English Lowlands beech forests

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Epping Forest, Essex. Source: David Iliff cc-by-3.0 sa

The English Lowlands beech forests occupy much of the south of England, and are part of the Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests biome. The dominant catchmentCatchment is the entire area of a hydrological drainage basin. of the ecoregion is that of the River Thames. The areal extent of the English Lowlands beech forest is approximately 45,600 square kilometres. While European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a dominant tree, oak (Quercus spp.), birch (Betula spp.), Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa), elm (Ulmus spp.), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), hornbeam (Carpinus spp.), lime (Tilia spp.) and even some fir species have a clear role in the woodland mixture. Overall, the forests were heavily compromised beginning in the Middle Ages when agricultural land conversion began in earnest, and today the ecoregion is a locus of dense human population.

Soils in the ecoregion are chiefly limestone based sedimentary type, with noteworthy chalk deposits. Present day climate is characterised by mild temperatures and plentiful year around rainfall.


caption Map of the English Lowland beech forests. Source: WWF The English Lowlands beech forests ecoregion is bounded to the south by the English Channel, to the east by the North Sea, to the northwest by the shire of Norfolk, to the north by the English Midlands, to the northwest by the Severn Valley and to the west by southern Wales and Devonshire. The Celtic broadleaf forests ecoregion forms the ecological boundary on all land sides (to the north and west), where the rainfall levels are generally higher than in the English Lowlands. The ecoregion holds the World Wildlife Fund nomenclature designation of PA0421, and it is within the Palearctic ecoregion category.


Geologically, the Tees-Exe line divides the island of Great Britain into a southeastern sedimentary zone, and a metamorphic and igneous northwest. This imaginary line can be envisioned to connect the mouth of the River Tees between Hartlepool and Redcar with the estuary of the River Exe in Devonshire at the southwest. The lowland sedimentary rock is dominant to the east of the line and higher elevation igneous and metamorphic rock dominates at the west. The Southern England Chalk Formation dominates the soils through much of the ecoregion,

Plant succession history

At the onset of the Holocene, glaciers were retreating from this region and left a tundra here that was devoid of trees. A birch dominant taiga was succeeded by pine forests, according to pollen core research. By approximately 4500 BC most of the present day trees had appeared on the landscape, and by 4000 BC the European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) had arrived from continental Europe, although the Small-leaved Lime Tree (Tilia cordata) was dominant at that point in the mid-Holocene.

Plant communities

The United Kingdom National Vegetation Classification recognizes three distinct plant communities within beech forests in the United Kingdom:

  • Fagus sylvatica-Rubus fruticosus woodland (mesotrophic soil)
  • Fagus sylvatica-Mercurialis perennis woodland (high pH soil)
  • Fagus sylvatica-Deschampsia flexuosa woodland (low pH soil)

Generally the forests are cool and the forest floor heavily shaded, even in summer, due to the relatively dense canopy produced by beeches. The F. sylvatica-M. perennis association is designated W12 and comprises around forty percent of the beech forests in the United Kingdom. The F. sylvatica-R. fruticosus woodland is designated W14 and comprises roughly forty-five percent of the land area of United Kingdom beech forests. F. sylvatica-D.fluxuosa woodland is termed W15 and occupies about the remaining fifteen percent of beech forests in the United Kingdom.

In the Thames River and other riparian zones, there are some locations of Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa) forests. The estuaries and flooded meadows along the waterways offer unique opportunities for other specialist plant communities.

Some rare herbaceous orchids in the ecoregion iclude the threatened Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra), which is a taxon found in only three restricted loci in the United Kingdom, all of which lie in the English Lowland beech forests. The rare Birds-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) is found especially in shady forests where high pH soils are present. Among the mosses,

Knothole Moss (Zygodon forsteri) is a rare plant found in the English Lowlands beech forests, and it is also found in parts of continental Europe, but also rare there. Among the fungi, the following are rare taxa in the ecoregion: Devil's Bolete (Boletus satanas) and Hedgehog Mushroom (Hydnum repandum). Note that the latter taxon is viewed by some to have rarity and by others to be somewhat common. 


Most of the fauna are shared with the European continent, with a total of 245 vertebrate species found in the English Lowland beech forests. Noteworthy mammals of the ecoregion are the: European Badger (Meles meles), European Otter (lutra lutra), Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), Western European Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), European Hare (Lepus europaeus), Ermine (Mustela erminea) and European Polecat (Mustela putorius). The Western Barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus) is a Near Threatened bat taxon found in the ecoregion.

