A wonderful June day, and we have a Biodiversity cluster day out to Windsor Great Park, the expansive grounds of Windsor Castle. Our hosts are Ted Green, the wonderfully indomitable and opinionated ecologist of the park (picture below), and Jonathan Spencer from the Forestry Commission. Ted has played a major role in bringing some ecology-focussed management to the park.
The park has been managed as a royal hunting ground and private estate since the Norman Conquest almost a thousand years ago, and was a Saxon hunting ground before then.
We started off by looking at some wonderfully ancient oak trees that are around one thousand years old (the dating is very approximate). These are amongst the oldest broadleaf trees in Northern Europe (coniferous yew trees can frequently be older). The oaks are withered and often hollowed out by heart wood decay, but still very much alive and hosting a wonderful array of biodiversity. Ted argues that the hollowing out actually increases the likelihood of surviving high wind speed events (something he observed after the Great Storm of 1987), and may also be a strategy to recycle nutrients locked away in heartwood.
Beyond the ancient trees, another focus of interest was the role that large animals play in shaping ecosystems (something I talked about at the ZSL Raffles lecture last week). There is a vigorous debate about how the presence of large animals "opened up" closed forests into a woodland-glade mosaic. These would have been aurochs and bison in the early Holocene before they were hunted out, and even elephants and rhinoceros in the previous interglacial, before the Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions.
In Windsor there has been some implementation of these ideas, with an old breed of magnificent longhorn cattle left free to roam through some woodland pastures. The resulting ecosystem of open woodland glades and some magnificent ancient trees is just magical. Ted emphasises again and again how important it is to maintain and conserve soil diversity and function in these systems.
Thank you Ted and Jonathan for a magnificent day of insight, exploration and sheer admiration of these wonderful trees and ecosystems.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University