Wood pasture sites are clearly threatened in a number of different ways, but steps for restoration and maintenance are, in theory at least, fairly straightforward. However, where field survey identifies rare or important species specialist advice should be sought to ensure that any proposed restoration is appropriate. As in all dealings with veteran trees, changes to their surroundings should be done gradually.
Where underplanted or naturally regenerating trees are shading out the veteran trees the canopy needs to be gently opened up to re-expose then to sunlight. In broadleaved stands the understorey cold be maintained as coppice whilst allowing new standards to grow to replace the veteran resource. In more recent plantations, where elements of the existing groundflora remain, the understorey trees should be gradually removed to re-create linked areas of open ground around the veteran trees.
Overgrazed sites will often first require a reduction of wild deer numbers to maintain low levels. Grazing by domestic stock should be deliberately managed to establish and refine a regime that enables scattered trees or patches of regeneration to develop. Cattle tend to be preferred to sheep in promoting tree regeneration, and stock farmed organically can reduce the risk of biodiversity from agro-chemicals and animal medicines.
The semi-natural ground flora is a key element of wood pasture but, in lowland sites in particular, the sward has often been improved by spreading lime or fertilisers, reducing the species diversity. If these practices cease, it will slowly start to revert to a more natural pasture. Nutrient stripping is possible by taking repeated hay cuts, and re-seeding would speed the re-establishment of species-rich grassland communities.
In a few cases, a lack of grazing may be allowing the pasture to become rank, and grazing should be re-introduced to maintain the pasture species.
Restoration will take time and there may be circumstances where it makes sense to intervene and maintain veterans and hasten the regeneration of replacements. If veteran trees are very advanced and sparse, small stock exclosures could be used to encourage light regeneration close by. The planting of seedlings, protected by shelters, may be necessary if seed of appropriate species is not being produced. Deliberate layering of branches or protection of suckering could revitalise existing trees, maintaining the root system and its associated flora and fauna.
Experiments with tree surgery and gentle re-pollarding may offer ways to prolong the life of veterans, while young trees can be pollarded to encourage early development of characteristics associated with veteran trees.
If the trees have been pollarded in the past, it would be interesting from a historical perspective to continue this practice in some sites. However, pollarding needs to be repeated every few years. It is skilled, difficult work, and expensive if there is no useful output (apart from the restoration of a historic landscape). Re-pollarding long-neglected veterans is probably not a good idea, unless there is good reason to believe it will benefit the trees and there are plenty on which to experiment. It would be easier to pollard young and existing ‘middle-aged’ trees to create a range of age classes.
So far attention to wood pasture in Scotland has been limited to land-use historians, naturalists, conservation bodies, the government agencies and a handful of interested individuals and enlightened landowners to who we are indebted.
Work by Scottish Natural Heritage to develop the inventory of existing sites helps to increase our knowledge of the habitat and draw it to the attention of the owners of remnant ancient wood pasture. Some are on public land: in forests, country parks and nature reserves. Government agencies and local authorities can lead the way in establishing best practice for restoration and management.
Financial incentives under the Rural Development Regulations can encourage estate owners, farmers and conservation organisations to restore and expand priority sites for biodiversity conservation. Local communities throughout Britain have already been active, particularly in the restoration of old orchards and in conserving parklands. Community woodland groups in Scotland could play a part in conserving wood pasture, combining biodiversity objectives with opportunities for local recreation and environmental improvement.
The development of new wood pastures as a sustainable multipurpose land use will require the continued input of research organisations such as the Scottish Agricultural College and The Forestry Commission’s Forest Research Agency. Above all, however, it will need the interest and co-operation of innovative landowners who are willing to put theory and research into practice, marrying the benefits of trees and livestock farming. Both are bital to the long-term management of this aspect of the Scottish countryside.