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Woodland Survey Handbook: Collecting Data for Conservation in British Woodland

Woodland Survey Handbook: Collecting Data for Conservation in British Woodland

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Woodland Survey Handbook: Collecting Data for Conservation in British Woodland

286 Seiten
2 Stunden
May 2, 2019


How do you record the wildlife in a wood? This book explains ways to record the flora and fauna found in woodland and outlines the sources you can use to find out more about the history and management of an area. Whether you have just a few hours, or a few years, there are examples that you can follow to find out more about this important habitat.

Woods include some of the richest terrestrial wildlife sites in Britain, but some are under threat and many are neglected, such that they are not as rich as they might be. If we are to protect them or increase their diversity we need first to know what species they contain, how they have come to be as they are, to understand how they fit into the wider landscape. Conservation surveys are the bedrock on which subsequent protection and management action is based.

There is not one method that will be right for all situations and needs, so the methods discussed range from what one can find out online, to what can be seen on a general walk round a wood, to the insights that can come from more detailed survey and monitoring approaches. Fast-evolving techniques such as eDNA surveys and the use of LiDAR are touched on.

May 2, 2019

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Woodland Survey Handbook - Keith Kirby

Woodland Survey Handbook

Published by Pelagic Publishing

PO Box 874, Exeter, EX3 9BR, UK

Woodland Survey Handbook

ISBN 978-1-78427-184-8 Paperback

ISBN 978-1-78427-185-5 ePub

ISBN 978-1-78427-186-2 PDF

© Keith Kirby and Jeanette Hall 2019

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.

All rights reserved. Apart from short excerpts for use in research or for reviews, no part of this document may be printed or reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, now known or hereafter invented or otherwise without prior permission from the publisher.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Cover photographs:

Top: Keepscombe Wood, near Looe in Cornwall (Adam Burton Photography,

Lower left to right: Recently-cut coppice, Roudsea Wood, Cumbria (Keith Kirby); Data logging in the field (Ben Ditchburn, Forestry Commission); and Recording vegetation quadrats, Wytham Woods (Keith Kirby)




1 Introduction

2 Background to nature conservation surveys

2.1 Introduction

2.2 Why do we need nature conservation surveys?

2.3 Curating your data

2.4 Standardisation, survey accuracy and the value of ‘unplanned surveys’

3 Landscape-scale assessment: putting sites into their wider context

3.1 The overall woodland resource

3.1.1 Past woodland cover

3.2 Woods in their spatial and temporal contexts

3.3 Landscape character assessments

3.4 Other historical accounts and papers

3.5 Conservation designations, agri-environment schemes and surveys

3.6 Ancient woodland inventories

3.7 Species distributions

3.8 Pressures and threats

3.9 Collation and analysis of landscape-level surveys

4 Site assessment surveys

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Why focus on recording vascular plant species and structure?

