The purpose of this document is to set out a vision for the long-term development of the habitats at Bristol Memorial Woodlands. It identifies the contribution that the site can make to wider biodiversity goals and proposed objectives for management of the site, as well as setting out broad proposals for the development of the site’s biodiversity. The precise measures by which these objectives will be realised will be set out in a series of management plans, the first of which has already been produced.
2. MEMORIAL WOODLANDS IN 2022
2.1: Site Description
The site is a natural burial site, which occupies approximately 34 hectares, comprising around 16 fields of a former farm. It provides low environmental impact burial options, which allow customers to contribute to the development of a significant natural resource. The site comprises a mixture of established woodland burial areas and fields that remain in agricultural management until they are brought into use for burials. Most of the areas that will be brought into use will be used to create further woodland burial plots; part of the site will form a dedicated Muslim Cemetery, the Meadows of Peace, which will be managed as open wildflower grassland, with scattered trees, laid out to replicate a traditional ridge and furrow field system. The fields across the site are divided by species-rich hedges, a few of which have associated ditches or small streams.
Although it is within five kilometres of the edge of the Bristol conurbations, Memorial Woodlands is set in a rural landscape that is actively, and largely intensively, farmed. The underlying geology is important in understanding the habitats that have developed and the potential for these to develop in the future: the site sits on Mercia Mudstone, meaning that the soils are heavy clays.
2.2: Site History
Consideration of the history of land management on the site is important, as historical management has an over-riding influence on both the current composition of the habitats present and their future development.
Before the site began to be used for burials it formed part of a dairy farm. The vegetation of the fields provides clear evidence that agricultural management was intensive, most significantly that fertiliser applications across most of the fields were heavy. This use of fertilisers excluded almost all plant species and has left swards that are very species-poor and of low biodiversity value. On clay-rich soils such as those present here the legacy of fertiliser applications is very long and soil nutrient levels will remain high for decades, which constrains the potential to create species-rich grasslands in the short and medium terms.
Some areas of grassland are slightly more diverse, providing evidence that agricultural management was less intensive here. These fields are largely in the southern part of the site.
In its later stages as a farm the most important habitats on the site would have been the hedges. The earliest accessible map, from the 1840s, shows the field boundaries to be largely as they remain today. The north-western part of the site was a large open field, which had been subdivided by the 1890s. This history has left a network of species-rich hedges; mature oak trees in most provide evidence that they long pre-date the 1840s. The hedges continue to be ecologically important.
A habitat that has largely been lost from the site is still freshwater. Streams and ditches run along some of the hedges, but field ponds are now largely absent. In the past most fields would have had a pond, but these disappeared as their agricultural usefulness declined.
2.3: Current Wildlife
Most of the grassland, in both the more open parts of the burial areas and in the fields that remain in agricultural management, is dominated by perennial rye-grass and has a low diversity of herbs, the most frequent of which are common daisy, white clover, smooth hawksbeard, meadow buttercup, creeping buttercup, ribwort plantain and common sorrel.
The most diverse field is in the south-western corner of the site. Herbs here include meadow vetchling, cuckoo-flower, greater bird’s-foot trefoil and the locally uncommon greater burnet.
A lawn close to the office is also diverse, with herb species including mouse-ear hawkweed, cowslip and glaucous sedge. This small area supports at least seven species of brightly coloured waxcap fungi.
The grasslands are not exceptionally rich in animal life. No grassland birds are present but butterflies such as meadow brown and bush-crickets such as long-winged conehead are present in areas of tall grassland and a range of solitary bees forages along field edges.
There are no long-established woodlands on the site, but there are two areas of plantation. The plantation in the northern corner of the site has frequent ash and field maple over a shrub layer dominated by hazel with other species including wayfaring tree and dogwood.
Many of the shrubs, particularly the hazels, have been coppiced. The ground flora includes wood avens, male fern and soft shield fern. Dead wood piles support a range of fungi and species growing on the woodland floor include blue roundhead.
Young Wood, which is in the central part of the site, has a dense canopy of immature trees, most frequently ash and pedunculate oak, over an understorey that sparser than in the other woodland. Shrub species here include hazel, blackthorn and spindle. The ground flora includes male fern, pendulous sedge and dog violet.
A good diversity of birds has been recorded in the woodlands. They include sparrowhawk, bullfinch, great spotted woodpecker, treecreeper and song thrush.
The burial areas have more open parkland type woodland with trees ranging from saplings to immature, planted either singly as specimen trees or together, in clusters and small copses. A wide range of species, largely native, has been planted. These include pedunculate oak, silver birch and holly. There are also short lengths of hedgerow planting, which have a diverse mixture of species including wayfaring tree, wild privet and field maple.
