To manage or not to manage

In almost every commentary on English woodland produced recently, it is stated that we need to bring more woodland into management.  This presupposes that we know what “management” means and what we would get as a result.

Image: WTPL/Fran Hitchinson

Coppice in ancient woodland

Coppice” they say; do they mean coppice with standards or clear fell coppice, will you be expected to produce small coupes of half a hectare or larger coupes of 2ha or more? Will you be following a sequential pattern of coppicing or a more randomised one? Will you be felling on a 7, 12, 15 or 20 year cycle?

Well that all depends on why you are doing the coppicing, what tree species you have present and probably the method you are using – forestry contractor, volunteers or one man and his dog.

Management includes a decision making process (audit, evaluate, prescribe), not just the activity in itself and unless you think about the underlying causes for that activity, the result might not be what you or the broader commentators are seeking. 

A managed wood is one in which the owners have determined some objectives towards which their efforts will be directed. At one extreme this might include the decision to introduce or continue a coppice cycle, at the other it may be not to intervene at all with a view to creating wild wood. Whether you, I or the Government agree with them, the owners are entitled to make these decisions and all represent management – even the last one.

The underlying, valid, concern is that there is a history of intervention management in most of our woodlands and the changing economic and social landscape has led to a cessation of these activities.  This is resulting in the development of uniformity of woodland structure and the loss of species which prefer light and open woodland.

But there are risks to intervention: the opportunistic species such as ivy, bramble and bracken might respond better to the change than all those pretty woodland flowers; deer and rabbits might find all that fresh new growth too good a prospect to avoid unlike the previous darker wood; and the less charismatic, shady species might be severely compromised.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t undertake intervention activities, but they need to be part of a plan and you need to understand both what you are doing and what could be the consequences.

Nightingale versus dormouse, firewood versus bean poles, ancient woodland restoration or, like me, you just really like messing around in woodland and so devise a plan to justify that activity! Thankfully there is loads of good advice out there, and a growing interest in working out the nuances of what sustainable woodland management could mean, rather than the knee jerk response that is sometimes portrayed.

 Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer


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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33 Responses to To manage or not to manage

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  3. Eleanor Lines says:

    This has been really educating. Who are the most forward thinking and balanced agents of education in this field? My woodland course next week is at Plumpton College, organised by Sussex Wildlife Trust. This blog will help me ask lots of questions and I hope to find the right route to the next (more detailed ) course in woodland management. I’m not hoping for an income from the wood, but want to manage it as well as possible for its survival and the diversity of animal and plant life. I’d like to invite brownies and beaver scouts etc and school children – and hospital patients if nearby – to enjoy the wood and learn from it if possible.
    Eleanor Lines

  4. Roderick Leslie says:

    Yes, it is difficult but two brilliant people – George Peterken and Oliver Rackham – have unravelled the relationship between man and nature in such convincing detail, and with such depth of intellectual penetration, that NOONE should touch an ancient woodland until they have read and absorbed their thinking. And once they have done that they will equally be culpable if they sit back and say ‘well its all natural, lets just leave it alone’. I’d be very interested to know, Kay, what proportion of WT staff have read a book by one or other of these two super-experts ? I’d suggest absolutely everyone – and that includes the marketing people, the PR people, not just the woodland people, should be compelled to read them, in office time. Even better, why not sit at the feet of the masters who are both still active and as incisive as ever ? Oliver Rackham’s courses – I see he’s teaching regularly at Kingcombe in Dorset – must be one of the great undiscovered gems of our woodland heritage. When i became responsible for both FC forests & private woodland grants and regulation in the SW of England in the late 1980s I attended, and encouraged other FC staff to, Oliver’s Flatford Mill course and George Peterken taught dedicated courses for all the FC Woodland Officers in the SW.

    • Pip Pountney says:

      Yes indeed – some wonderful observations and a rich understanding of the needs of our woodlands by George Peterken and Oliver Rackham .But are are they as relevant today as in the 70s and 80s ? A large time gap has seen many changes – a huge increase in population, massive building development, farmers grubbing out hedges to ensure maximum land use, climate change and the posible impending loss of millions of ash trees to disease – not to mention the development of the transport system. The small percentage of Britain classified as woodland has become a last refuge for wildlife. We need to review the present advice on woodland management very carefully to ensure that our mature trees are valued and protected and that the fragile ecosystems that exist within woodlands are recognised and carefully maintained.

