In the 1960s local naturalist David Ruthven studied the butterflies of Foxley Wood, making hand-drawn maps of each species’ distribution. At the time he knew three species of fritillaries here and, the most fabled of Britain’s butterflies, the purple emperor. For woodland butterflies, as well as for many plants of the understorey, this was Norfolk’s most precious site.

But it was not to last. The sixties were a time of relentless modernisation, a brave new world of technology. Ancient woods were waste space and there was a national drive to convert them to productive conifer plantations. This was the fate of countless remaining plots of ancient woodland, including Foxley.

Wood anemone, photo by Brendan Joyce

In preparation for the planting of conifers, the southern compartments of the wood were aerially sprayed by the Forestry Commission with 245T, now a banned herbicide, to kill the tall trees. The largest oaks were sold for timber but, as there was then no market for firewood, the majority of the standing wood – including innumerable tall trees – was dragged to huge pyres and simply burned. A wood and its wildlife were dying.

Keenly aware of this, David Ruthven formed a plan to save just two acres of the wood, around the purple emperors’ master tree. For centuries, though hard facts on the phenomenon have emerged only recently, the dazzling purple emperor has been known to gather around particular trees or spinneys termed master trees. In Foxley, Norfolk’s last site for the butterfly, David Ruthven had found the master tree and was committed to protecting it. He wrote of his plans to Norfolk Wildlife Trust (then Norfolk Naturalists Trust). But the wood was in private ownership and the Forestry Commission’s plans already well underway. The master tree was lost. The purple emperor was lost to Norfolk. (The last record was of a single butterfly feeding on carrion at a gamekeeper’s gibbet in Foxley in the 1980s.) A large swathe of Foxley Wood had become a plantation.

Foresters knew from the start that the wet clay soils of the southern part of Foxley Wood were unsuitable for the Corsican and Scots pines they were planting, and that these would taper, making them of poor value as timber. They planned to sell them for mining chocks, to supply an industry which promptly declined. In the 1980s, in part because of its commercial failure but also because of concerns raised by NWT, the Forestry Commission gave the lease back to the wood’s owners, the Dixon-Spain family, who continued to manage it as a pheasant shoot.

Then began what was to date NWT’s most complex land acquisition. Between 1989 and 1992 Foxley Wood was purchased in plots from different members of the Dixon-Spain family, and a plan was formed to restore it. Amazingly the spraying of the canopy with 245T had not greatly damaged its ground flora (though ground-spraying had impoverished it in one area). What’s more, thanks to less than rigorous control of regenerating native trees, in some compartments the wood was poised to become broadleaved again. Critically however, at the time of NWT’s purchase, the conifers had grown tall enough to begin shading  out deciduous saplings. Action was urgent.

In the early 1990s restoring ancient woodland was still a new idea. Some advised establishing a nursery and replanting the wood with local native trees. Having trudged every inch of the site, however, Reserve Warden John Milton (now Head of Nature Reserves) decided that, thanks to the foresters’ poor weeding of broadleaved saplings, Foxley Wood could best regenerate on its own, without additional planting.

Silver washed fritilary, photo by Pat Adams

So compartment by compartment, partly funded by a now  enlightened Forestry Commission, NWT employed contractors to remove the conifers, and, with huge support from teams of volunteers, reinstated the regime of rotational coppicing under which the wood had been managed for centuries. To avoid compacting the heavy soils here, and consequently damaging the ground flora, the first contract was only to remove the timber, with the brash left for NWT to remove by hand. It soon became clear that this was a mistake, as John Milton and his dedicated volunteers spent long months gathering pine brash into bonfires and burning it. Future agreements, with a contractor whose machinery did little soil damage, were to remove both the trees and the brash.

Some compartments of the wood had been planted with Norway spruce and for several years NWT sold these as Christmas trees. John recalls that, ‘Norfolk people really entered into the spirit of it, even the last year buying less than attractive Christmas trees in order to support us.’ Most years the weeks before Christmas were busy, to meet the demand for trees, but one year they were gruelling: ‘I remember having to cut these Christmas trees when I was ill with flu, chain-sawing trees which at all costs had to be ready for the Christmas sale. Since then I’ve always felt sick if I go anywhere near a Norway spruce.’ At home, John remarks with a smile, to this day his young family has an artificial Christmas tree.

Today, despite nearly thirty years as a conifer plantation, Foxley Wood is again recognised as one of Norfolk’s finest ancient woods

John’s hard work was worthwhile, as around him Foxley Wood was coming back to life. He recalls the pleasure of hearing warblers return to breed in the young coppice: willow warblers, garden warblers and occasional grasshopper warblers. Another pleasure was ‘the sheer number of butterflies as we opened up the rides.’ Much later  the silver-washed fritillary recolonised, to John’s delight.

The flora of the wood was recovering too, with light again penetrating the young coppice compartments. In the 1870s the vicar of Lyng had kept a diary, with many notes on the wildlife of Foxley Wood. The plants which he mentioned have one by one been rediscovered here, with some, such as adder’s tongue, even found in the  precise locations he recorded. As for trees, a study in the early 2000s, led by Keith Kirby the ancient woodland specialist at Natural England, found Foxley to be the best site in the UK for regeneration of tree species.

Today, despite nearly thirty years as a conifer plantation, Foxley Wood is again recognised as one of Norfolk’s finest ancient woods, carpeted in spring with the blooms of bluebells, early purple and greater butterfly orchids, barren strawberry, moschatel and herb paris. In May 2002 it was declared a National Nature Reserve, one of the highest designations for a wildlife site. All around, however, the wildlife of woodland and hedges is dwindling. John remembers he used to see lesser spotted woodpeckers, spotted flycatchers and plentiful turtle doves. In North Norfolk all these species have now severely declined or disappeared.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s response to the decline is the North Norfolk Living Landscape. In John’s words, ‘We’ve restored Foxley Wood by putting it back to deciduous woodland but it remains in isolation. The real challenge – and it’s somewhat visionary – is to connect it through corridors in the landscape with other ancient woods in North Norfolk.’ Foxley Wood has been rescued – one remarkable achievement among many in Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s ninety years of work for wildlife in the county – but the challenge of restoring a network of connected woods across North Norfolk, of bringing the purring song of turtle doves and the happy flowers of wood anemones back into all our lives, must be faced in the next ninety years.
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