Woods of the future

Thank you to guest blogger Paul Rutter, Plantlife‘s Woodland Adviser, for our latest post. Plantlife, like the Woodland Trust, promotes the value and importance of woods and trees in the natural world, along with all other wild plants…

Image: WTPL/Richard BeckerTrees can be objects of great beauty, as well as serving very valuable purposes and functions. Why is it then that we have come to see trees in this country as either a weed that has to be removed, or a hazard, or just as a source of revenue?

Conversely some see trees are considered as being irreplaceable, deserving rigid protection at all costs and not to be touched.

We used to rely heavily on trees and the timber that trees provide. We had a high regard and respect for them, even though we cut them down and turned them into beautiful and functional objects.

But we have more recently and sadly taken them for granted. Now we are losing them, due to disease and neglect. We must change the overall attitude and feelings toward trees. 

The Independent Panel on Forestry have recommended that we expand the existing tree cover by 5 per cent over the next 50 years. If we are to do this well then we need to learn from history and be very careful about what, where and how we plant those trees, and indeed how we intend to manage them.

Much of our landscape has become fragmented due to roads, urban development and modern agriculture practices. Consequently we have lost a large percentage of woodland plants, insects and birds. This has also happened due to the introduction of exotic tree species and woodland neglect.

Establishing new woodland will in future play a key role in repairing the landscape fabric in which these plants and animals can survive.

We should however first decide, why we want to plant a wood, what is its purpose and  where is the best location. We also need to remember that trees will plant themselves, and that local  provenance is by  far the  best way to  obtain built in resilience from disease. Nature does a pretty good job, given time and space.

Of course we need to step in and be sure that the woods and forests develop well, as we have been doing so for centuries. So we must have good management of the trees from the day they sprout out of the ground.

Skills are vital in woodland management and silviculture, and we need to develop and bring more people into the timber and woodland professions, to pass on valuable skills which are being lost all too quickly. The good design of a new wood will ensure it becomes a multi functional space for people and for wildlife. However, we first need to enhance the existing woodland we have already.

Image: WTPL/Casandra KociakTrees in so many woods across the country today need to be thinned to allow them to develop into grand and stately objects with a broad crown and healthy root structure. If left alone they can become stressed, weak, diseased  and eventually fall over.

Light  must be  allowed back into the woods. A wood need not necessarily be a place where there is a tree every few feet. Many of our woods are small, less that two hectares in size. For them to function, we need to enlarge them and join smaller woods together.

We need to integrate a new woodland culture into the management of our farmed landscape. The trees in hedgerows are as important as the trees in a wood and we need to begin to manage them again. We must feel happy about having trees in and around farmland and along the hedges.

Pollarding was a traditional and effective way of harvesting timber from a tree to prevent it being browsed. This also produces a rich habitat for plants and wildlife, not to say extending the life of the tree.

New woods should surround or be close to already well established woods, so flora and fauna can colonise the new areas as habitats develop. The wood should be allowed to develop slowly, to encourage natural regeneration and have space within it for wild flowers, shrubs and lichens to grow. We need to adopt slow woodland management.

The hydrology and catchment characteristics of the site should also be considered. Woods serve a useful, if not vital, purpose in absorbing and slowing down rainfall which, as I write, has recently affected many parts of the country.

Today we are at an important place regarding the future of our trees and woods. What we do over the next 50 years will be inherited by future generations, so we must get it right.”

Paul Rutter, Woodland Advisor, Plantlife


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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11 Responses to Woods of the future

  1. Pingback: Wintertime Walk in the Woods | Fabulous 50's

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    In Roderick Leslie’s and Peter Wilding’s responses there is the argument that sees no other reality than the one they choose, as much as it is their choices of features that should exist in woodland. Perhaps it is too much to expect them to, but we will move past Oliver Rackham’s historicised hegemony over woodland thinking. Leslie is perhaps selective in his appreciation of Peterken’s contribution, when he fails to mention his advocacy for a minimum intervention woodland reserve series for England (Natural reserves in English woodlands, ENRR 384, 2000) and which was likely never realized because of such closed minds.

  3. Peter Wilding says:

    This is an interesting debate that well illustrates some of the issues and challenges.

