Savernake Forest, Wiltshire

If the reference to ‘Safernoc’ in a 934 AD charter is anything to go by, Savernake Forest must be at least 1000 years old. Covering about 4,500 acres (1,800 ha) of countryside near Marlborough, it is the largest privately owned ancient hunting forest in England, full of majestic and veritable veteran trees. But even more important are the lichens growing upon them.

The woodland has an outstanding lichen flora, with nearly 120 species recorded, many of which are characteristic of old forests. Species include the very rare Caloplaca herbidella, which was recorded for the first time from Savernake, Lemon Stubble Lichen (Chaenotheca hispidula) and Lecanora sublivescens, known worldwide from only the UK and Sweden. This globally significant diversity of lichens has led to the forest being recognised as an Important Plant Area. In addition, over 500 species of fungi have been recorded, as well as other important wildlife such as Purple Emperor and White-letter Hairstreak butterflies.

But don’t let this long history fool you into thinking that Savernake is untouched. Originally, it was wood-pasture grazed with livestock and from the 12th Century onwards it was a typical Royal Forest, a mosaic of woodland, coppice, common land and small, hidden farms. But the way we manage forest has changed and we no longer graze or coppice woodlands at levels that maintain their diversity of wildlife. Without this management, large veteran trees are becoming crowded with overgrown canopies, saplings, shrubs and brambles, all of which cast shade and threaten the lichens.

There are around 2,600 ancient oaks and 2,400 ancient beech trees in the Forest. Some are famous, such as the ‘Saddle Oak’, the ‘King of Limbs’, and the ‘Big Bellied Oak’ beside the A346 south of Cadley. Working with the Forestry Commission, we’re mapping as many ancient trees as possible, noting their lichens and cataloguing their threats. Only then can we help guide future management.

Our goals:

- Map and electronically tag as many individual ancient trees as possible, assessing their condition and threats to their health.

- Undertake a comprehensive lichen survey to identify trees that support particularly important species that need more careful management.

- Use this information to inform management of the forest and safeguard the future of the special lichen flora.

Under threat:

Lecanora sublivescens

This lichen forms a yellowish green crust on the trunks of oaks and beech trees, usually lower down where limbs have fallen and light can reach the trunk. Found in just a handful of sites scattered through southern England and Wales, the only other country where this species occurs is Sweden. It’s a real rarity and is known only from one beech tree in Savernake. Sadly, on a survey in 2011 this tree was found to have died, although the lichen was still alive. Photo © Neil Sanderson.

Little and Large lichen (Mycoporum antecellens)

Forming small crusts on the smooth bark of trees such as beech and hazel, this rare lichen is an indicator of old woodland. The white or greenish patches are speckled with small black dots, a mixture of tiny pycnidia (vegetative fruiting bodies) and larger perithecia (sexual fruiting bodies). The difference in size gives rise to the name 'Little and Large' lichen. Photo © Neil Sanderson.

Frances’ Lichen (Porina rosei)

Described from Europe for the first time as recently as 1991, this rare lichen is named after the botanist and ecologist Francis Rose, who many will know from his excellent book The Wild Flower Key. The lichen forms a green crust on the mossy trunks of old trees, especially oak, and produces branching clusters of isidia (vegetative fruiting bodies) that look like miniature cauliflowers. Photo © Neil Sanderson.

How's it going?

2015

Following funding from the Forestry Commission, three training days are held to recruit volunteers to assist in the ancient tree survey and to record information about each tree.

The survey of individual ancient and veteran trees begins. Each tree is being tagged with a number, then photographed and plotted using GPS equipment. Threats to each tree - such as encroaching ivy, growth of saplings or root disturbance - are recorded.

2016

A comprehensive lichen survey is completed, with over 670 individual lichens – of 116 different species - being recorded.

By October, 3,230 live trees and over 400 dead or fallen trees have been tagged and recorded by Paul Rutter (Plantlife’s Woodland Advisor) with help from volunteers.

The Forestry Commission have begun to implement vegetation management around a number of the ancient trees to safeguard their future and the lichens they support.

Who are we working with?

Forestry Commission

North Wessex Downs AONB

British Lichen Society