Wildlife Column: Phenomenon of ‘Shadow Woods’

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For around four years, supported by the Peak Park and the British Ecological Society, we have worked with ‘citizen scientists’ to investigate the phenomenon of ‘Shadow Woods’.

By mapping common woodland ‘indicator’ plants across parts of the Peak District moors west of Sheffield, we have created digital maps of data generated to show distributions of important or significant species. Then, working with old maps and archives we can identify known ‘ancient woods’. We are hunting for fragments of countryside and vegetation we believe were present before the Domesday account written around nine hundred years ago; the so-called ‘Shadow Woods’.

Using the indicators to guide our search we are able to locate the ancient wood pastures and wooded commons which largely pre-date the ancient woods and moors themselves. Indeed, this new approach to understanding countryside history has suggested very strongly that our moors and heaths are the result of intensive management since the ‘parliamentary enclosures’ around two to three hundred years ago.

This is when the moors, which were commonland, were ring-fenced to keep sheep in and peasants like me out.

The result of this intensive management of lands which many consider to be ‘wild’ is that ancient wood pastures were degraded. However, don’t get me wrong, I love moors, bogs and heaths. But the problem has been that these remarkable ecosystems were changed. Our surveys suggest that the unenclosed wooded commons and wood pastures extended way further ‘down the hill’, into and beyond areas such as Sheffield. As these ancient ecosystems were located farther downslope, they became more woody and grassy, and up onto the higher ground were wetter. However, it seems that these were open lands but with scattered trees even up to the high moors and bogs of today and they had far more diverse flower-rich vegetation with woodland species like bluebells, greater stitchwort and even wood anemone.

Imagine the moors and heaths but with more ancient trees and patches of wildflowers; wonderfully exciting wildlife habitats. Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.