Tangled, damp and humid, our wet woodlands are increasingly rare, yet these secret wetlands provide a home to many rare plants and animals.
Tall birches lilt and sway, their graceful branches catching the dappled light. Beneath the low canopy of tangled alder and willow, mosses and ferns pierce the shade with their intense emerald greens.
Tussocky sedges and clumps of yellow flag iris conceal woodland ponds where frogs and toads lie hidden, while at twilight, bats dart through the air feasting on caddisflies and lacewings.
Wet woodlands, or carrs, grow on poorly drained or seasonally flooded soils. The type of wet woodland and the trees that grow there vary depending on how wet the soil is.
You’ll find wet woodlands in damp places scattered across the UK. Look for them along rivers and streams, on floodplains and at the edges of fens and bogs. Small pockets can also be found within larger, drier woodlands.
Many of our sites have wonderful wet woodlands you can visit. The secret swamp at WWT Castle Espie is small but important, providing habitat for all sorts of fungi, mosses, bats, birds and invertebrates. At WWT Arundel you can take a boat safari through our wet woodlands, chalk meadows and reedbeds where you can catch glimpses of dragonflies, water voles and other wetland wildlife.
It’s the mosaic of different habitats: water and wood, sunlight and shade, that makes wet woodland so valuable for nature. From the sun-dappled clearings to the denser cover of mature woodland, the water-logged ponds and pools to the drier edges, each creates a different wildlife niche. Trees like alder, willows and birch dominate wet soils. Sedges, ferns and mosses flourish beneath in the high humidity, alongside yellow flag iris, bittersweet nightshade and marsh marigold.
The abundance of partly submerged, rotting wood supports a huge variety of life, from snails and spiders to beetles and moths, including the rare netted carpet moth. Rotting birch trees provide important nesting sites for the threatened willow tit, while birch seed and alder catkins provide valuable food for redpoll and siskin. Wet woodlands and their pools and ponds also provide homes for frogs and toads along with their reptile predators like grass snakes.
Wet woodlands have been around in the UK for a long time. When the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago they developed wherever conditions were suitable. Many of our wet woodlands are home to ancient trees that have been around since the 1600s. They also have a long history of coppice management dating back to the Bronze Age with willow, because of its flexibility being used to make baskets and some furniture.
Wet woodlands don’t just provide an important home for wildlife, they’re also great at helping to clean our water. They provide a buffer against pollutants from industry and farming, so reducing the cost of public water treatment. Because of their ability to soak up, store and slow down floodwater, they also help reduce flood risk. They can help mitigate for the long-term impacts of climate change, by storing carbon. They’re also important tourist attractions in their own right, boosting our health and wellbeing. Forest bathing is becoming increasingly popular and is the Japanese practice of relaxation and meditation, of being calm and quiet among trees, while observing the nature around you.
Today, these valuable places are still under threat from urban development on floodplains, river control and management, continued clearance and drainage, and intensive grazing. Wet woodlands are also particularly susceptible to pollution, especially from agricultural run-off and invasion by non-native species like Himalayan balsam.
In recent years there has been increased focus on nature-based solutions as a way of managing flood risk. WWT is developing several examples of Natural Flood Management across the UK, many of which use wet woodlands to slow the flow and reduce flooding, for example our Two Valleys project in Somerset. These techniques also bring additional benefits to wildlife and people through the creation of healthy, nature-rich wetlands.
WWT creates, protects and restores wetlands for wildlife and people, including wet woodlands, at our sites across the UK. By joining and supporting WWT you will be helping to save these valuable wetlands.