Woodlands in Wear Lowlands
The pattern and extent of woodland cover varies considerably in the Wear Lowlands which are heavily wooded in places and very open in others. Ancient semi-natural woodlands lie in denes and gorges and on steep bluffs overlooking the Wear floodplain. Heavily wooded parklands lie along the Wear corridor, spreading onto the adjacent valley terraces which elsewhere are generally very open with scattered small plantations. Secondary woodlands and scrub are found on derelict land, abandoned railways lines and road verges.
Oak Woodlands are strongly associated with the acidic and neutral soils of the Wear Lowlands and are typical of denes and gorges. They include lowland oak woodland communities on better soils and lowland oak-birch communities on infertile sandy soils associated with heathlands, or on thin soils over acid coal measures in the denes. On wetter sites alder woodland communities are found: alder-ash communities on flushed slopes in dene woodlands; alder carr woodlands on wet fertile soils on the margins of ponds and wetlands; valley fen alderwoods on seasonally flooded land on the river floodplain. These are likely have had a more widespread distribution on the Wear floodplain in former times. Secondary semi natural woodland and scrub communities are typical of derelict land, abandoned railway lines, steep dene pastures, and road verges. These are highly variable in structure and typically dominated by pioneer species like birch, sycamore, ash, rowan, hawthorn, gorse and dogrose. On wetter ground goat willow, grey willow and eared sallow are common.
Characteristic native woodland types in the Wear Lowlands (identified here by their National Vegetation Class) include:
- Lowland Oak Woodland – W10
- Upland Oak Birch Woodland – W11
- Lowland Oak Birch Woodland – W16
- Upland Oak Birch Woodland – W17
- Alder Carr Woodland – W5
- Valley Fen Alder Woodland – W6
- Alder Ash Woodland – W7
- Hawthorn Scrub – W21
- Blackthorn Scrub – W22
- Gorse Scrub – W23
- Bramble Scrub – W24/25
Information on the typical structure and species composition of these particular native woodland communities, distribution and guidelines on their management and suitable sites for new planting can be found by clicking on the links above or by downloading following PDF:
Native woodlands in the Wear Lowlands tend to occur as relatively isolated fragments, although some are quite large and there is a degree of continuity along the main watercourses. Many have been modified by the planting of exotic or commercial species and a number were felled and replanted in the 20th century. While some are managed under WGS contracts – including those managed by local authorities and the larger estates, many receive no active management.
Objectives for the area’s existing native woods include:
- Conserving semi-natural oak and birch woodlands and improving their management.
- Restoring replanted or modified ancient woodlands.
Many plantations on the Wear Lowlands are associated with parkland and estate landscapes laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most plantations from this period have been felled and replanted more than once in their history although some older trees survive. They are often composed of broadleaved species such as beech, sycamore, oak and ash, or mixtures including conifers, particularly scots pine and larch. Exotic conifers and hardwoods such as horse chestnut, sweet chestnut and hornbeam are often present in the more ornamental woodlands and copses of parklands. Younger plantations of conifers and native or exotic broadleaved species, often narrow shelterbelts and small copses, are a common feature of restored opencast land and reclaimed colliery land.
Some plantations in the area are managed under Woodland Grant Scheme contracts but take-up is very variable – many receive little active management due to the current economics of forestry. Objectives for the area’s plantations include:
- Progressive conversion of some softwood plantations to native woodland – and particularly on replanted ancient woodland sites, in denes and riverside bluffs, and sites close to ancient woods to expand the native woodland habitat resource.
- Increasing the proportion of native broadleaved species in softwood plantations – and particularly along watercourses, margins and rides.
Priorities for new planting in the Wear include:
Creating new native woodlands, particularly where they would extend or link existing ancient woods, along watercourses and on floodplains.
As existing semi-natural woods tend to survive as linear features associated with the denes, gorges and floodplains of the main watercourses, planting new native woodlands in and around these areas offers the greatest potential for consolidating and linking the woodland habitat network. In selecting sites care needs to be taken to avoid features of value in this landscape – areas of heathland vegetation, old field boundaries, old semi-improved pastures and areas of rig and furrow and other archaeological features.
Increasing woodland cover in the more open valley terraces and particularly in areas affected by opencast mining, on reclaimed land, in the urban fringe, and within the Great North Forest.
The coalfield landscapes of the Wear Lowlands are priority areas for new woodland planting generally due to their legacy of environmental degradation and proximity to urban populations. While some parts of the landscape are currently very open in character, the landscape as a whole is generally robust and heterogeneous. It contains some heavily wooded areas as well as areas heavily influenced by urban and industrial development where new planting would strengthen landscape character by helping to screen, contain and assimilate built development. There are some sensitivities in the landscape (see above) but many sites are suitable for new woodland planting.
Creating new community woodlands close to towns and villages.
The Wear Lowlands are heavily populated and many towns and villages have little access to woodland or natural green space. Planting community woodlands close to urban populations can provide an important recreational resource for local people as well as improving the appearance of the urban fringe.
Creating new woodlands in the restoration of mineral workings.
The restoration of mineral workings – and particularly opencast coal and brick shale sites – offers opportunities to expand native woodland cover to deliver biodiversity, landscape and community benefits.
In the incised valleys of the Wear and its tributaries new woodlands should generally respect the linear grain of the landscape and follow watercourses, denes, steep bluffs and valley sides. In the more open rolling terraces, and particularly in areas with strong enclosure patterns, new woodlands should respect, and interlock with, the surrounding field pattern.
Many of the priorities for new woodland planting are for new native woodlands. For these, existing native woodland types can be used as a guide to species selection.
Over most of the Wear Lowlands lowland oak woodland communities (W10) are the most appropriate models for new planting on typical agricultural soils, together with lowland oak-birch communities (W16) on free draining sandy sites, thin acidic soils, or reclaimed ground. Alder communities are well suited to wet ground: W7 on flushed soils, W5 in association with ponds and wetland features, or W6 on land subject to seasonal flooding on river floodplains.
On the relatively fertile soils of the Wear Lowlands opportunities may exist for the production of good quality hardwoods with planting mixtures designed for silvicultural purposes. Where possible these should use the native broadleaved species found locally in native woodlands.
View an interactive map of the distribution of Native Woodland Types in County Durham.