      Certainly, in this area of the West Midlands we have seen some very poor examples of woodland management with groups and communities acting on advice given by Forestry Commission with funding and felling licenses thrown in. There is encouragement by FC to view our woodlands as a business opportunity and whilst it would be great to say this ties in well with conservation – I’m afraid this is not always the case.

      • I’ve just spent the afternoon catching up on my Rackham and Peterken for research purposes. I’m not sure that Rod and Pip are necessarily disagreeing here? I don’t think such reading will lead people to dive in and “manage” every wood, so Rod’s counsel, ‘read some Rackham and some Peterken before you decide to do something or not, seems very wise advice to me. Chapter 22 of Rackham’s “Woodlands” is a good start?

  5. Andrew Lloyd says:

    I don’t have the expertise to add to the debate but I have enjoyed it, as it resonated with me having recently read Richard Mabey’s ‘Beechcombings: the narratives of trees’. He covers very similar ground, near the end of the book, where he discusses what could be done to help beeches; they are under pressure from climate change, squirrels, deer and disease. Eventually he feels that to some extent the trees need to be left to work it out for themselves; they’ve survived for millenia and their ability to adapt needs to be understood. It’s an excellent read.

  6. Kay Haw says:

    Thank you so much for all your fascinating comments. We will certainly try to bring you more informative posts on woodland management as requested.

  7. Phil says:

    Interesting discussion. For an example of what doing nothing does look at all the dying Beech pollards at High Beech in Epping Forest. Had the Conservators continued the centuries old pattern of pollarding they would still be healthy and be sustaining a new generation of self seeded younger beeches. As it is there isn’t a tree less than fifty years old and most are too far gone to save.
    And please don’t confuse coppicing with removal. A coppiced hardwood tree has no known limit to its possible age. So long as rabbits are kept at bay for a couple of years and deer for about five. And you can’t coppice softwoods. They just die.

    • Pip Pountney says:

      Certainly a coppiced hazel has no known limit to its possible age – it can be cut and regenerate indefinitely. Unfortunately, removal of our ancient hardwood trees (eg oaks) has been identified as part of the coppicing cycle by organisations such as Forestry Commission. They are quite adamant that this is a productive form of sustainable management and are actively encouraging woodland owners and organisations to sell timber from mature oaks as firewood. It pays well – there is a demand! Unfortunately FC also issues the felling licenses!!!
      Please can we have an exact definition of ‘sustainable’ and ‘coppicing’ so that everyone understands exactly what is meant by these words?

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  9. Tony says:

    Thank you for such an informative post, would it be possible to have more of these please? I view responsible management practice as an absolute necessity. Many may view deer culling etc. as inappropriate. However, the actual neglect of our woodlands and the consequent loss of biodiversity is surely an even bigger issue. Our ecosystems can produce, but to do so, many controversial issues need tackling as they will ultimately delay further progress. I do hope though, that these management practices are carried out at the correct season, thereby limiting any damage potential upon the precious wildlife, which we are trying to protect. It should not be all about money-making, the woodlands are vital for mankind’s survival on this great planet.

  10. Woodland management strategies are very long term. You could design a strategy now that is completely pointless in years to come – see the sikta spruce plantations. Diversity is the key. Trouble is finding a way to make establishment – or re-establishment of management pay for itself. The unmanaged woods, or poorly planned plantations we have are not high value in many cases, except for wood fuel. That said, we need to find a way to reduce our reliance on imported timber from who knows where, which means starting with what we have? Sustainability means sourcing our commodities locally. An advantage of coppice is that the returns are relatively short term but who will buy/use the coppiced product? Where are the besom broom makers, the bodgers, the hurdle makers? Another loss of diversity there, they too need to make a come back along with the woodland flora and fauna. Continuous cover forestry management is worth looking into, aiming for diverse woodland plus high value timber extraction.

