Nick Short from the Forestry Commission with a veteran oak tree in the Deer Park, near Helmsley, where a new expanded SSSI has been approved.

Added protection has been granted to the most important area of veteran oak trees in northern England.

Natural England working closely with the Forestry Commission has designated a 140 hectare expanse of woodland at Castle Hill Deer Park, near Helmsley, as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The picturesque site on the western fringes of the North York Moors national park includes the most important northerly lowland pasture oak woodland in England.

Previously, the wood harboured two much smaller SSSIs which covered 16 hectares, but these have now been absorbed into the wider protected area.

The move recognises two decades of work by the Forestry Commission and Natural England to restore 80 hectares of this fragile habitat by slowly removing conifers like western hemlock planted in the 1970s and allowing native trees to regenerate in their place.  Work initially began because experts released the potential importance of these old trees for animals such as bats.

Nick Short from the Forestry Commission explained, “We welcome this move to grant protected legal status to a much greater area, which underlines the value of the long term restoration work we are doing and our management of  wildlife habitats.  This is a fantastic place of outstanding national significance with a priceless ecosystem.  But it is also an irreplaceable asset and enshrining protection over a much greater area is good news for biodiversity and for future generations.”

Some of the Deer Park’s gnarled oaks could have put their down roots when Richard III lost his crown in the 15th century.  Other very old specimens of small leaved lime and streamside alder are also present.  Extremely rare fungi linked to the presence of veteran oak trees have been found, along with important geology, insects and beetles.  The woodland is also a major hotspot for bats, which are on the European Protected Species list.

Dave Clayden from Natural England explained, “Part of the site has been managed as wood-pasture for centuries, perhaps as far back as Norman times and probably linked to Helmsley Castle, when the land was used for deer hunting.  This is a one of the most significant sites of its kind anywhere in England and oaks of this age and concentration are extremely rare in the UK.  The trees represent a huge resource in combination with a similar veteran population on the adjacent Duncombe Park SSSI and represent habitat conditions of the ancient wildwood with a preponderance of deadwood.  Expanding the designated area is a natural step forward and takes account of the hard work done by the Forestry Commission and the Estate.”

Conifers on the site initially made it difficult to find and map the veteran trees and even orienteers were used to penetrate the forest and discover the ancient specimens.  A little over a decade ago national tree expert Ted Green, from Windsor Great Park, assisted by John Smith, deployed GPS devices to fix the location of up to 450 veteran trees and the area was re-surveyed in 2006 using funding from the SITA Trust and North York Moors National Park Authority leading to further discoveries.

“We now know that we have 511 veteran trees, of which eighty per cent are alive and potentially capable of regenerating.  A similar percentage are oaks.  That means our hopes of nurturing new native cover in areas planted with conifers within the SSSI have a solid foundation,” added Nick Short.

Rare mini-beasts found in the woodland include the six-spotted longhorn, Melandryid and soldier beetles.  The New Forest is the only other British site known to have all three species.  The lime bark beetle is another local rarity and having all four species together on one site in Britain is unique, say experts.

Because if its sensitivity there is no public access to the Deer Park which is leased to the Forestry Commission from the Helmsley Estate.

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