Sunday, November 27, 2011

Felling for the future

Earlier today I discovered a fallen Alder. Last night's strong winds and brought it crashing down onto the damp wet woodland floor. The little patch of woodland on our farm is full of trees like this one: lank, overgrown and unmanaged.

Years of grazing had meant the delicate woodland floor was trampled, the important middle layer of shrubs and young trees had been eaten off and the mature trees grew tall, lean and weak as they competed for light. Effectively the wood was slowly dying.

A recent report by Plantlife has highlighted the problems caused by our lack of woodland management. It's a problem that's seen up and down the country. We have trees- lots of trees- more than we had 20 years ago, yet our woodland bird species are struggling. As Plantlife pointed out- when it comes to trees woodlands need quality not quantity.

The slow death of the Alders in my little strip of woodland hasn't been all bad news; Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Tits have excavated nest holes in the rotting wood and Treecreepers love the peeling bark, but it was unmanaged and unsustainable.

5 years ago we took the step of fencing livestock out of the wood, a large Ash, a Rowan, and an Oak were brought down and sunlight poured through the canopy. A shrub layer of young Ash, Rowan, Hawthorn, Holly and Elder is springing up thanks to presence of light and the absence of grazing. Our Wood Anemones and Bluebells seem to be enjoying the changes.

There is lots of coppicing and felling to be done before this woodland will become what I want it to be. This got me thinking, even though there is method in my madness, woodland management can seem a bit destructive and at odds with what we think of as conservation.

Are we a too precious about our woodlands?

It's perhaps not surprising that as a nation we're cautious of woodland management practices. Media coverage of the deforestation of the Amazon Basin and the disappearance of our once extensive woodlands have had us planting trees left, right and centre to compensate- which is great. It's also made us extremely wary of taking a saw to our trees.

We too often assume the best landscape for wildlife is one untouched by human hands- a wilderness. In many habitats around the world this is absolutely true, but for much of the UK this isn't the case. We're a small island and our countryside has been shaped by human activities- the wildlife we have now consists of the species that were able to thrive in this environment.

Trees are very special to us- their lifespan stretches across many human generations. They are given names, become landscape features and are associated with human legacy. We use them to commemorate events, people and places.

We have come to see 'a tree' as the quintessential lofty chestnut or the ancient oak and not the coppiced Beech or Hazel. It's been so long since our woodlands were 'managed' that we've forgotten what they should look like.

Not too far from me is an area of woodland managed for wildlife, about 25 years ago tens of thousands of native saplings were planted and are now under a 50 year management plan. Each winter a different swathe of the woodland will be coppiced- it's a cycle that is just beginning and should see the area in phases of constant growth which will be great for wildlife. It's already reaped impressive results attracting a range of species and acting as a wildlife reservoir from which many species have gone on to recolonise the surrounding area.

It's incredible conservation in action, yet each winter when the chainsaws are fired-up many  members of the local community take great objection. The irony is that those who object the most are doing so with the best intentions and with concern for the environment as their motivation- but it doesn't make the strongly worded letters and angry reactions any less misguided.

In recent winters posters have been put up to appease and inform the opposition- but still the objections continue. I've heard this conservation work referred to as 'deforestation' and the results compared to the cleared rain forests- but the Amazon this ain't.

I think Plantlife are absolutely right- we do need to think again about our woodlands. There is a place for giant trees with dense canopies and dark dank woodland floors deep in leaf litter- it's a habitat required by many species. But we also need to learn to occasionally cut back the younger trees,  let the light flood in and allow verdant rejuvenation and regrowth.

I'm not suggesting you take a ladder and bow saw to your Gran's memorial tree or the village centre piece. But next time you see a new plantation think about the legacy we'd create if we manage it properly and ensure our grandchildren see plenty of the woodland birds we know and love.

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