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Ancient wood no longer feeling drained

[Tuesday 24 November 2009]

An ancient North Yorkshire landscape is going back to its watery roots in a bid to explore more eco-friendly ways of alleviating severe flooding.

A groundbreaking project by the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency is underway at 340 hectare (850 acre) Bishop Wood, near Cawood, to dam drainage ditches, allowing rain water to be retained for longer in the wood rather than quickly flowing downstream into the Selby Dam, a tributary of the River Ouse. The initiative is being backed by £25,000 from the National Grid.

Bishop Wood is the largest wooded area in the Humberhead Levels, just a few metres above sea level, and is also an ancient woodland site, meaning that it dates back at least to the 1600s when the first reliable maps were produced.

Once part of a huge hunting estate owned by the Archbishop of York, it is now managed by the Forestry Commission on a lease from the Church Commissioners.

Historically, Bishop Wood would have been much wetter than it is today. But in the 20th century large areas were planted with pines as part of a national push to shore up the nation’s depleted timber reserves. That meant that more drainage ditches were cut to drain the land.

Now experts are taking a leaf out of the history books to turn back the clock. Around two miles of dykes are being excavated to increase their storage capacity and then dammed. During heavy downpours these channels will fill with water, eventually overspilling into selected areas, covering up to 30 acres of the wood.

Brian Walker, Forestry Commission Wildlife Officer, said:

“This is the first time in Yorkshire that we have tried anything quite like this and although it’s a relatively small scale experiment, it could have far wider implications for other flood prone areas. We are not flooding the wood, but rather reverting back to a pattern of seasonal wetness. There are also extremely good ecological reasons for re-wetting the wood. It will boost biodiversity and over time more oak and alder will take root, both classical wet woodland species.”

Public access to the popular wood will be maintained as many trails and paths are already on higher ground. Others will be diverted. Work to dam the drainage ditches will take six weeks.

Jeff Pacey, Ouse catchment manager for the Environment Agency, added:

“The idea behind this project is to allow the woodland to retain a bit more flood water, rather than it passing straight on down to Selby.”

Wildlife set to benefit from the project will include water voles, various beetles and also a rare mud snail. This diminutive beast was found during field surveys to pave the way for the project. It survives in a few isolated fen pools and is listed in the British Red Data Books of rare and endangered species as ‘vulnerable’.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is also planning to run a range of public outreach events in the woodland as part of its drive to highlight the importance of the natural environment and wet woodland habitats in the Selby area. More details will appear at www.ywt.org.uk/whats_on.php

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