Wood pasture, pollards and the mystery of hornbeam

Contrasting areas of ancient woodland are present around Hatch Park in the centre of Kent. Bockhanger Wood lies on a sheltered slope and is dominated by hornbeam pollards that may be up to 1000 years old. Barrack Wood is open, heathy woodland with many oak pollards as well as hornbeams. The trees have been pollarded for hundreds of years and unlike in the better-known pollard woodlands such as Epping Forest, this activity has never stopped. The trees support a variety of rare specialist species and both woods are within a SSSI.

A 10-year programme of work to bring all the trees into a regular cycle of pollarding was begun in 2002 and acta evaluated this work in 2014. The success of each tree was assessed. The reasons for poor growth on some trees were identified, although in general the hornbeams have flourished and it was possible to devise a more ambitious programme for the next 10 years.

A comparison with ancient hornbeam woods in the UK and western Europe enabled current best practice and topics for further research to be defined. The project demonstrated the unique character and continuity of the Bockhanger and Barrack Woods.

Management prescriptions were prepared for each tree and will be implemented with Natural England grant aid in the coming years.

The ageing pollards collapse under their own weight, branches form roots, the trunk decays and a cluster of new trees is formed.

The oldest hornbeams form strange distorted shapes with aerial roots and buttresses around hollow centres.

In this area of open woodland the hornbeams have exactly the right conditions to flourish.