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Woodland

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In the Bronze Age people cleared the chalk slopes to graze their sheep, and they also cleared the wood-land on the top of the hill. Remnants of old field boundaries can still be seen on the plateau, and there are two Bronze Age round barrows where these early settlers would have buried their dead. Probably in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, the land on the top of Box Hill was abandoned, almost certainly because the soil became leached out and impoverished (much as is now happening in South America with the clearing of the tropical rainforests). Naturally, as soon as people stopped cultivating the soil, the area reverted to woodland.

During the Middle Ages people came back, cleared the land and started farming the top of the hill again: some quite well-defined medieval field boundaries and rabbit warrens (they kept rabbits for meat) can be seen to this day. But a drastic drop in the population in the late Middle Ages caused history to repeat itself: once more the summit of Box Hill was abandoned and back came the woodland. Much of the woodland on the top of Box Hill therefore dates from the late medieval period, supporting many species that need long continuity of woodland cover. Plants include primrose, bluebell, dog and sweet violets, dog's mercury, selfheal and foxglove; and there are many nationally rare species - mainly deadwood insects - some of which have only ever been found in the Box Hill area. Today the woodlands are managed to keep vistas open and to encourage this diversity of flora and fauna.

There are also pockets of woodland which since medieval times have been coppiced (the traditional method of harvesting tree regrowth). Special plantations of hazel, sweet chestnut or ash produced wood for fuel or hurdle-making, for walking sticks and fencing posts. Within living memory charcoal burners worked on Box Hill, and they would have used faggots from the coppices for their fires. The National Trust keeps these areas of coppice going, partly because some of the old coppice stools are historical monuments in their own right, partly because it benefits endangered species such as the dormouse. Elsewhere on the hill there are a number of commercial plantations dating from the late nineteenth century to the late 1940s: the tall European larch or beech inter-spersed with conifers such as Corsican pine are used as nesting sites by sparrowhawks. Much of the high beech wood which is such a feature of Box Hill was destroyed in the storms of 1987 and 1990, but natural regeneration and a programme of replanting will ensure the continuity and richness of the associated wildlife. Beech and oak woods grow with ash, birch and wild cherry on the clay-with-flints deposit on the top of Box Hill; and on the flanks of the hill, where the soil is thinner and the chalk closer to the surface, as well as beech there are some of the finest hanging yew woodlands in England. Yews and beech do well on the infertile chalk soils of Box Hill: in fact they are the 'climax' trees that formed the original forest to which Box Hill would revert if left entirely to its own devices.


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