Wharfedale is fortunate in having preserved a number of woods which are ‘ancient’ – they have been in existence since at least 1500. They have been subject to traditional management which retains the native ground flora, or at least only modifies it slightly.
There are many small woodlands on the steep, terraced slopes above Kettlewell, with large stands at Grass Wood near Grassington and Strid Wood near Bolton Abbey. Lower down the valley, Middleton Wood at Ilkley is noted for its springtime bluebells.
The limestone woodlands of Wharfedale make up 5% of the total ancient semi-natural woodland in the Yorkshire Dales. Dominated by ash, downy birch, hazel, hawthorn and rowan, the woods include shrubs such as wild privet and spindle. They also contain some species for which upper Wharfedale is particularly important, the nationally scarce angular Solomon’s-seal, baneberry, downy currant and dark-red helleborine among them.
Kirk Gill Moor Wood is one of the few oak-birch woods in the Dales and includes some sessile oak with much downy birch and silver birch. Small areas of yew occur at Firth Wood which probably originated as natural stands. Strans and Rais Woods are especially species-rich wood pastures with ash, hazel, birch and holly over a ground flora including wood crane’s-bill and marjoram. Lightly grazed areas on woodland edges are home to common meadow-rue, globeflower and the nationally scarce northern hawk’s-beard. This species has declined and is now only found in a scattering of sites up the northern Pennines.
Grass Wood is an archetypal Dales ash wood with a hazel understorey which was coppiced for many years. It was partly planted with beech and sycamore in Victorian times, and in the 1960’s with conifers, but the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are gradually removing these. Much of the wood is on limestone scars which introduce varied habitats. The rich ground flora is regionally important, and includes lily-of-the-valley, wood sorrel and yellow pimpernel, indicators of ancient woodland, together with bloody crane’s-bill, melancholy thistle, angular Solomon’s-seal, burnet rose and mountain melick. The undisturbed woodland produces a wealth of fungi each Autumn and nuthatch, treecreeper, woodcock green and great-spotted woodpeckers and many warblers use the wood.
Above Grass Wood is Bastow Wood, which is younger, since it overlies a celtic field system. It is wood pasture, rather than woodland, a type of habitat known in only one other site in the Dales, with scattered ash, birch, sycamore and rowan, and hazel understorey. Bird cherry, hawthorn, blackthorn and geulder rose are rather less frequent. Thin limestone soils support blue moor-grass and red fescue grasslands which are rich in herbs, including rockrose, bloody crane’s-bill, and fairy flax. Anthills confirm the ancient nature of the pasture.
In Littondale, Hawkswick Wood has developed on stable limestone scree and is an open ash wood. There is a scattered shrub layer of hawthorn and hazel, with bracken and dog’s mercury dominating the ground flora. The more interesting plants, such as lily-of-the-valley, primrose, wood anemone and herb paris occur on the screes.
Over the valley, Scoska Wood clings to the limestone scars and upper slopes, with herb-rich neutral or calcareous pasture below. At the boundary a number of springs emerge, with flush communities. The wood contrasts with the drier Hawkswick Wood, since it is cooler and moister. Ash dominates, with an understorey of hazel and hawthorn. Downy birch and bird cherry also occur. The rich ground flora contains dog’s mercury, ramsons, sanicle and herb paris. There is a tall-herb community at the wood’s edge, with wood crane’s-bill, melancholy thistle and meadowsweet.
Above Bolton Abbey is the famous Strid Wood, which contains the largest area of acidic oak woodland and the best remnant of oak wood-pasture in the National Park. The river dissects the wood, with oak forest on the north-east side and more altered woodlands on the south-west. The largely acidic ground flora on the north-east, with woodrush, bilberry, wavy hair-grass and several species of fern, is modified by calcareous flushes, with opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, wood melick and mountain melick. Relict wood-pasture retains old pollards of oak, holly and birch, growing amongst bracken and acid grassland. The south-west bank has many introduced species of trees including beech, sycamore, poplar and conifers such as larch and Douglas fir. Nevertheless the soil is less acid and the ground flora is rich, with dog’s mercury, ramsons, sanicle and sweet woodruff, together with the uncommon yellow star of Bethlehem. The bryophyte flora is rich, with several rare and local species, including Dicranum montanum, Cinclicotus mucronatus, Fissidens rufulus, Nowellia curvifolia and Sphagnum quinquefarium. The selective, rather than clear, felling has preserved a valuable lichen flora and Strid Wood is considered one of the best lichen woods in Yorkshire. Over sixty species of birds have been recorded, forty-four of these breeding, including pied flycatcher, redstart, wood warbler, common sandpiper, grey wagtail, dipper and goosander.
Middleton Wood is an ancient oak wood, with both sessile and pedunculate species. Sycamore has invaded the east end and there is some elm and ash, with alder and willow in wetter parts. Shrubs include elder, hazel and holly, with hawthorn and blackthorn below Curly Hill. The springtime bluebells are joined by wood anemone, wood sorrel and dog’s mercury. In damper areas lesser celandine is followed by ransoms, or wild garlic and yellow pimpernel can be found. There is a patch of giant horsetail, over a metre tall. By the streams are bog stitchwort and opposite-leaved golden saxifrage. Rarer flowers include moschatel and goldilocks, with the parasitic toothwort. Autumn brings a variety of fungi – Amanita crocea is yellowish and uncommon species. The old trees attract a variety of birds, including tawny owl, sparrowhawk, greater spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, treecreeper and, in wetter places, snipe and woodcock. Chiffchaff, willow warbler, garden warbler, wood warbler offer challenges for the birdwatcher. In winter siskin, lesser redpolls and brambling visit.
Very much like Strid Wood, Dob Park Wood in Washburndale has conifers and mixed woodland with some impressive bluebell stands. All three woodpeckers can be heard, and wood, willow and garden warblers, with blackcap, sparrowhawk, redstart, woodcock and tawny owl. Spotted and pied flycatcher nest here and in winter there are flocks of siskin, redpoll and brambling.
The extensive plantations in the National Park cover three times the area of the semi-natural woodland. They are dominated by coniferous trees, generally a combination of pine species and Norway and Sitka spruce. Greenfield Plantation, at the top of Wharfedale, is the largest in the Park. There are also plantations in Washburndale, above the reservoirs.
Do not assume that sites mentioned here have public access. Please use only public footpaths or ask permission for access. Conservation of our wild heritage depends on the goodwill of landholders – please don’t abuse it!