    I’d suggest some key points are:

    Those who advocate non-intervention in British woods, as being somehow “natural”, are ignoring the man-made changes that can’t now be reversed. For example, we have removed all the large mammal predators, altering the ecology. It would also be unfeasible (even if it was desirable) to exclude humans from woods owned by conservation bodies. Given the presence of mountain bikers, dog walkers and all the rest of us, and legitimate human demands for timber, the idea of complete non-intervention to go “back to nature” is not often achievable. Instead, we have to manage woods to try and promote the features we (and wildlife) most like and need;

    All deciduous woods are not the same, so the best management will vary. Reintroduction of some coppicing is right for many woods, but not all;

    All woods in fact have some unique features. As Oliver Rackham has pointed out, it would be a mistake to draw up a classification scheme, shoehorn every wood into one of the categories, and manage according to a set of rigid “rules” for that category;

    So, ideally, management plans would only be drawn up after careful study of the history, ecology and other circumstances of each individual wood (but of course adopting this policy everywhere might be impossible due to lack of sufficient expertise and resources);

    However, even expert study of the options will not remove all arguments. Value judgements will always have to be made as to which habitats or species should be favoured in which places. Conservationists with an interest in particular species are often well able to describe the habitat those species need. But they are sometimes less good at seeing how best to secure that habitat’s continued existence, as things change both in it and around it;

    Moreover, management plans cannot always be based on pure conservation but may have to take account of other aspects such as public amenity needs or production of timber. Thus, even well managed woods can expect to attract some dissenting voices;

    Another challenge is planning for the future – over timescales that stretch over hundreds of years – given the large uncertainties over future climate and future needs for woodland products;

    So, woodland management is difficult. Whatever decisions are taken may well turn out to be less than ideal. However, we must keep trying. Roderick Leslie has it right in pointing out that one of the worst forms of management can be to do nothing at all.

  4. Roderick Leslie says:

    Biodiversity in England’s woodland is in freefall and the main reason is a phenomenon of the last 50-70 years, the near total cessation of management across nearly half our woods, almost all native broadleaves. Mark Fisher’s comments illustrate very clearly a central problem in how we treat our woodlands: the very confused view of the ‘natural’ which is promulgated by many country lovers. Conservationists of all colours still struggle terribly – and often unsuccessfully – with the unique character of our woodlands which Oliver Rackham and George Peterken so painstakingly unravelled: what makes our woods special, and is the home to the biodiversity that we traditionally value, is this extraordinary interaction over centuries – and probably millenia – between man and nature, with neither totally dominant.

    The bottom line on woodland management is that we need a wide range of stages & structures, with the latest (oldest) and youngest (newly felled) often holding the most exciting wildlife. At the moment, because of the decline in traditional uses of native woodland there is a large over-representation of middle aged stands, increasingly dark because of lack of management. These are very different from the oldest stands which are so important for ephyphites, dead wood species, hole using birds and bats.

    There is a huge problem of scale in thinking about woodland management, with a strong tendency to focus closer and closer to compartment and sub-compartment scale, when we really need to be looking at the whole landscape, not even whole woods: the real questions are whether we should have whole woods that are managed for younger stages and whole woods that are non-intervention ?, for example.

    Nothing we are doing today matches the historic management which shaped our woods and their wildlife: I’ve seen 19th C adverts for a whole wood of 40 acres advertised as a single coppice cant. My main concern has been that the largest scale management seen as ‘acceptable’ today is probably at the very lowest end of what many of our declining species require.

    management decisions are about proportion – getting the right mix – early succession, late succession, grazed, ungrazed and the point is the bias has swung from largely managed woodland 100 years ago to largely unmanaged today. Each decision is a value judgement and that most categorically does included doing nothing – too many conservationists think that by doing nothing they will do no harm nor take responsibility – but you only have to visit unmanaged woodland nature reserves to see species like Bluebell in retreat towards the edges of stood over coppice stands to see the results. If you don’t feel Bluebells are important, fine, that is your judgement which no doubt you’ll be happy to argue – but it is neither a neutral nor the ‘natural’position that many people seem to try and argue.

    The bottom line can be summed up by the Dormouse conunundrum: if you manage a wood in summer you risk destroying Dormouse nests, if you manage in winter killing hibernating Dormice but if you want to eliminate Dormouse altogether just do nothing at all.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Roderick thank you so much for your comment. You present a very balanced argument and I would strongly agree with you – the most important thing is to manage in order to provide a diversity of structure to benefit all species.