    • Pip Pountney says:

      The besom broom makers, the bodgers and the hurdle makers have been replaced by the wood burning set who are extremely keen to get their hands on our hard wood trees (oak) chopped up as firewood and are willing to pay high prices. Unfortunately, coppicing can include felling our ancient oaks for this purpose and we must protect them. Any scheme such as continuous forestry management that approves the removal of our diminishing oak stock should be challenged. Absolutely fine to use non-native pine plantations for this purpose providing that these areas are slowly and sensitively returmed to natural ancient woodland. Let’s be quite clear – sustainable trees (like the pines) are those that have been planted specifically for harvesting. A replanted oak tree can simply not replace the rich eco system that a tree of several hundred years has slowly developed. We really need to concentrate on the development of new coppicing zones to provide quick growing timber that will meet todays needs.

      • Yes, wood burners are in vogue and seem to be a good idea in areas without gas supplies but as you say, ancient trees can be threatened as opposed to Sycamore and Holly.
        I am worried about urban trees and hedgerows as so many ‘tree surgeons’ and gneral ‘jobbers’ leaflet our area proposing to fell in the spring as has happened today when the blackbird is building her nest in our golden cupressus despite the snow showers.
        Jennifer Brown

      • Well oak makes excellent fire wood, so in a way who can blame them? Where I live there is very little woodland (about 4% cover in Calderdale) Almost none of it is managed. Neglected ancient beeches are falling over. They were never meant to last so long, I think they were planted to supply the local mills with rollers, now long gone. Now these beautiful trees stand alone in dark woodlands, with almost zero ground cover. I think removing 2% of them a year for the next 50 years (or 1% a year for the next 100 years) and allowing other species a chance to recover would be a wonderful plan. As they are over stood and good for nothing else, why not sell them for fire wood to fund the regeneration of the woodlands. They are not listed a locally native – although I am not a 100%-native-tree-fascist there is a case for encouraging trees of local provence.
        Locally, our oaks are not particularly threatened, but apart from leaving the obvious veterans why not coppice or pollard them? They coppice well and live longer for it. There is a tradition of using coppiced oak bark for tanning, and the small round wood for fences and fuel.

        It really exciting to have discussions about managing our woodlands – they will play a very important role as the age of cheap fossil fuel comes to an end and society re-adjusts to locally sourced materials. We need to be thinking ahead in terms of preparing our woodlands to be more productive and educating our population about how to care for them in perpetuity.

        • Pip Pountney says:

          Research has shown that beech trees were growing in this country before the last ice age so they can hardly be classified as non native! Even the Forestry Commission recognises the beech as one of our important trees and certainly they add to the beauty of our woodlands and landscape.
          In our local woods we have many beech trees several hundreds of years old. Beneath and around them are hundreds of naturally generated beech saplings. The strongest of these will survive and eventually replace the trees reaching the end of their natural life. The old beeches will die off – but not all at the same time! And the fallen wood will provide more habitats for wild life.
          You cannot coppice oak. If you fell an oak tree it dies – unlike coppiced hazel which can be cut year on year and regenerate indefinitely. Pollarding, (cutting back the branches) is unnecessary in woodland although oaks growing near to houses may need reduction. The present system of including oaks in the ‘coppicing cycle’ is simply giving owners of woodlands the green light to fell and sell our off our oak trees (very lucratively) as firewood. Yes, it burns well but it may take 200- 300 years to replace which means it absolutely cannot be classified as sustainable or renewable. Even a young oak would be 100 + years since oak trees have a possible lifespan of 1000 years. Sustainable trees are those that have been planted specifically for harvesting- like the non native pine plantations that are presently being thinned or removed to try and help our ancient woodlands revert to natural origins.
          Possibly, the way forward is by extending or linking our fragmented woodlands by establishing coppiced zones where previously they did not exist. These then,could provide a sustainable source of timber and a new rich opportunity for wildlife. Woodlands have been managing themselves for many thousands of years without inteference and can continue to do so.

