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  • Magnificent ancient trees
    Pollarded tree

    ​Pollarding trees is an ancient woodland management technique

Burnham Beeches and Stoke Common are both Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Beeches is also a National Nature Reserve (NNR) and European Special Area of Conservation (SAC). SSSIs and NNRs are protected under British law and SACs are protected sites, designated under the EC Habitats Directive. 

The Beeches, covering 220 hectares, is primarily noted for its ancient beech and oak pollards and the range of flora and fauna associated with old trees and decaying wood. Stoke Common is about 80 hectares and is predominantly heathland.

Other notable features include; wood pasture, valley mire, heathland, beech woodland, coppice woodland, three ponds, three stream systems, a large open grassland recreation area and three Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

Further information about habitats

There is more information below on the various habitats found at Burnham Beeches and Stoke Common. We also have a series of fact sheets which can be picked up from the Information Point at the Beeches or by emailing the team to request a PDF copy via email. If you would like a copy sent through the post please send a stamped, addressed A5 envelope to the Burnham Beeches office.

Our management plans have further details on the habitats and how they are managed.

Wood pasture and pollards

  • Grazing the wood pasture
    Cattle grazing in wood pasture at Burnham Beeches
    ​British white cattle graze under the pollards

Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, an attractive landscape which is also very good for wildlife. We have reintroduced grazing and are managing the trees to restore this important habitat. 

Wood pasture contains a mix of young and mature trees - often pollards - standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

Livestock graze in different ways and eat different plants. This helps to create a varied habitat which maximises the variety of plants and animals (especially invertebrates) that can live in the area.

Managing land as wood pasture declined as coal, oil and gas became widely available and people stopped keeping livestock. The result was that the open areas around the trees were colonised by shrubs and young trees and the variety of plants and wildlife diminished. 

What is a pollard?

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots. Pollards are cut at this height so that livestock grazing among the trees cannot eat the tender new shoots. At Burnham Beeches there are mainly oak and beech pollards. These were once cut every 10-15 years in order to produce evenly sized branches that were mainly used for firewood. The constant regrowth encouraged by pollarding extends the lives of the trees so that they live for much longer than standard trees. As they live for longer they often have features such as: hollow rotten stems; dead or decaying branches; loose bark; sap runs; and depressions where water collects. These features are often great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

Decline and re-establishment of pollarding

Sadly, the practice of pollarding declined and the pollards were left uncut. At about the same time, grazing animals were removed from the site allowing young trees and scrub to grow around the pollards. This meant the old trees had to compete for space and light, forcing them to grow taller and leaving them top heavy. Consequently they became vulnerable to losing branches or collapsing completely in strong winds.

The Burnham Beeches team is at the forefront of working to re-establish the ancient management techniques and restoring the old, lapsed pollards, as well as finding out new methods to create new pollards to help bridge the gap with the veterans. 

Heathland

  • Heathland at Stoke Common
    View of heathland at Stoke Common
    ​View of the heath at Stoke Common courtesy of Terry Cork

Heathland is a habitat that is typically characterised by poor, acidic, sandy or peaty soils, low growing plants such as heathers, gorse and fine grasses and small areas of scrub.

The type found at Burnham Beeches and Stoke Common is known as lowland heath, an internationally rare and unique habitat and one of the rarest habitats in Britain. It plays an important role in providing habitats for some specialised, very rare plants, animals and insects that are quite different from those of grassland and woodlands.

Heathland losses

84% of England's heathland has been lost since 1800 (Natural England 2002), through agricultural improvements, a decline in active management and increased road building and development. Somewhere in the region of 80% of Buckinghamshire's remaining lowland heath can be found at Stoke Common and Burnham Beeches.​ Around 100 years ago, management of the heaths began to decline and people stopped turning out their livestock onto them to graze; the result was that scrub and woodland began to grow, crowding out the heathland vegetation.

Today's heathland

The area of heathland at Stoke Common is considerably larger than that at the Beeches and represents the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire's once extensive heathland. ​It is 80 hectares of almost exclusively heathland, home to low growing plants such as heather, gorse and fine grasses, but also includes several ponds, some woodland, a valley mire as well as several public footpaths and bridleways.