Other smaller mammals present in the ecoregion are the Yellow-necked Field Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis), Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), European Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius), Eurasian Shrew (Sorex araneus) and Natterer's Bat (Myotis nattereri).

Amphibians present in the English Lowlands beech forests ecoregion are the European Toad (Bufo bufo); the European Common Frog (Rana temporaria); Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita); Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus); Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus); and the Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris).

Reptiles found in the ecoregion inlude the Viviparous Lizard (Zootoca vivipara), which is widely distributed across Eurasia; Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis); Grass Snake (Natrix natrix); Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca); and the Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis), a widespread member of squamata.


There are a number of protected areas including Important Bird Areas (IBA) in the ecoregion. The New Forest being the largest such intactThe condition of an ecological habitat being an undisturbed or natural environment holding at around 566 square kilometres. Significant aquatic habitats include the Thames Estuary and marshes and Severn Estuary. The Mid-Essex coastal zone is a significant IBA. Other meaningful protected forest elements include:

  • The Forest of Arden (Warwickshire)
  • The Chilterns (Oxfordshire through Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire to Bedfordshire)
  • Epping Forest (northeast Greater London and Essex)
  • Kinver Edge (remnant of the Mercian forest, border of south Staffordshire and Worcestershire)
  • Morfe Forest (south Shropshire)
  • Savernake Forest (Wiltshire)
  • Selwood Forest (Somerset)
  • The Weald (Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey)
  • Wychwood (Oxfordshire)
  • Wyre Forest (border of Worcestershire and Shropshire)

The English Lowlands beech forests ecoregion is classified as Critical/Endangered by the World Wildlife Fund.

Prehistory and ancient history

caption Hetty Peglers Bronze Age Tomb, at Coaley Wood, Gloucestershire @ C.Michael Hogan Evidence of Neolithic settlement is widely present in the ecoregion; for example, extensive artefacts have been recovered at Runnymede, a prehistoric floodplain along the Thames River in Surrey. Numerous Bronze Age settlements have been excavated yielding insights of an advanced culture circa 3300 to 2000 years BC; these loci have yielded evidence of decorated pottery, barrows and other megalithic tombs. Numerous Bronze Age sites and artefacts have been found along the banks of the Thames River including settlements at Lechlade, Cookham and Sunbury-on-Thames.

The arrival of the Romans led by Julius Caesar in the mid-first century BC would greatly alter the ourse of human history in the ecoregion. Among the tribes he found along the Thames were the Dobunni, Catuvellauni and the Atrebates Iron Age peoples. By the mid-first century AD Roman rule was clearly in place throughout this region, chiefly by building alliances with the tribes and allowing certain local control to continue through the Celtic and Belgic chieftains. An ambitious building program has left the region with a legacy of Roman architecture from this early period; moreover, an important set of regional trackways were put in place for conveying Roman troops and goods. These roads turned out to be the forerunners of drovers' roads which would be used throughout the Middle Ages for moving livestock to slaughter or shearing points to promote the cattle and sheep industries, vital to the prosperity of Medieval England.

Justification of ecoregion delineation

The English Lowlands beech forests ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit by the same name. It includes the lowland to submontane beech and mixed beech forests of southern England, as well as some fragments of estuarine, floodplain as well as freshwater polder vegetation


  • Gaius Julius Caesar. c. 50 BC. Commentarii De Bello Gallico. Rome
  • S.D. Davis, V.H. Heywood, and A.C. Hamilton. 1994: Centres of plant diversity. Vol. 1: Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia and Middle East. WWF and IUCN.
  • Digital Map of European Ecological Regions (DMEER), Version 2000/05
  • M.F. Heath and M.I. Evans, editors. 2000. Important bird areas in Europe: Priority sites for conservation. 2 vols. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.
  • P. Needham. 1985. Neolithic And Bronze Age Settlement On The Buried Floodplains Of Runnymede. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 4
  • Oliver Rackham. 1986. The History of the Countryside, J.M. Dent & Sons, London,
  • H. Lamdin-Whymark. 2001. Neolithic activity on the floodplain of the river Thames at Dorney. Lithics 22
  • M.D.F. Udvardy, 1975. A Classification of the Biogeographical Provinces of the World, International Union for the Conservation of Nature Occasional Paper No. 18, Morges, Switzerland,
  • Charles R.Young. 1979. The Royal Forests of Medieval England. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7760-0.


Hogan, C. (2013). English Lowlands beech forests. Retrieved from