Can clearing paths boost wildlife?

The work of volunteers – Ramblers volunteers included – can help many species of plants and animals to thrive. Conservation volunteers in particular step into the gaps that were left behind when we lost many of the larger species that shaped our landscapes – the aurochs that trimmed trees and grazed meadows, the boars that turned over soil and dispersed seeds, and the beavers that felled trees and created wetlands.

A small bird singing

Wood Warbler - Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Woodland wildflowers

Autumnal shadows from trees on fallen leaves

Common tasks performed to keep our path network open, like tree felling and scrub clearance, arguably imitate the actions of these great ecosystem engineers, maintaining many of the habitats that our wildlife has come to rely upon. And in protected landscapes, such as nature reserves, felling select trees within a woodland opens up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor. With space to grow and ample sunlight, woodland wildflowers like bluebells and wood anemones can flourish, carpeting the forest floor in colour and providing nectar for insects.

(Image right Guy Edwardes/2020VISION)

Forest-fringe dwellers  

Areas of forest that have been opened up, like woodland rides and glades, helps other wildlife that favours forest clearings. And paths that run alongside wooded areas, where the trees give way to shrubs and grass, are often more diverse than the shadier areas deep inside the woodland. A wide range of plants can spring up towards the sun, playing host to a wealth of wildlife. Some rare and declining butterflies depend on these clearings, like the pearl-bordered fritillary, its wings a beautiful chequerboard of orange and black.

Scrubbed up 

Birds flying over a grassland with cattle grazing

Autumnal grassland - Nick Upton/2020VISION

Grasslands and other open habitats also benefit from human activity. If left to its own devices, grassland will generally grow into scrub, which over time can become woodland. This is a natural process – habitats are dynamic and change over time, shaped by the species that call them home. The problem is, we’ve lost so many important habitats that we have to effectively freeze the clock on the few precious patches that remain. Chalk grasslands, once a part of every farm, have developed alongside humans because of livestock grazing and cutting for hay. Here, rare butterflies thrive and 40 species of plant can grow in a single square metre.

Heathland habitat

A small bird preparing to take off from a branch

Nightjar - David Tipling/2020VISION

A small bird standing upon some heather in flower

Dartford Warbler - Credit: Chris-Gomersall/2020VISION

Lowland heathland similarly has a long history of human management; traditional heathland activities such as livestock grazing and burning have played a vital role in stalling succession (in which more vigorous plants become established at the expense of smaller, less competitive species). This has allowed heathland to persist over the centuries. Here, Dartford warblers sing from clusters of gorse and nightjars nest on the ground amidst growing heather and bracken. By clearing some scrub from these habitats, it helps to keep conditions right for the rare wildlife found there.

A Dormouse climbing a branch

Dormouse - Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Of course, scrub itself can also be a wonderful place for wildlife. The dense, tangled bushes shelter nesting birds, like garden warblers and lesser whitethroats, provide pollen for bees and butterflies, and may even harbour a hazel dormouse! It’s important to let some areas of scrubland develop, but there’s a balance to be struck in the absence of those species that would have once maintained it naturally.

Rewilding

There is a growing movement that seeks to bring back the natural processes that we strive so hard to replicate. Many will have read about the success of rewilding Yellowstone, the USA’s first national park, and the ripples of change the reintroduction of wolves in the mid-1990s generated across the park’s interconnected ecosystems.

Closer to home, beavers are now found in enclosures across Britain (and wild in some places), shaping wetlands and creating space for other water-loving wildlife, and certain breeds of cows, pigs, and horses are taking the place of their missing ancestors. In Kent, the local Wildlife Trust is even studying the role that bison could play in restoring our woodlands.

But these natural processes take time, and really need to be unleashed on a grand scale for full effect. But it’s nice to think that some of the actions of Ramblers and other volunteers echo the actions of our lost ecosystem engineers and ultimately benefit our wildlife.