Managing woodlands – for people and wildlife


7 Minute Read

Opinion Piece; Joe Downie from the LlyG Coednet project considers the benefits of woodland management and the additional value good practice can create with goods and services.  

Sustainable woodland management is a phrase we hear often, but what does it mean? And why does a woodland even need managing?

Our native British woodlands are precious, special places valued by people and wildlife alike. But very few of the woods or forests you see today are in a ‘natural’ state. Most are managed, sometimes intensively, as in a commercial conifer plantation, or more sensitively, as in many broadleaved woodlands.

Indeed, because in the UK we have long since lost the large wild animals like elephants and woolly mammoths, that used to crash through our native woodlands opening up areas, many unmanaged woodlands tend to quickly become dark, overgrown, impenetrable places. It will be fascinating to see how the return of ‘ecosystem engineers’ bison, to woodland in Kent, may restore these natural processes.

Conversely, in places where deer populations are running unchecked (due to the loss of their natural predators like wolves), the opposite can be true, with little understorey and woodlands struggling to naturally regenerate because saplings are promptly munched.

Our woodlands have been so altered by humans that they’ve lost their system of natural checks and balances that made them dynamic, complex habitats so that now we must manage them as best we can – for people and wildlife.


A key consideration in any management plan should be to maintain and enhance the overall health or resilience of the woods.

But what does that mean? So, a healthy, resilient woodland ecosystem is one which is going to be able to better withstand some degree of management and sustainable harvesting, as well as stresses related to climate change. Resilience tends to be greater when there is a diverse range of tree species so that if one species falls victim to disease, there are plenty of others to fill the gap.

Resilience may also be greater in larger, and more connected areas of habitat. Being larger is likely to mean a greater variety of microhabitats within a woodland (for example, areas that are wetter, steeper, more shaded or on different soils).

More micro-habitats mean more niches for more species, which improves overall resilience. And larger areas of well-connected woodlands allow more genetic diversity within species populations and allow species to move through them, improving genetic diversity and aiding migration in response to climate change and other pressures. This is especially important for species which do not disperse too much, such as adders, or species which are mostly arboreal and rely on tree or hedgerow ‘corridors’, such as dormice. 


Sustainability can be thought of more in human terms, referring to the sustainable harvesting of products that the woodland provides, such as timber, food, firewood and other products. In other words, not taking more than we need or more than the forest needs to ensure future generations can continue to harvest as we have done.

Done well, sustainable woodland management allows you to continually harvest useful products while also supporting a thriving woodland ecosystem for wildlife. For example, by thinning out a woodland, you can help remaining trees mature into big, strong, healthy specimens while also harvesting a useful wood product (poles for fencing, charcoaling and firewood, for example). The extra light reaching the forest floor will support new growth and allow shaded saplings to develop into big trees.


Coppicing (or pollarding in areas where animals are known to graze), also increases the amount of light in woodland, and adds structural variety when done on rotation; the section of woodland cut most recently will be the most light and open, supporting species that like these conditions, while a section cut 7 or 8 years ago will be the most woody and shady, supporting species that prefer these conditions. Overall, the variety of habitats created by the rotational coppicing helps maximise biodiversity.

When coppicing, the “sweet cut” should be as low to the ground as possible to try and encourage new growth to come up through the ground with new roots, rather than simply as new branches sprouting from the original stump or stool, reliant on the original roots.

A man coppicing hazel in a wood
Joe coppicing

Coppicing takes advantage of the fact that certain tree species respond well to being pruned low to the ground and put out new growth. This may be related to the co-evolution of trees and large herbivores, which would have crashed and eaten their way through the wildwoods of old. It seems likely that some tree species responded to this threat by improving their ability to regenerate. 

As a result, some trees that are coppiced can survive for many hundreds of years, compared to perhaps just a hundred or so years for an un-coppiced tree of the same species. Hazel is one such species, and it is coppiced extensively in Wales. If the forest is managed sustainability, these products can, in theory, be harvested in perpetuity. In other words, the entire woodland ecosystem can continue to thrive even while providing a range of useful products for people.

Supporting wildlife – our role.

There are small interventions or aids that we can do to support wildlife in our woods, we can erect bird, bat, owl and dormice boxes to improve the life chances of certain species. We can also make paths and build ‘dead hedges’ to try and keep people (and their dogs) on public paths, rather than disturbing wildlife and trampling on wildlife. Dead hedges can also be great refuges for small mammals like mice and shrews. And we can leave the woods as ‘messy’ as possible – for example, by leaving deadwood where it falls and plenty of bramble patches.

