Monitoring Our Woodland Nature Reserves

Monitoring Our Woodland Nature Reserves

Bluebells in Waresley & Gransden Woods - Robert Enderby

Siân Williams, Senior Monitoring and Research Officer, gives an overview of habitat monitoring and a new method the team have been trialing to assess the condition of our woodland sites.

The Monitoring and Research Team regularly visits our nature reserves to see how they are doing, working with Nature Reserve Management Teams across the three counties. We look at the ecological condition of different habitats in detail, and the effects of our management work, to make sure that what we are doing is having a positive effect on wildlife. Regular monitoring of habitats can flag up where we might need to focus more effort in a particular place, or tweak the management a bit. It can also highlight other factors (such as changes in water levels, or impacts of plant diseases) that may be having an impact on our reserves.

In recent years we have been setting up programmes of regular habitat monitoring which use the same method across all of our reserves, repeated at regular intervals. These consistent methods allow us to compare over time and also between sites, and give us specific data we can use to scientifically assess the effects of our management.

For woodland habitats in particular, our new monitoring programme is focusing on structure. This means both physical structure and age structure. Physical structure includes recording how many layers there are in the vegetation: e.g. a ground layer, understorey, sub-canopy, and canopy and how dense or open these layers are. We also record the main species found within each layer. Recording age structure means looking at whether a wood includes seedlings and saplings, through young trees, to mature and veteran trees and both standing and fallen dead wood. Together, these tell us a lot about how healthy a woodland is, and what range of habitats it is providing for animal species.

Our monitoring methods involve setting up a number of sample points spaced out across a woodland. At each sample point, we mark out circular plots using flags (you can see the flags in the photos above). Within the plot, we then look at the characteristics of all of the different physical layers, and the number of trees in each age category. When we combine the data from all the sample points, we get a good picture of the overall condition of the wood.

We have trialed the methods on a couple of sites this spring, and will be starting a regular programme of monitoring across woodland reserves from 2022.