“ With its carpets of bluebells and primroses, this is an ideal reserve to visit in the spring when the nightingales can be heard. „
'Ancient woodland' is a term used in Britain to describe woodland that has been in existence for at least three hundred years. Ancient woodland is wildlife rich, providing homes for a huge variety of plants, animals, and birds and in some cases is the only place that our rarest species survive.
Sadly, we have lost most of our ancient woodland to deforestation and to conifer plantations (which are nowhere near as good for wildlife) so that only patches of old forest, scattered across the country survive intact today. Many of these remaining woodlands are in danger of being destroyed despite being described as 'Britain's rainforests'.
A walk through ancient woodland is like slipping back through time. The scenery today appears the same as it would to people from Victorian, or even Tudor times. In many cases, the same trees that tower over us today will have been alive during many of the important historical events of the last few hundred years.
One area of ancient woodland that is hopefully safe from destruction is Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire. Now owned by the RSPB, this 300 acre site should remain intact for future generations to enjoy.
Highnam Woods is easy to find. Located four miles west of Gloucester, the entrance to the reserve is directly off the busy A40. There is a large car park just inside the entrance. There are no other facilities on site.
Next to the car park is a bird feeding area. The RSPB keep the feeders topped up in winter and due to the wide variety of species resident in the woods, almost anything could be seen here, at really close quarters.
There is a 2km trail that winds through the woods, with several smaller side paths so a whole morning could be spent exploring the wonderful woodland. The paths are level, with only one hilly bit, but due to the nature of the ground, are often very muddy, with some areas flooded; good walking boots are recommended. Apart from the car park and feeder area, use by wheelchairs would not be advisable.
Once on the trail, the noise from the A40 melts away and the 21st Century seems to recede, too. This is a beautiful area to explore at any time, but I'd recommend a visit in April/May. Highnam Woods is justifiably famous for its bluebells; seeing the gorgeous blue flowers carpeting the ground, is a breathtaking and uniquely British scene (half of the world's population of bluebells are found in Britain and no other country can boast the wealth of bluebell woods that we can).
Wild primroses add to the blaze of colour with their bright yellow livery and delicate wood anemones glow whitely from the more shaded areas.
Another reason to visit in spring is the birdsong. At this time of the year, the resident and migrant songbirds are singing energetically, establishing territories and trying to attract a mate. Dawn is the best time to arrive; the visitor will hear each bird start singing at a different time. Within an hour, the air will be filled with birdsong and it takes a practiced ear to pick out a single bird from this avian cacophony.
Blackcaps, willow warblers, wood warblers, song thrushes and robins will all be competing for attention, but the star of the show is surely the nightingale. This unobtrusive little bird is becoming quite rare in Britain but Highnam Woods is one its strongholds.
Small, brown and dull looking, the nightingale has a very complex song and sings at an incredible volume (if a machine at a workplace was as loud, people would be required to wear ear defenders when working next to it!). This is perhaps the most special songbird in the country: very difficult to see, but easy to hear.
Amazingly, this special bird can often be heard just next to the car park so visitors wanting to hear this iconic bird need not move far from the car.
The woodland cover varies along the trail, from dense, impenetrable understory, to light, airy glades. This is a great place for a picnic. Find a nice dry glade and sit back in the sunshine enjoying the sounds, the view, and some nice food; heavenly!
This is not a wood to rush through; the short trail should be followed at a very leisurely pace, drinking in the atmosphere, enjoying the stately old trees and lovely flowers, and keeping an eye out for some of the rare butterflies that make their home here. Another insect that may be less welcome to some is the hornet. Our largest social wasp is common here; look out for its strange nests made of paper.
As well as the song birds, many other declining or rare birds thrive here; all three species of woodpecker breed, spotted flycatchers, and marsh tit can be found too.
The RSPB runs events for the public at Highnam Woods throughout the year. Check their website for details at:
This is truly a magical place. Once inside the wood, the 'real' world can seem very far away. The winding trail makes the wood seem absolutely huge (embarrassing, I once got lost here, ending up a couple of miles from the car park and had to ask directions to get back!). Easy to get to and find, this is one of the best places I know for a spring walk in the woods. It's great to know that in the hands of the RSPB, this ancient woodland should be safe for many more years.