We can also think about what time of year we work in the woods and do our best to avoid noisy and potentially destructive motorised equipment like brush cutters and chainsaws, to try and minimise disturbance.

Ecosystem services

Thinking bigger picture, well-managed woodlands can provide wider societal benefits, principle among these being ecosystem services.  Ecosystem services are the many and varied benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems, so for well-managed woodlands, these could be moderating floods, capturing harmful pollutants and improving air quality (especially in urban areas), providing shelter, shade and ‘screening’ (for example, from the sound of roads). In hilly areas, they can provide a vital role in stabilising the land, preventing soil erosion and landslides. They do this both through the leaves of the canopy and lower layers, which intercept rainfall and lessen the “splash” impact, and (more importantly) through the roots, which bind the soil together, reducing the amount that washes away.   Woodlands are also a living seed bank, helping pollinate nearby trees which rely on airborne pollination.

Sustainably managed woodlands can also help improve biodiversity through having a range of habitats and micro-habitats (such as old, standing dead wood), as well as woodland that is rich in light and airflow/space, which provides more opportunities for more species in comparison to a dark, densely populated monoculture stand of trees in a commercial conifer plantation for example. 

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in the current climate, woodlands help draw down and lock up carbon (in the woody mass of the trees, in the roots, and in the soil), helping tackle global heating caused by greenhouse gases.

Benefits to people

The social benefits of well-managed woodlands are well known to community woodland members in Wales, and to our partner organisations like Coed Lleol and Tir Coed, but on a national scale the benefits are only just beginning to be understood and appreciated.  These benefits have been well-known to indigenous and other societies for a long time. The Japanese, for example, have long understood the benefits of Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) and now research confirms * that being in woodlands can be good for our physical and mental health. A well-managed accessible woodland will include footpaths, benches / sit-spots and small glades or clearings (which are also great for light-loving species like butterflies) for reflecting and learning.  For people feeling stressed by the bombardment of noise, advertising and pollution in modern-day life, woodlands can offer the perfect antidote. 

Nature connectedness is becoming more widely understood and practised – for example, the NHS now offers “green prescriptions” through the social prescribing route recommending people with certain health conditions take a regular, mindful walk, or join a group in their nearest green or woody space.   Coed Lleol ( Small Woods Wales) have understood these benefits for nearly a decade and have been working with communities across Wales to offer health and wellbeing activities in woodlands, and working with researchers to ensure that their work is proved academically.  Llais y Goedwig member Reconnect in Nature offers training and mentoring to health professionals looking to work in outdoor practice, and courses in woodland wellbeing, whilst other LlyG members including Wild Elements CiC, Sirhowy Woodlands, Welcome to Our Woods, and The Woodland Skills Centre provide social prescribing activities within their communities. 

Added outdoor value

Woods are perfect outdoor classrooms for education and learning – the calming yet always changing setting of a woodland classroom makes a fantastic (and refreshingly different) environment for learning. The forest school and bushcraft movements, which are explicitly low impact, wouldn’t exist in this country without woodland.

Woodlands also make fantastic spaces for low-impact leisure activities like walking and running (activities which are also good for health), while they are also perfect settings for people of all ages to slow down and get closer to nature. 

There is debate, however, about just how far leisure pursuits in woodlands should be developed. Commercial mountain bike trails, for example, can push the limits of sustainable recreation within a woodland, while major so-called “eco-tourism” developments, which often require the removal of trees to make way for buildings and access roads, in my opinion, probably exceed the threshold.

This isn’t to say there’s no place for eco-tourism though. If done well, income is likely to increase as biodiversity improves, especially if charismatic species like beavers, pine marten, red squirrel or osprey are re-introduced or attracted to an area because it is in good ecological order. Nature-based experiences such as bushcraft skills holidays, yoga retreats, walking holidays, yurt and treehouse accommodation, responsible foraging, etc, can provide further sources of revenue, even while maintaining the principles of sustainability and open access. 

As we’ve seen, sustainably managed woodlands can provide a decent “crop” of multiple woodland experiences and products all the while becoming better places for wildlife to thrive.  CoedNet is the platform that will help bring these products to the attention of more people, and encourage a wider sustainability debate. 


Research: Valuing the mental health benefits of woodlands, Gregory Valatin, Liz O’Brien, Matthew Bursnell – Lead Author: Vadim Saraev