A major restoration project is underway at the National Trust’s largest ancient woodland, Ashridge Estate in Hertfordshire, to improve the site’s prospects for wildlife and protect its diverse habitats, which are home to many species that are endangered or in decline.

The estate, which has been used as a location for films including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Les Misérables, is equally well-known for its diverse landscape including rare chalk grassland, Capability Brown parkland, open commons and ancient woodland that are home of a rich variety of wildlife.

The woodland at Ashridge Estate is also the largest in the care of the conservation charity, with nearly half of the 2000-hectare (4942-acre) estate covered in woodland, of which 299 hectares (738 acres) are classified as ancient woodland.

Now a three-year project will restore 42 hectares (104 acres) of ancient woodland, equivalent to 103 football pitches, the first of its scale undertaken by the Trust.

The work will involve removing non-native conifers and replanting the project areas with native broadleaf species. This year, the first two-hectare (4.9 acres) clearfell block will be replanted with 3,200 saplings.

Tom Hill, Trees and Woodland Adviser for the National Trust said:

“Restoring plantation woods back to native broadleaf habitats is essential work that the National Trust is undertaking to prevent the decline in the UK’s wildlife.

“Our ancient woodland soils hold incredibly rich seedbanks and are teeming with microscopic life below ground, essentially forming the base of the ecological pyramid. They provide essential habitats for a huge variety of species of wildlife which are important for a healthy ecosystem.”

The restoration project was previously thought to be impossible due to its scale, and because much of this ancient woodland is located on particularly inaccessible and ecologically vulnerable parts of the landscape.

To avoid causing further damage to these sensitive environments, the new project trials the use of specialist track matting, funded by the Forestry Commission Innovation Fund, to help protect the ground around the woodland rides, which is the most at risk for damage when accessing the hardest to reach parts of the estate. Adding an extra layer between the machinery and the forest floor, the matting prevents damage to the woodland soils by reducing rutting along the woodland tracks, as well as protecting the nearby archaeological features.

Emily Smith, Countryside Manager at Ashridge Estate explains:

“Many of the woodlands are deep in the landscape where there are no surfaced paths or trackways. The heavy clay soil is vulnerable to compaction and erosion, meaning that until now it has not been possible to carry out the large-scale forestry work needed without causing long term damage to the ancient woodland floor. It’s been a challenge for many years, so we are really excited to be trialling this new method.

“In the first year of the project we have laid around 1000m of matting to reach one of our less ecologically sensitive woods to help inform the next steps. We will be evaluating how effective the matting has been in protecting the ancient soils from harm. By the time the project is complete, we expect to have laid 2.5km of temporary matting.”

This year, six hectares (14.8 acres) of ancient woodland have been cleared and thinned. In early 2023, parts of the project area will be replanted with a mixture of native broadleaf species like oak, hornbeam, beech and wild cherry while other parts will be left to naturally regenerate.

Emily continues:

“In year two and three we will move deeper into the estate, to the harder to reach areas which are the most significant when it comes to nature conservation value. By trialling and testing this new method, we hope to grow our confidence in the approach as the project develops.”

Tom adds:

“If successful, the track matting project at Ashridge could set a new bar in terms of what fully sustainable forestry could look like in the UK – it’s a really exciting prospect.”

Learnings from the project will be shared with other conservation organisations across the country, such as the Woodland Trust, to help inform future restoration throughout the UK.


Photo: Woodland restoration with track matting | © Tom Hill/National Trust Images

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