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OXLIPS AT BULLS WOOD,

COCKFIELD

G . D . HEATHCOTE

Bulls Wood at Cockfield in west Suffolk is now a nature reserve of the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation. It is not as well known as the Bradfield woods nearby, is relatively small (29 acres) and off the beaten track, but it is an interesting piece of ancient woodland which can provide a fine show of Oxlips (Primula elatior (L.) Hill.)- The wood was purchased from the West Suffolk County Council by the Forestry Commission in 1958 and was later turned into a nature reserve, jointly managed by the Forestry Commission and the Trust, who purchased the wood in 1983. The story of the Oxlips is an interesting one, illustrating some of the Problems of management and the differing views of naturalists which may be involved in any conservation project. The wood contains hazel, ash, oak, field maple and other trees and shrubs, but is of particular interest to botanists because of the Oxlip, Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia L.), and the many Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula (L.) L.). The plan for the reserve is to continue coppicing, which is the way the wood has been managed since ancient times, although not carried out for 30 years or more in most of the wood. Compartments of the wood are cut in rotation (usually at intervals of from seven to 25 years) leaving perhaps 30 to 40 'Standards' per acre (i.e. trees which will grow to produce timber). The wood from the coppicing is used for posts, bean poles, rake handles and the like, or for burning. Immediately after coppicing it looks as if the wood has been completely destroyed, and as if nothing will ever grow again, which can worry the general public. However, the ground Vegetation grows again very quickly, as do shoots from the coppiced 'stools' (i.e. the cut tree stumps). In some years roe deer do considerable damage to the new shoots at Bulls Wood, but they are not controlled. By coppicing the Trust hopes to encourage the ground flora, but not all botanists favour this plan and claim that the Trust should leave well alone. A small experiment was made by Mr. P. J. O. Trist (who was the first Conservation Officer of the Trust responsible for the wood) convinced me that the coppicing policy was the right one to encourage the Oxlip, although I would have prefered coppicing on a smaller scale than has been done recently by the Trust. I acted as Warden from 1973, and my wife and I helped John Trist to record the Oxlips. The flowers described here are true Oxlips. A few Cowslips (P. veris L.) with their deeper yellow flowers grow beside the track leading to the wood from Palmers Farm, and hybrids have been found between the two species near the edge of the wood. The Oxlip has a scape (which for simplicity will be referred to as a 'flower stalk') bearing an umbel of pale yellow flowers, all facing the same way. We counted the number of flower stalks, and the number of flowers on each flower stalk, growing within Im of a series of white-topped stakes in an Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 23


OXLIPS AT BULLS WOOD, COCKFIELD

43

area of the wood which was coppiced in January 1974 and an adjacent area which was left uncoppiced. A problem of nature reserves with public access soon became apparent to us, that of vandalism. Some marker stakes were knocked down and others stolen. Sadly, other markers have tended to 'disappear' in the wood and I have even had a nesting box riddled with shot. We have notices asking visitors not to pickflowers,but we have probably lost some. I was told that someone made oxlip wine one year, but have no proof of this. Birds and mammals take little notice of our signs of course and many oxlipflowerswere eaten in some seasons. Some pest control (by that I mean control of rabbits and pigeons which damage neighbouring crops) is necessary, even in a nature reserve. It is essential to have the good-will of neighbouring farmers. The tables showflowercounts only where marker stakes survived until 1976. With only three uncoppiced areas sampled from 1973 to 1976 a proper Statistical analysis of the experiment is not possible, and there was great season to season Variation. There were fewflowersin both coppiced and uncoppiced areas in 1975, possibly as a result of the excessively wet winter. In contrast, 1976 was unusually favourable for the Oxlip. In spite of these variations, clear differences could be seen between the two areas. Although in the randomly-chosen sample areas in the uncoppiced section of the wood there were more oxlip plants initially than in the coppiced section, in 1976 there were many moreflowerstalks and moreflowersper stalk on average in the coppiced than in the uncoppiced parts of the wood, as shown by Tables 1 &2. The number offlowersperflowerstalk varied greatly. Most had five flowers in the umbel, and approximately 60% had between three and six flowers. Only 1 % had less than threeflowersperflowerstalk and, at the other endofthe scale, approximately 5% had 11 ormoreflowersper stalk. In 1976 one single-headedflowerstalk carried 18flowers,and a double-headed stalk carried 28 flowers. Sometimes during growth two adjacentflowerstalks fuse together, but their umbels remain distinct. It is a pity that the poor season of 1975 affected the development of the two sampled areas. It was even more unfortunate that, due to a misunderstand-

