The Kent Downs AONB is one of Britain’s most wooded landscapes. Woodland covers over 20% of the AONB (17,579ha) and is the second largest land-use, after farming. Woodlands are a vital component of the natural beauty of the Kent Downs, providing a green mantle to the upper slopes of the escarpments and valleys.
Kent's woodlands emphasise the undulating nature of the dip slopes and scarp, and frame the agricultural lower slopes and settlements. Much of the 1,560 hectares of publicly owned woods (Kings Wood, West Wood, Park Wood, Elham Park, Beveridge Bottom, Covert and Covet woods, Denge and Eggringe woods) are prominent in the landscape along the top of the North Downs ridge and comprise large blocks surrounded by agricultural land. The North Downs complex of woodlands, for example, is an integral part of The Stour and Elham Valleys. All are ancient woodlands and all lie within the AONB and the Mid Kent and East Kent Downs landscape character areas.
Almost 70% of the Kent Downs woodland resource is ancient woodland (continuously present since at least 1600 AD) and is the second highest concentration of ancient woodland in an English AONB at 10.5% (the High Weald AONB supporting the highest at 21%). The Kent Downs’ ancient woodland is nationally important representing 3.4% of the total resource of England and Wales. The rich ground flora of ancient woodlands as shown on the Woodland Trust website includes bluebells, wood anemones, ramsons and yellow archangel and the bird song of warblers, nightingale and nightjar are part of the natural beauty of the AONB ancient woods. The ancient woodlands of the Kent Downs also preserve the evidence of thousands of years of human activity in earthworks, monuments and place names.
The highest woodland concentrations in the AONB are found on the Greensand Ridge between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge; along the chalk escarpment in West Kent; in large blocks in the mid Kent Downs; above the Stour Valley and in areas of the East Kent Downs plateaux. The diversity of woodland types broadly follows the different soil types within the AONB, including clay (with ash, hornbeam and oak); chalk (with ash, beech and yew) and free draining sands (with oak, birch and beech). Lowland beech and yew woodland is particularly distinctive in the Kent Downs and is of European significance.
A significant feature of woodland throughout the AONB is a predominance of coppiced sweet chestnut planted into much of the ancient woodland over the last two centuries. Historically, sweet chestnut coppice was used for pit props in the East Kent coalfields and for hop poles. Latterly, as these industries collapsed, chestnut coppice went for hardwood pulp at the nearby paper mills at Sittingbourne and the Medway Valley. These industries no longer use hardwood pulp and the closest paper mills are now in North Wales and Northern France.
Chestnut is still coppiced for paling and post-and-rail fencing. A recent development is the increasing use of chestnut coppice for wood chip. Further information about this can be found on the Kent Downs Woodfuel Pathfinder page and its use in both local and regional woodfuel supply chains. In Kent, Sussex and Surrey there remains a coppice industry which, although small and threatened, could provide the resource required to return the coppice woodland of the Kent Downs to rotational management and continue a management tradition with its origins in the Neolithic period.
The continuation of coppicing is vital for landscape and biodiversity conservation. Much of the AONB’s woodland landscape was once characterised by blocks (cants) of coppice stools cut on regular cycles. Most animal and plants species of ancient woodlands require coppice management which cyclically opens up the woodland floor to light. Coppice creates mosaics and edges of high canopy with taller and shorter coppice stands, providing a diversity of ecosystems within the woodland habitat.Climate change puts a special focus on the woodlands of the Kent Downs. It is believed that the Kent Downs will be a refuge for lowland woodland types as climatic conditions change. Additionally sweet chestnut, being a species of Southern Europe, is likely to be well adapted to the predicted conditions and coppicing is thought to be a way to make the woodland ecosystem more resilient to the predicted changes. At the same time wood chip from coppice woodland could provide a significant resource of low carbon energy for heating and potentially power, especially and in a significant way in the new developments of the growth areas and growth points, but also for individual households.
Grants and Regulations in England: www.forestry.gov.uk
UK Woodland Assurance Scheme: An independent certification standard for verifying sustainable woodland management in the United Kingdom. http://ukwas.org.uk/
Woodland Carbon Code: The Woodland Carbon Code is a new voluntary standard for woodland creation projects in the UK which will make claims about the carbon dioxide they sequester. www.forestry.gov.uk.
Forestry Skills Initiative: The Forestry Skills initiative will fund training for up to 45 new entrants to the forestry workforce. The trainees, who will be employed by the private sector as forestry apprentices, will be able to access a £270,000 fund to help pay for the cost of their training. www.forestry.gov.uk
Pests and diseases: With a recent increase in findings of new pests and diseases, it is clear that Britain's trees are facing unprecedented threats. www.forestry.gov.uk
Woodland Management and Climate Change: Our woodlands have been established over many years in a relatively stable climate. Tree species selection has assumed that these climatic conditions will remain constant. This key assumption no longer applies. www.forestry.gov.uk
Small Woods Association: The national association for small woodlands. http://smallwoods.org.uk/
Small Woodlands Owners Group: The Small Woodland Owner’s group has been formed to aid the enjoyment, diversity and conservation of British Woodland. http://www.swog.org.uk/
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI): Guidance for SSSI owners and occupiers www.naturalengland.org.uk