4.3 Accessing past surveys

5 A basic walkabout survey

5.1 Things to consider before you start

5.2 Outputs of a walkabout survey

5.3 Planning and mapping a route

5.3.1 Precision on the map and in the field

5.4 Recording plants on walkabouts

5.4.1 Recording species abundance

5.4.2 Sources of variation in the species recorded

5.4.3 Interpreting the species list

5.5 Describing woodland structure

5.6 Subsidiary habitats within woodland

5.7 Surrounding land

5.8 Vegetation maps from walkabout surveys

5.9 Management

5.10 Initial write-up

6 Going beyond the walkabout: more detailed surveys

6.1 Quadrat recording in woodland for flora/vegetation

6.1.1 Size of quadrat

6.1.2 Quadrat distribution

6.2 Woodland classification

6.2.1 Classification systems for British woods

6.2.2 The National Vegetation Classification

6.2.3 Other woodland classifications and their interrelationships

6.3 Recording woodland structure

6.4 Dead-wood surveys

6.5 Veteran tree and parkland surveys

6.6 Grazing and browsing

6.7 Woodland archaeology and soil surface features

6.8 Soils

6.9 Biomass and energy flows

7 Surveys for species groups other than vascular plants

7.1 Mammals

7.2 Woodland birds

7.3 Reptiles and amphibians

7.4 Bryophytes

7.5 Lichens

7.6 Invertebrates

7.7 Fungi

8 Long-term surveillance to detect change

8.1 Introduction

8.2 Landscape-scale change

8.3 Condition monitoring on designated sites

8.4 Use of permanent plots and transects to assess change in woodland stand structure and composition

8.4.1 Semi-permanent plots

8.4.2 Other types of permanent/semi-permanent record

8.4.3 Making ‘permanent plot studies’ permanent in practice

9 Conclusion

Appendix 1: Example of a completed walkabout record card

Appendix 2: Stand Group key

Appendix 3: National Vegetation Classification: English key

Appendix 4: Annex I: Woodland types recognised in the UK




The original handbook was produced by the Nature Conservancy Council and we are grateful to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee for permission to draw on that volume. The Department of Plant Sciences in Oxford provided the congenial space to carry out the work. Various individuals commented on and contributed to different sections of this revision, including Phil Baarda, Marc Bruard, Ben Ditchburn, Elsa Field, Rob Fuller, Phil Grice, Jeanette Hall, David Heaver, John Henson-Webb, Mark Lawrence, Simon Leather, Dani Linton, Iain MacGowan, Tony Mitchell-Jones, Emily Warner and Ray Woods. Our thanks to them and apologies for any errors, misinterpretations and wild speculations that have been inadvertently added to their comments.

The photographs, unless otherwise stated, are by Keith Kirby, but we acknowledge the following contributions to figures and images:

The map from Charles Elton’s diaries (Box 2.1) is reproduced courtesy of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. The following are produced with permission from the Forestry Commission: Figure 3.1, based on data from the National Forest Inventory (© Crown copyright); Figure 3.2, based on the 1947 census of woodland and trees, now held in the National Archives; images of data logging in the field (Box 5.5); Table 6.5, redrawn from Bulletin 124 (Pyatt et al. 2001). Google Earth images provide the backdrops for Figures 3.3b and 5.1. Figure 3.5 is based on data collected for the Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland (© BSBI) reproduced by permission from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Natural Resources Wales produced the network maps used in Figure 3.6. Figure 5.3a is reproduced, courtesy of JNCC, from Warren and Fuller (1993). The Wytham canopy photograph in Figure 6.8a was provided by Professor Yadvinder Malhi, University of Oxford. Support for the data collection underlying Figure 6.8b is acknowledged from the Metrology for Earth Observation and Climate project (MetEOC-2), grant number ENV55 within the European Metrology Research Programme (EMRP). The EMRP is jointly funded by the EMRP participating countries within EURAMET and the European Union; NPL; the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and UCL. Figure 7.1 was provided by Danielle Linton. Figure 7.2 was provided by Professor Robert Fuller (BTO). The image in Box 7.2d is reproduced with permission from the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.


During the 1980s, much conservation effort was put into woodland surveys (Appendix 1) and this experience was brought together by the Nature Conservancy Council in ‘A woodland survey handbook’ (Kirby 1988). The emphasis was on botanical field surveys because these were the main method used to describe and evaluate sites as potential Sites of Special Scientific Interest or as Wildlife Trust reserves.

The Handbook became part of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s suite of publications, as the conservation institutions devolved and merged. The survey landscape has also changed. Much survey work is done by consultancies rather than directly by the government agencies. Citizen-science projects are increasingly being used to collect data. Remote sensing has come of age and replaced field walking (and fieldwork generally). The internet has made it possible to access data easily across a range of sources, which can then be collated using Geographic Information Systems in ways that were barely conceivable 30 years ago. Computers no longer fill whole rooms but sit on everyone’s desk and in their cars. Mobile phone apps are taking the place of bulky field identification guides; direct recording to data-loggers in the field is replacing clipboard and paper.

Nonetheless, we think that there is still a place for a rewritten version of the survey handbook, incorporating insights on woodland that have accumulated since the 1988 original. The work has benefited from inputs from current conservation agency staff and a range of others who scrutinised different sections, but the responsibility for any errors that slipped through in the final editing lies firmly with me.