The open parkland habitat created by this planting supports high numbers of birds, which include green woodpecker, mistle thrush and (in winter) lesser redpoll.
Both the burial and agricultural areas retain the historic hedgerow network. The hedges are species rich – typically supporting between five and seven woody species in the thirty-metre sample length used in hedge assessment. Most hedges have mature trees, usually pedunculate oak but crack willow and ash are present in smaller quantity. The ground flora of the hedges is reasonably diverse, and species associated with ecological continuity include dog’s mercury, bluebell, giant fescue and bearded couch.
Green and great spotted woodpeckers, buzzard, mistle thrush, song thrush and bullfinch and, in winter, large flocks of redwing and fieldfare have all been recorded in the hedges.
The site currently has some features of importance, summarised as follows:
Species-rich grasslands (a priority habitat for conservation) in the south-western corner of the site and on the office lawn.
A small population of greater burnet.
Waxcap fungi on the office lawn.
Species-rich hedges (a priority habitat for conservation) widely distributed across the site.
Mature trees, mostly pedunculate oaks, in the hedges.
Populations of priority bird species, such as mistle thrush, song thrush and bullfinch.
The most important contribution Memorial Woodlands currently makes to the wider biodiversity of South Gloucestershire is by providing woodland in an area otherwise lacking wooded habitats. There are significant woods at Wetmoor, approximately 9km to the east, and smaller woodlands around Hortham, approximately 3km to the south-west and at Old Down, approximately 4km to the west. The wooded habitats on the site have an important potential contribution in allowing wildlife to move between these different woods.
3. THE FUTURE
This section considers the contribution that Memorial Woodlands can make to biodiversity conservation as the habitats on the site develop and mature. It has been written with consideration of the constraints imposed by the history of the site and its soils and other environmental factors; the aim of developing sustainable management regimes on the site; opportunities to contribute to wider environmental goals, such as climate mitigation; and other land use priorities on the site, primarily the expectations of customers.
3.1: Long Term Vision
The site should ultimately provide an area of wood pasture with grazing areas defined by species-rich hedges and ditches; the Meadows of Peace will provide areas of more open species-rich grassland. Other habitats on the site will include broad-leaved woodland and scattered ponds. The site should support diverse populations of birds, including tawny owl, sparrowhawk, green woodpecker, mistle thrush and bullfinch, and be used by a wide variety of bats. The grasslands should support an increasing diversity of plants, fungi and invertebrates. It will be fully accessible to the public and used for a wide variety of appropriate recreational and educational activities.
It is important that the goals set for the site are achievable: for example, the legacy of intensive fertiliser use makes creation of herb-rich grassland on most of the site an unrealistic aim across most of the site. It is also important that the Memorial Woodlands remain an attractive place for people to visit and that burials remain accessible.
Wood pastures are areas of open woodland with grassland grazed by cattle or other agricultural stock, comparable to the parkland seen on many landed estates but with a higher density. They were a common component of the landscape in lowland Britain but have become rare although they remain more frequent in some other parts of Europe, such as Sweden. Wood pastures are being restored by several conservation bodies, for example the National Trust at Leigh Woods, and they are an emerging component of several rewilding schemes, such as that at Knepp Estate. Several priority habitats for conservation as recognised in official guidance are present in wood pastures and they can support an exceptional range of wildlife, including many rare and threatened species. Within the wood pasture system there is potential to create other priority habitats, such as orchards.
A mix of trees scattered across lightly managed grassland can be of high importance for birds (including the species listed above); provides high value foraging and roosting habitat for bats; provides habitat for rare insects associated with mature trees; and has high potential for plants and fungi.
Wood pastures are attractive places for people to visit and amenity and educational use of this site should divert recreational pressure away from more sensitive habitats, such as ancient woodland, whilst still allowing people to experience an environment rich in biodiversity. The use of grazing stock and the potential for timber and wood production means that Memorial Woodlands would remain part of the local rural economy.
Fields in the western part of the site have a slightly more diverse flora, indicative of slightly less nutrient-enriched soils. They should be targeted for the development of species-rich grasslands with widely scattered trees as part of the Meadows of Peace. Grassland diversity will increase slowly as the residual effects of previous management disappear; as soil fertility declines the increase in species richness can be expected to accelerate.
There are currently two small areas of woodland on the site. These are of value for birds and other groups of wildlife and this value can be expected to improve as the habitats mature. The two areas lack species associated with ancient woodlands, as would be expected given their recent origin, but ancient woodland species can be expected to gradually colonise from adjacent hedges, which support a good diversity of woodland plants and other wildlife.
