A new approach to Forest “Management”

Today’s guest blogger is Miles King; a respected conservationist and commentator who has previously written for us on the subject of biodiversity offsetting. Here are some interesting thoughts on a new approach to forest management:

“The Holocene Forest (which existed from around 10,000 years before present to 7,000 b.p.) was a quiet place. Though the Wolves howled and the Aurochsen roamed between the trees, there was something missing – something really big.  Something that had been present in every previous incarnation of Forest in every previous interglacial period in Northern Europe – Elephants. Straight-tusked Elephants, standing 4m tall at the shoulder and weighing in at 6-7 Tonnes. A monster.

Compare this with today’s African Savannah Elephants – 3.3m and 4-5 tonnes.

What would these leviathans of the Forest done and how would their daily activities affected the forest ecosystem?

Modern day African Forest Elephants (tiny by comparison with their extinct forebears) create permanent forest tracks and large clearings called Bai. Here they congregate for social life and also use them as salt licks where they find essential minerals which are otherwise rare.

Elephant eating Chadica/Wikimedia Commons

Elephant eating
Chadica/Wikimedia Commons

Apart from creating forest tracks and clearings, what else might these Elephants have done in the forest. It seems likely that they would have ripped branches off trees and shrubs, to access leaves or fruit. Sometimes trees and small shrubs would have been pulled clean out of the ground or just knocked over, if they were in the way, or again to provide food. Would they have stripped bark from trees to eat in the winter? Without worrying too much about the details, it’s fair to say that Elephants would have made a big mess, knocked down lots of trees and ripped branches off the larger ones.

This might lead on to a debate about how much of the British forest in previous interglacials was kept open by Elephants, and  provided open habitats such as grassland or heathland. But even without this debate, it’s worth considering the action of Elephants on Forest structure.

Our wildlife, including trees and shrubs, as well as species of open habitats, evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, under selective pressure from animals such as this huge Elephant. These species are still with us, even though the Elephants have gone. They continue to depend on the types of activity which those Elephants previously created.

Historic woodland management from the Mesolithic to the 19th century depended on coppicing, pollarding, hedging and grazing. Woodlands also encompassed muddy, flowery rides for moving animals, people, timber and wood. Together, these created conditions that equated very approximately to the conditions that the Elephants (and other animals) provided previously.

Can we do better at creating these conditions for purely conservation reasons? A machine, such as a digger with a back-hoe, on low pressure tires, could drive around a forest, randomly knocking trees and shrubs over and breaking branches off trees. But it would not be able to mimic the prolific consumption of herbage by an Elephant, nor the creation of Elephant-sized dung heaps.

While it’s not really feasible (or ethical) to re-engineer a Straight Tusked Elephant from fossilised DNA, an alternative would be to create Robo-Tusker.

This would be superficially similar to the digger, but instead of being powered by fossil fuel, it would have an inbuilt anaerobic digestion (AD)/wood gasification plant – to “consume” the material it extracted from the forest. Instead of low pressure tyres it could have legs and slowly walk around the forest (walking robots have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years), until it’s power ran out and it needed to do some more digesting/gasifying. Instead of Elephant Dung it would produce high quality compost, as AD plants already do. It would need no driver – it would effectively be a self-controlled drone. And unlike wild Elephants it would have no desire to leave the forest in which it lived. That will please the neighbours.

Thanks to George Monbiot for opening my eyes to the impact Elephants had on European Pleistocene Forests.”

Miles King photoMiles also writes his own blog: A New Nature Blog – musings, ramblings and probably a few rants on politics, nature + the environment.

Miles King, Senior Ecologist

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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19 Responses to A new approach to Forest “Management”

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    Miles – I am sure you don’t really believe that every species that has interacted with trees has to be reinstated. I mean, trees have been around for 196m years, and have thus seen many species come and go, including all bar one of the early hominids (arising only 4-8m years) and may even see off the destructive forces of H. sapiens (arising perhaps 200k years). While I do see see some similarities between the conservation industry and dinosaurs (especially about its obsession with heathland and consequent persecution of trees) I’m not sure – on the basis of your thesis – that it is an adequate substitute. Methinks you have “jumped the shark” with this blog, a term used when the plot of a film turns increasingly preposterous.

  2. Imogen Radford says:

    And ordinary people who love their woods and forests don’t want machines going through and trashing them — though they generally understand when that is being done for a sensible purpose such as harvesting timber. Unfortunately in some areas conservationists are the very ones who advocate scorched earth policy, including heavy machinery, chemical spraying etc, to further their choice to carry out deforestation in order to create heathland, which they consider is more valuable than woodland habitat.

    • milesking10 says:

      thanks Imogen. It was a just a bit of fun really. Ideally people would not even know that Robo-tusker was a machine, because it would look and behave just like a real elephant. Elephants do make a mess in Forests – and that mess is what creates niches for wildlife to live in.

      The heathland issue is a separate one really.

  3. Ash says:

    Well done Miles for introducing another angle to forest management. Besides being quite practical it also made me smile.

  4. Derek West says:

    I would love to see forest elephants and bears wolves and lynx in our forests,but in this crowded
    island it aint going to happen.

  5. Roderick Leslie says:

    Miles, your elephant sounds really rather like something we already have – its called a forest harvester. It knocks down trees and turns them into fuel – OK it uses a bit of diesel to do it but the tree-captured carbon it produces more than compensates – and good forest management produces all the habitats you are talking about – apart perhaps from the knocked down trees, although storms sometimes do that. As and example, within the WT sphere, Church Wood Blean has most of the components – early succession coppice, managed high forest and non-intervention high forest where older trees are left to get on with it. Ironically, the biggest barrier to what you are suggesting is actually conservationists who have trouble with the mess.

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Rod. I was more interested in non-extractive interactions. The “mess” left in managed forests (especially coniferous ones) is very different from the “mess” that Robo-tusker would create. And they are both very different from the “mess” that historic woodland management created!

  6. thehutts says:

    What about more farmed pigs in forests? Sally

    • A returned forest is going back to the times when all the other native species of plants, animals, fungi and soil microbes occupied the forest less people and animals under human management. It would be recreating this forest otherwise know as a species’ forest. http://speciesforest.blogspot.com/ I support any and all efforts to return a forest.

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Sally. Wild boar are a key animal missing from British woodlands/forests. They are making a small comeback but at constant risk of being hunted out again.

      • thehutts says:

        Some woodland owned privately but under restrictions through designation would benefit from some well managed pigs but I have found reluctance to allow this from the powers in charge! I feel the woodland would benefit and the owners would have a good product to market and hence another income stream. Sally

        • milesking10 says:

          yes I agree – domestic pigs were woodland/edge animals and I would suggest are happiest having access to woods. They can make a “mess” and this is probably why there can be reluctance. But of course we need more “mess” in the countryside, which is far too tidy anyway.

          • thehutts says:

            As long as the mess isn’t human induced litter which it is my job as an employee of the Forestry Commission to remove. I would rather be doing more interesting things with my work time like setting up pig grazing projects to go with the sheep grazing that is already done in the area through Flexigraze CIC: http://www.nwt.org.uk/what-we-do/flexigraze

Sorry, comments are closed as we have moved to a new site: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/

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