Tucked away in the folds of the Lammermuir hills is a hidden gem: Woodhall Dean, a wonderful old oakwood – a precious remnant of the ancient woodland which once covered most of Scotland. The wood is a nature reserve owned by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and, at 60 hectares, is the largest area of semi-natural woodland in East Lothian. Clinging to steep slopes above two burns it has escaped conversion into farmland for thousands of years and it is now notable for rare species of mosses and lichens, as well as for woodland birds and flowers. If you are lucky, you can see adders whose range has declined greatly in recent years.
As part of its summer programme of visits, members of the Society spent a fascinating and enjoyable three hours walking through the wood in mid-May. The party was led on a circular walk by Lesley Fairweather, who is a key volunteer helping to look after the wood. May is perhaps the best time of year to visit and we enjoyed the splendid show of bluebells and other woodland plants as well as the oak and birch trees many of which are very old and full of character. Most of the migrant birds had arrived and were singing strongly. Some of the group were fortunate to see the beautiful redstart which is an uncommon species largely restricted to old oak woods.
Lesley showed us the trees which the volunteers have planted around the fringe of the wood to help extend it while allowing the old trees to develop naturally. Care is taken to ensure that the species planted are all native with seed sourced locally. Natural regeneration from the older oaks is also encouraged but browsing by roe deer can prevent the seedlings from getting away.
We were shown the indications that at one time the wood was valued for its timber with old trees showing signs of coppicing or pollarding which took place many years ago. An old packhorse bridge dating from the 1700s is still standing though no longer safe to use – see photo. This was used for the extraction of timber to make charcoal and for the many other uses for which wood was needed in those days. Now the conservation value far exceeds any commercial use and when the trees die, they are left to decay, creating valuable deadwood habitat which will benefit insects and other wildlife for many years to come.
A lot of work has gone into constructing a path round the wood and then maintaining it in good condition. In places the path is narrow and steep so is not for everyone. However, the best way to appreciate Woodhall Dean is to go carefully, linger, watch and listen – if you do so you can feel the past.