  11. mte485 says:

    Whatever you think is the right approach, and that can be anything from regular clear felling to doing nothing, if everyone takes the same approach that will lead to uniformity. Uniformity is the opposite if diversity and to encourage biodiversity we need a balance of different approaches,Not just in one compartment but across the whole stock. I believe that instead of pushing their own favoured approach those with influence need to stand back and see the big picture.

    • Pip Pountney says:

      Responsibilty and accountability are really the buzz words in this debate. Who is to decide if clear felling is to encourage biodiversity or simply to earn a whole lot of money for the land owner through sale of timber? Monitoring of success criteria will be essential and probably best by an independent body and not a commercial concern such as Forestry Commission.

  12. beeseeker says:

    Interesting “scratching” of a surface that needs full treatment. Good balance and every option has pros and cons, including the fact that not doing anything is itself a type of management perhaps?

  13. Peter Kyte says:

    Some woodlands need to be managed sensitively due rare species of bird or some other creature and some more intensively due to commercial considerations. Each area needs to be considered on an individual basis, there can not be uniformity of management it will depend on the circumstances.

  14. Terry Quinn says:

    Whatever the reasons for woodland management, one reason stands out above all the rest! That is you work in harmony with nature and not against it, as most of the superior being, human race has done! Take what you need and no more! Put back in what you take out, and nature will reward you 10 fold! Remember, we as human beings share this planet with plants and animals, and the balance is crucial, none can do without the others!

  15. Pip Pountney says:

    Miles of hedgerows are being lost through being puposefully grubbed out or cut so low that the trees within them are destroyed. Wildlife is therefore losing the ‘green corridors’ that enable them to travel safely between our fragmented woodlands. These very woodlands – providing safe habitats and refuge – are now also under serious threat of interference and serious ecological damage as organisations such as Forestry Commission encourage communities and land owners to view their trees as a potential business proposition. Coppicing regimes (with felling licenses provided by FC) can include felling centuries old oaks to be sold lucratively for firewood. What a temptation! Woodlands, like all other ecosystems, are self maintaining and regenerate naturally without human intervention. Trees are self thinning and the strongest will survive the longest. Woodlands should be respected in the same way as any other ecosystem (moors, mountains, coastal regions etc) and retained as wild woods with minimal interference. Since way before human memory, woodlands and forests manged themselves very effectively. All effort and funding should be put into conservation through linking or enlarging woodlands by creating coppiced zones where previously they did not exist – thus providing sustainable and ethically produced sources of timber and a wonderful addition of habitat opportunities for wild life. Trees must be farmed in a sustainable way – i.e. trees that have been planted specifically for harvesting. Our naturally seeded and diminishing number of oak trees that have grown for hundreds of years can certainly not be included in this definition.

  16. David Larkin says:

    While non intervention is a management option, it should be recognised that it is not the same as leaving it to nature. None of our woodlands have the large mammals (Auroch’s, wolves, etc) that would have influenced woodland development before we hunted them to extinction. Most woodlands now need to be actively managed to be good for wildlife as that management is necessary to replace the influence of these animals on the woodland. For example coppicing can retain a level of openness that would have been created by big herbivores following big storms

  17. £ to 5 year coppice is fine in a Commercial copse and it would be nice to see a come back in ancient coppices but an unmanaged large wood helps no one. natural growth often ends with poor week trees and heavy under growth (in some cases with the wrong species such as Rhododendron.) A fire in a wood with heavy bramble growth is usually devistating to the wood. There are many other reasons to manage a wood, not the least to keep the wood usable for us to use. We have managed woodland for hundreds of years so why stop just use the skills we allready have and do not clear cut deciduous or old wood. That is not what management is about.

  18. Local councils need to be guided. Ours in North Tyneside has allowed ivy to encroach on woodland at Killingworth Village, North Tyneside

  19. Eleanor Lines says:

    Really helpful comments – thank you! I’m considering buying my first woodland and am doing a woodland ecology course as starters – trying to work out exactly the points you are taking about! Many people seem to think a woodland does not need to be managed. I’d like to think I would look after it ‘properly’ but am only slowly finding out what that might mean!! Eleanor Lines

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