlife on 27 September 2017. The talk was about ancient woodland indicators, a subject George researched in central Lincolnshire in the 1970s and 1980s, George chose to also connect this with some points about the links between the plants of meadows and woodlands.
Bluebell does not always grow in woodland (Haystacks, Lake District)

I had become increasingly aware that woodland and grassland had not been so sharply separated in the past, and that this affects how one thinks about any species we claim to be an indicator of woodland habitat continuity.

There are many excuses for thinking of woodland and grassland as separate habitats, not least the colour-conventions of Ordnance Survey maps, the professional separation of foresters from farmers, and the ecologists’ preference for classifying habitats as woodland, grassland, heathland, etc. Our 11th century predecessors carefully differentiated meadow from woodland in the Domesday Book and, in the last 200-300 years, woods, meadows and pastures have been increasingly differentiated in land use surveys and on the ground. Wood-pastures survive in many places, but habitat-mixtures have generally become less frequent, and we have got used to a landscape of single-habitat patches, sharply differentiated by hedges, banks, ditches and fences.

Natural historians have followed this by naming many species after habitats. Thus, we have ‘wood anemone’, ‘meadow buttercup’, ‘marsh valerian’, ‘heath bedstraw’, etc. However, it does not take much fieldwork to realise that Anemone nemorosa can also be found in meadows and heaths; that Ranunculus acris, Valeriana dioica and Galium saxatile can all be found in woodland, albeit mostly in the open spaces. There are many other instances amongst our native flora: as far as woods and meadows are concerned, the most colourful is the cranesbill we find in the Pennine Dales meadows, which is the ‘wood cranesbill’, not the ‘meadow cranesbill’. Perhaps the most colourful are the sweeps of that well-known woodland species, the bluebell, spread over the treeless uplands and sea-cliffs of western Britain. And if we travel abroad, we find that species can be more versatile than we think. Thus, the oxlip we know as a woodland species in eastern England, is a meadow species in central Europe: in fact, is was also a meadow species in England, but we have destroyed all the meadows.

Against this background, wood-meadows are particularly interesting. Once abundant in parts of mainland Europe, enough survive in the Baltic countries to demonstrate that they were a dynamic and intimate mosaic of coppice, pollards and meadow that maintained an especially rich flora, in which a wealth of species were crowded together and ‘woodland’, or shade-bearing species mix freely with ‘grassland’, or open-space species. In Britain, we never had more that approximations to wood-meadows, but, where wood-meadows have been fashioned by enlarging open spaces within woodland and allowing patches of trees to develop on grasslands, we can now see plant mixtures that resemble those in the Continental woodmeadows.

The lesson I draw from this is that we should be careful of classifications. We do need to differentiate between woodland, meadow, pasture, heath, marsh, etc., but we should remember that this is our invention for our convenience, and not how the natural world works. There, habitats tend to mix and fluctuate, and many species not only use several habitats, but some depend on what they perceive as margins between habitats, or on two or more habitats existing in close proximity. A further lesson is that, if we want to optimise the environment for wildlife, we need to promote more habitat-mixtures and more change from one to another. The Three Hagges Woodmeadow exemplifies this approach.

So, how does this modify my 1980s thinking on ancient woodland indicators? Not much, as if happens. I was always aware that several of the central Lincolnshire species that were then largely restricted to ancient woods, were also at home in grasslands, but almost all semi-natural grasslands (as opposed to sown leys and other heavily fertilised and drained swards) had long since been ploughed out. By studying old maps, I also knew that some secondary woods originating on farmland in the last 200 years had grown up on semi-natural grassland, and that this must account for the presence of species that were now mainly associated with ancient woods, i.e., the plant had not colonised the wood from a distance, but the wood had been planted where it already grew, and it had survived the change because it was really a plant of both habitats. The problem was again in the label: we called them ‘ancient woodland species’, when ‘ancient habitat species’, ‘habitat continuity species’ or simply ‘slow-colonists’ would have been better. Had we done that, we would not have had to face so many raised eyebrows when the species were found outside woodland.