Keith Kirby

Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford



This is a rewriting of ‘A woodland survey handbook’, produced in 1988 by the Nature Conservancy Council (subsequently adopted by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee), which was itself based on ideas in Peterken (1981). In this revision, we describe survey techniques that may be useful in putting the wood into its wider landscape context, and ways of collecting information for assessing the conservation importance of a woodland and for seeing how the wildlife interest may be changing in response to different pressures and opportunities.

In Britain, nature conservation interests in woods may cover everything from the soil, to forest structure, to the patterning of woods in the landscape. There is no single technique that is right for all circumstances: what works for a citizen-science project intended to develop public awareness of woodland conservation would not necessarily be appropriate for a survey collecting information for a planning inquiry. We have concentrated on those areas which seem most popular and relevant, judging from the frequency with which the outputs are used or come up in queries.

The book covers the following topics:

•Background to nature conservation surveys.

•Landscape-scale woodland assessments: putting a wood into its wider context.

•Field assessments based on a walk around a wood.

•More detailed surveys of interest features and species groups.

•Long-term surveillance and monitoring.

We have not said much about methods of analysing results or writing reports. These should be considered at the start of survey where it is intended that comparisons will be drawn between sites, or within a site over time, but there is advice available elsewhere, for example the guidance for ecological report writing produced by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (

We hope that this revision will be of use to members of the conservation agencies, wildlife trusts and other conservation bodies, foresters and individuals interested in woodland management for wildlife. We did not intend the 1988 account to stand as the ‘last word’ on woodland surveys and nor will this volume: methods are likely to move on very rapidly in the next few years. At the least, this volume may then provide a milestone against which further progress can be judged.


Background to nature conservation surveys

Questions to be addressed:

•Why do we need nature conservation surveys?

•What should be done with the results?

•Planned versus unplanned surveys.

2.1 Introduction

The Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. Many prefer a shortened summary: ‘the variety of life’. The Convention does not specify that only natural patterns of diversity should be considered, and there is increasing evidence that much of the diversity we view today is the product of interactions between human and natural processes. This is very obviously the case for woodland in western Europe and particularly in Britain (Rackham 2003; Kirby and Watkins 2015).

There is debate as to how extensive the ‘natural woodland’ cover in the pre-Neolithic period was and about its structure and composition (Peterken 1996; Vera 2000). However, all woods in Britain have been affected by human activities to a greater or lesser extent, in many cases for 1,000 years or more. A separate issue is how much we should seek to maintain these cultural landscapes, with their associated species, features and assemblages, through continued intervention and woodland management. Alternatively, should we, in some places, develop novel and more natural wooded landscapes through rewilding (Lorimer et al. 2015)? Surveys, such as described here, do not resolve these debates but they may help to clarify what stands to be lost or gained from taking one path or another.

2.2 Why do we need nature conservation surveys?

We need to understand the current interest of an area to help answer practical nature conservation questions.

•What is the overall woodland resource in a county, region or country; what are its characteristics (origin, structure, composition, patterns); which woods are most likely to be of high/low nature conservation value; and which may be more or less resilient in the face of ongoing environmental change?

•What information can we collect to help decide whether one site is of more value than another, and hence, should receive a greater level of protection, through formal designation, general policy presumption or changes to planning rules?

•What aspects of the site do we need to give special attention to when making decisions and recommendations about site management (including any decision not to intervene)?

•What can we say about features and species groups, other than the obvious vascular plants in a wood?

•What evidence is there on recent past or likely future changes in woodland patterns in the landscape, the condition and dynamics of a wood or stand and its vulnerability to different pressures or threats?

Different types of information and different levels of detail are useful in answering each of the above questions. In the 1980s, this led to surveys being broken down into three phases or levels. Phase/Level 1 surveys covered broad-scale habitat mapping; Phase/Level 2 more detailed individual site surveys; and Phase/Level 3 detailed recording of non-plant species groups, long-term surveillance of plots, and so on. This terminology is not now commonly used but is reflected in the breakdown of survey projects into

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