Since the late 1980s at the Beeches and 2007 at Stoke Common, large areas have been re-opened and restored through: felling or rotational coppicing of young trees and scrub; soil disturbance to bring dormant seeds to the surface where they can germinate; and the re-introduction of grazing animals. All work carried out is guided by detailed management plans. Some work is carried out by machinery but volunteers also play a key role in restoring these valuable habitats.

Fungi

  • Fly agaric toadstools
    Fly agaric mushrooms on Stoke Common
    ​The fly agaric is a common sight on heathlands

Fungi are nature's recyclers, helping dead leaves and wood to decompose and releasing the nutrients within so they can be absorbed by other organisms.

The main part of a fungus is often not seen, it takes the form of a network of 'root-like' fine filaments (hyphae) which seek out dead or decaying organic material. The mushrooms and toadstools that you see are the fruiting bodies of fungi. They produce spores (much as a plant's flower produces seeds) which enable the fungus to find new places to colonise.

Fantastic fungi

Fungi are a key part of the ecosystem; almost all plants have fungi associated with them which help them extract essential nutrients from the soil. There are also many invertebrates that feed on fungi or lay their eggs in the fruiting bodies. Some of these species are either extremely rare or need particular species of fungi to survive. Fungi can also be an important source of food for small mammals in autumn and winter.

Fungi picking is not allowed

The reserves are home to a great variety of fungi but picking is not allowed for the following reasons:

• some are very rare and removing them could threaten them further
• they provide habitat for many creatures, including some rare or threatened species
• by removing the fungi you also remove their ability to produce spores and thus the next generation is put at risk
• with nearly 600,000 visits per year at the Beeches alone, if people were to collect fungi, there would soon be none left for future visitors to enjoy. 

Burnham Beeches and Stoke Common has a fungi policy (71KB) which further explains why fungi picking is not allowed (except with express permission from Natural England).

Deadwood

  • Dead or alive?
    Deadwood habitat at Burnham Beeches
    ​The tree may be long since dead but this log is full of life

​You may not think that deadwood looks pretty but it is an incredibly important habitat. Many of the rare species found at Burnham Beeches are associated with deadwood so it is very much part of our management plan.

Deadwood includes fallen branches, felled trees, log piles, dead branches in trees and standing dead trees. It provides food and shelter for rare wildlife and should not be disturbed.

Dead, but still alive!

Deadwood plays host to many species of fungi and invertebrates which are dependent upon it for one or more stages of their life cycles. It can be colonised within days of dying and, as it decomposes, will continue to support a changing variety of life, providing shelter for reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Burnham Beeches is home to over sixty rare or endangered species, the majority of which are beetles and flies that rely on the deadwood to survive. Some of the species that use the deadwood are one reason why the site is a National Nature Reserve. 

Insects that rely on dead or decaying wood are 'saproxylic'. This is the most threatened community of invertebrates in Europe. Often the larval stage lives in the wood, whilst the adult feeds on nectar from flowers and blossom. The stag beetle is probably the best known saproxylic insect in the UK.

Managing deadwood

Ideally, deadwood would be left where it is cut, falls or dies standing and, where appropriate and safe to do so, we leave it untouched for the benefit of the wildlife that depends on it. However, Burnham Beeches has many visitors so this approach is not possible in all areas of the woodland. The site is broken into risk zones so that a balance can be achieved between removing deadwood in areas with high visitor numbers and retaining it in the less frequented areas. Where it is necessary to move deadwood, this is done as soon as possible, before invertebrates have a chance to colonise it. It is also kept as close to its original location as possible to maximise colonisation possibilities and it is left in similar conditions to which it was found. If we need to stack deadwood, we sometimes create special log piles which replicate the conditions found in old, hollow trees. These piles are also great for small mammals and reptiles.

During our management work we may create deadwood by retaining logs from felled trees, leaving long stumps on cut branches or, if a tree needs to be removed to allow more light into an area, cutting it at two or three metres from the ground and leaving it as a standing dead stump.


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