Table 1. Numbers offlowering stalks ofoxlips in Im radius sampling areas coppiced and uncoppiced parts of Bulls Wood, 1973-1976 Coppiced areas 1973 1974 1975 1976

44 54 12 144

11 43 18 122

9 7 2 90

Uncoppiced areas 1973 1974 1975 1976

45 47 15 65

31 32 10 106

36 38 14 26

0 44 8 148

14 24 16 85

9 9 4 36

5 31 11 79

5 25 17 98

Average 1973-1976 coppiceduncoppiced 11 26 10 86

37 39 13 66

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 23


44 Table 2.

Suffolk Natural History, Vol. 23 Average number offlowering stalks andflowers per stalk in Im radius sampling areas in coppiced and uncoppiced parts ofBulls Wood,

1975-1976. 1975 Average number of flowering stalks per Station Average number of flowers per Station Average number of flowers per stalk

1976

coppiced

uncoppiced

coppiced

uncoppiced

11

13

97

66

46

51

565

340

4-2

3-9

5-4

5-1

ing, forestry workers cleared the experimental areas, and small compartments which had been coppiced in 1974, 1975 and 1976, so that this experiment and studies on the development of the flora in the different areas had to be abandoned. This does, however, show the difficulty of coordination when many people with different interests work in the same area. John Trist's experiment was on a very small scale, and cannot in itself be said to prove that coppicing is the best management policy to encourage the Oxlip in Bulls W o o d , but after coppicing the Oxlips have sometimes produced a yellow carpet which was immeasurably more attractive than the dense, overgrown stand of hazel which had been there before. Large numbers of H e r b Paris flowering shoots also emerged one year after coppicing. It must be admitted that brambles become a problem at Bulls Wood after coppicing. These plants are very difficult and unpleasant to clear by hand, and the use of herbicides to do so would be difficult to justify. But on the plus side, coppicing increases the ränge of species of both plants and animals. It particularly favours some woodland butterflies and other insects, and encourages birds which live near the ground, in addition to those which live in the higher levels of trees. When there are areas of the wood at different stages of development it becomes aesthetically as well as ecologically more attractive. My thanks to the many people who have given so freely of their time and energy to make Bulls Wood more attractive and interesting, and to preserve some of the wildlife which is in danger of disappearing. I will particularly mention my fellow Warden Stuart White. Dr. G. D . Heathcote, 2, St. Mary's Square, Bury St. E d m u n d s IP33 2AJ

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 23


OXLIPS AT BULLS WOOD, COCKFIEI.D

45

The map is intended to show that the Oxlip is found only in the west of the county but also to illustrate part of the work which is being done by the Suffolk Biological Records Centre. It was prepared by Martin N. Sanford of the SBRC at my request. It is based on records extracted from scientific joumals, books and old correspondence stored at Ipswich Museum, together with records from many amateur and voluntary recorders. Most national atlases use the 10km Square as the recording unit, but all mapping at the SBRC is plotted on tetrads (blocks of four 1km squares, which are the smallest units on the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps). It is often helpful and interesting to show the past distribution of plants and animals which have become rare or changed their frequency. In this particular map all pre-1980 records have been included. The undated records are mainly from Hind or Henslow and Skepper's Floras. With the new 'Spirit XT10 Megabyte' microcomputer plant or animal distribution maps can be produced efficiently and very quickly. The SBRC also has a computer-based gazeteer of the county, listing some 15,800 place names, and with it can show the distribution of woodland, commons and other geographical features. A Provisional Atlas of Orchids of Suffolk has already been prepared, and a Teacher's Pack and various leaflets are also available from the SBRC. Editor

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 23

Oxlips at Bulls Wood, Cockfield  

Heathcote, G. D.

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