Field ponds are a traditional feature of the landscape that are now largely absent from the site and from surrounding areas. Creation of wetland habitats is a reliable method of enhancing biodiversity.
The site will have a positive impact mitigating climate change as trees grow and the grasslands and associated soils mature without intensive inputs.
3.3: Progress Towards Realisation
The measures that have already been carried out at Memorial Woodlands have constituted initial steps towards achieving this goal – trees have been planted, both as scattered specimens and in small groups, and grassland has been managed without the use of fertilisers and herbicides, which in time will allow the development of diverse grassland.
Species-rich hedges and associated standard trees and ditches have been retained. The two small areas of woodland are developing well and providing complementary habitats, one as a coppice system with a dense understorey and the other as a high forest habitat, dominated by standard trees with a less dense understorey.
3.4: The Short Term
In the short term (over the next twenty years) most of the site will remain in active use for interments and large numbers of visitors will visit graves and memorials. Land management across most of the site will remain largely as it has been over the last few years. Existing trees will mature and where necessary be managed, for example to mitigate the effects of overcrowding. Further trees will be planted, contributing to the development of wood pasture. The overwhelming majority of trees planted will be native species; a small orchard will also be planted.
Grasslands will continue to be mown without any input of fertilisers or herbicides. Most will be short but small strips and other areas will be managed as tall grasslands, to encourage insects, small mammals and their predators. Towards the end of this period nutrient levels in the soil are likely to fall rapidly and grassland biodiversity should increase in response.
Ponds will have been dug within most of the fields on the site and will be managed on a rotational basis.
Hedges will be managed to promote a wide, dense structure with good populations of standard trees. This management will include additional planting where necessary, laying or trimming of hedges as appropriate, and promotion of existing trees where possible. New hedges will be established within burial areas.
Management of the woodlands will follow two distinctive regimes. The northern area will be managed as a coppice with standards: the existing hazel understorey will be cut on a rotation in small coupes under an open tree canopy. A fringe of dense scrub will be maintained on the edges of the wood. The impact of deer browsing will have to be monitored and if this becomes severe then the regime may have to be modified. The southern area, Young Wood, will be managed as high forest, with a denser tree canopy over a sparser understorey.
Over this period the impacts of ash die-back, which are beginning to be seen, will become severe. Current projections are that mortality will eventually be between 80% and 90%. The impact on the relatively young planted trees in the woodlands is likely to be particularly severe. However, at present Young Wood in particular is over-stocked with trees, so a degree of thinning is to some extent welcome. There are other tree species, notably pedunculate oak, in the wood that should flourish in the absence of competition from ash and in parts of the area these may provide a sufficient canopy. Elsewhere it may be necessary to re-stock the woodland with replacement trees such as field maple, lime, silver birch and wild cherry. Most hedgerow trees around the site are pedunculate oaks but there are a reasonable number of ashes. These are older and, presumably, more genetically diverse than the woodland trees and should suffer a lower level of mortality. They will be left unless they show signs of disease, when they will be felled and replaced with other species. At the end of the period the full impact of ash die-back should be clear; it may be that regeneration of resistant ashes will already be providing replacements for lost trees.
Active measures will be taken to promote public access to the site. These will include promotion via the website and the provision of on-site facilities such as signs, informal footpaths and benches. Engagement with local schools and community groups will be encouraged.
3.5: The Medium Term
In the medium term (between twenty and fifty years from now) the frequency of interments in the long-established parts of the site will reduce. The grassland in some areas that are in more frequent use will continue to be mown whilst cattle will be grazing quieter areas. If possible the animals used will be free of systemic pesticides such as wormers. Grassland biodiversity will be significantly greater than it is at present. The oldest planting trees will be semi-mature and largely self-managing, although some thinning will be required. The final form of the landscape will be emerging.
Management of ponds will continue and further wetland habitats will be created.
Hedge and woodland management will continue. If possible, some economic return from the products of this management will be sought, particularly where this contributes to the local economy or displaces environmentally damaging alternatives.
3.6: The Long Term
In the long term (more than fifty years from now) mowing will continue in the Meadows of Peace. The remainder of the site will be grazed by cattle, beneath a tree canopy varying between widely spaced parkland type trees in the western part of the site and a denser, but still open, canopy elsewhere. Grassland biodiversity will be high and Memorial Woodlands will make a significant contribution to the South Gloucestershire resource of this threatened habitat type. The diversity of wildlife associated with the trees will be high and it will continue to develop over the very long term as trees become mature and then veteran. Some hedgerow management will be necessary in order to retain the historic structure of these priority habitats.