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    I wouldn’t expect anything else from Plantlife. Plantlife have some way to go in matching the ubiquity of Butterfly Conservation and their trashing of woodland, but it has been plugging away at this battering and brutalisation of woodland by any means, even when it doesn’t get the support of its membership. Thus an editorial and article in the Autumn 2008 issue of its membership magazine, placed Plantlife squarely in another, developing conservation dogma about woodland – the conservation grazing of woodland to supposedly increase its biodiversity. For Dr Jenny Duckworth, who used to be Plantlife’s Biodiversity Research Manager, woodlands were to be treated just like everything else in the world of the conservation industry:
    “Grazing is an important means of maintaining woodland and biodiversity but sustaining the right levels can be difficult. Too much grazing can decimate the ground flora, whilst too little results in overgrown and shaded woodlands, a problem that has developed as formerly grazed woods have been fenced off”

    Thankfully, one Plantlife member wrote in objecting to the lack of consideration given to the woodland species that depend on woodland interior habitat. Theresa Greenway’s letter was published in the Spring 2009 issue, complaining about this high handed and destructive blanket approach to woodland:
    “Two of our rarest, Bechstein’s bats and barabastelle, are almost totally dependent on undisturbed, non-intervention oak woodlands with a dense understorey for their nursery roosts”

    This is what you won’t hear from Plantlife. The biodiversity benefits of a large-scale return to coppice management are highly questionable. Species may be associated with coppice woodlands, glades and rides, but it is open space or dense shrubby habitats which they require, not the management system per se. Coppicing provides a harsh environment for many woodland plants and animals. Large-scale coppicing renders extensive areas unusable for up to five years by creating open ground which small animals are reluctant to cross, and the same applies to rides and glades. They can act as a barrier to such as Dormice reaching potentially important food resources. This can put pressure on individuals and reduce a population to vulnerable levels. The disadvantages of coppicing also include a highly artificial structure, very limited amounts of dead wood (Coarse Woody Debris) and scarcely any forest interior habitat. I just wonder whether any of these dweebs know anything about woodland stand stages, as they seem to think every woodland in England is stuck at stem exclusion stage, and thus justify their intervention

    I wouldn’t let Plantlife anywhere near woodland that had a good presence of geophytes like the Lily family, as they would be under threat from their meddling, especially Herb Paris, but also any other geophytes that are vulnerable to ground disturbance. Nor would things like toothwort survive (Lathrea spp) or cryptogrammic mats. There are herbivores in my local ancient woodland – roe deer, and what a sense of wildness they bring, fitting in with what is their space, the tracks of deer toes showing how low their impact is compared to the trashing by cattle.

    It you want to see the disregard that Plantlife has for trees, then if you can bear it, their nonsense of a report – Forestry Recommissioned – came out just over a year ago. It hardly made a ripple then, as neither did Plantlife’s companion report for Scotland with its same spew of prejudice about woodland. This typically self-serving approach of Plantlife, and its sneering of others, is probably why it wasn’t part of the 20 forestry and wildlife bodies that produced another report at about the same time – The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees: Perspectives from the sector. The latter eschews the tabloid approach of Plantlife’s report, but even then ends up delivering the platitudinous in its emerging themes.

    To Plantlife, and much else of the conservation industry, only the species in artificially created habitats like coppice woodland and livestock grazed wood pastures are important, and not the species of woodland interior habitats, the geophytes, the fungi, mosses and liverworts, insects, carnivorous centipedes, detrivorous millipedes and woodlice, and the decomposition and many other natural processes that make up the ecology of a woodland. This tells you all you need to know about the bias of Plantlife, and their aim for woodland in England as a resource for managed biodiversity rather than as a wild, natural place.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thank you for commenting Mark. Finding a balance within individual woods and across landscapes is important. There must be suitable habitat available to support all species; those that require light, those that thrive in younger or more disturbed spaces, but also those that need darker and undisturbed areas. This can all involve some form of management, from more active to non-intervention. Whatever is deemed best, we must not neglect our wonderful woodland resource.

  6. Barry Embling says:

    Saying that trees can eventually become weak, diseased and eventually fall over if not thinned is misleading. Disease (meaning fungi presumably) is both natural and vital to our woodland ecosystems. All trees will eventually fall over…it’s completely natural. Thinning alone is usually very limited in optimising woodlands for our wildlife. Alternatively, or even additionally to thinning, and as circumstances allow, we should try and carry out woodland management thats creates open glades and ride-edges, patches of grassland, and recently cut open areas (coppicing). This will deliver structual complexity, habitat diversity and crucially, allow patchy areas of light into the insides of our woodland that so benefits our wildlife.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thank you for your comment Barry. Woodland management is complex and should be carried out to the benefit of the species, habitat and landscape in question. Increasing the diversity of structure and age is certainly very important.

  7. Pingback: Woods of the future | 100 Acre Wood | Scoop.it

  8. Pingback: Woods of the future | Conservation & Environment | Scoop.it

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