Standing unloved for half a century Rail Copse is now attracting attention from the foresters and the conservation volunteers. The wood, opposite the Bunkhouse on the Aldbury road has been worked over the centuries. Originally known as The Little Copse since time out of mind, the twenty seven acre wood had a name change when the cartographer arrived from the Ordnance Survey to map the area in the 1830’s.
Rail Copse – an enclosed area of small trees for coppicing – was laid out by the Lord of the Manor with under-storey trees of hazel and hornbeam probably in the 1600’s, embanked and given a protective hedge of quickthorn to exclude the local commoners. Situated on the edge of Aldbury common the local residents had, and surprisingly still have rights of pannage and wood collecting. It was probably acquired for the Ashridge Estate by the 7th Earl Bridgewater (1803-1823) as part of his land grabs when the family set out to become landed aristocrats in the fist half of the 19th century.
When the family succession was questioned in the middle of the 19th century the Estate was in limbo, and according to Lady Marion Alford the occupier at the time writing in 1852, – “ you may imagine the condition of any large landed property beyond the Park gates which has been neglected for the past 20 years”. The practice of coppicing had probably ceased by this time and the acreage developed into a mixed wood of beech, oak, holly, hazel and hornbeam.
A ground-breaking change took place some one hundred years later in the 1960’s when the western side of the copse was clear-felled and planted up with hundreds of Scots pine, sourced from the plant nursery on the Estate. This was undertaken under the stewardship of John Wilson the head ranger who was a forester first and foremost and who was dedicated to growing timber for the Nation. It was somewhat out of character because he considered coniferous woodland as “bloody boring”, but he was in good company, with the Forestry Commission laying down a carpet of conifers across the land. They even went as far as producing a guide to recognise the various types of softwood conifers in their tree portfolio. Biodiversity was not a consideration in those days.
Regimented rows of plantation pines are disliked because they cast an acidic shadow across the forest floor shading out the understorey, and destroying the soil invertebrates. The present work to thin out the Scots pines which will take place periodically, will increase the light levels and reverse the decline in biodiversity. Replanting hornbeams and a quickthorn hedge would be aspirational restoration.
Coniferous woodlands still have considerable biodiversity value in their own right as they enter their mature stage, as they attract a range of different species to those found in broadleaf woodlands. The bird population could include Siskins, Crossbills, Goldcrests and Firecrests, while Sparrowhawks prefer to nest in conifers. Curiously Scots pine have a greater number of associated insect species than all of the broadleaf trees apart from the Oak and Birch.
There is much seasonal work to be done so the volunteers can look forward to many bonfires burning brushwood!