The State Of Our Woods

13th April 2012

We might be proud of our tree heritage in Britain, patting ourselves on the back for blasting asunder ‘nefarious’ government plans to sell off the Public Forest Estate – but a new Plantlife report shows that our woods still need a helping hand, says Jack Watkins

Trees and woods are an emotive issue for Middle England, as government minister Caroline Spelman found to her cost last year when her proposals to auction off large portions of the Forestry Commission estate was hacked to pieces. The fact that buried deep within the plans there was much that made sense cut little ice with an enraged, highly articulate section of the public, whose emphatic response was that ‘our woods are not for selling’. A bemused and battered Spelman had little option but to beat a retreat into the Whitehall undergrowth.

It was once rather unfairly said of Ted Heath (an eminently more enlightened politician than the current crowd, in my opinion) that he was a man who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. However, it is difficult to imagine his administration contemplating such a scheme, without first embarking upon a period of consultation with each of the sectors involved in woodland management and amenity. After all, these features of our landscape cut so deeply into our national psyche that you could argue that many regard them as untouchable as a Constable painting, say, or a Wren church. Unfortunately, by rushing out the idea at a time when the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ was also causing so much unease, the government rather lost the chance for airing a perfectly valid point – that not all woods are sacred things, and that there are plenty in the hands of the Forestry Commission that could indeed benefit from being brought into more commercial use, possibly in the private sector.

Britain is by no means the most heavily forested country in Europe. The relative density of our population has ensured that. What it does have is a vast inheritance of veteran and ancient trees over two or three hundred years old: hugely characterful and often loaded with cultural meaning, as well as, in nature conservation terms, being hugely important as mini-ecosystems hosting vast communities of invertebrates and lichens. It is a treasure trove about which our continental cousins can only dream; Dr Oliver Rackham, that wise old owl of countryside history, has written that you can travel from Boulogne to Athens without coming across a tree more than one hundred years old.

In our churchyards, by contrast, dark old yews predate the Norman Conquest. The remnants of the medieval royal hunting forests – the New Forest, Hatfield and Epping among them – are dotted with ancient pollards. Even a casual wander down some ordinary country lane or across a few fields near our home can bring us face to face with a bowed old oak or creaking ash. Then there is the heritage of the landscaped parklands of the country estates of the 17th and 18th centuries, with their elegant avenue trees or single, wide canopied ‘impact’ specimens, standing in stretches of open grassland.

Being passionate about trees is a different matter, however, to properly understanding how best to look after woodland, and our track record on this is pretty poor. The government has spoken, well-meaningly, of its ambition to create thousands of hectares of new woodland each year in England, but, as the charity Plantlife argues in a new report Forestry Recommissioned, ‘More woodland is too simple a response – we need better woodland’.

Andy Byfield, Plantlife’s Landscape Conservation Manager and the report’s author, argues that ‘we have forgotten what properly managed woodland actually looks like,’ and he is surely right. Our ancestors had a closer working relationship with woods, regarding them as resources serving a variety of uses. Today we tend to view them as places for recreation, and look upon active management, which can often require the felling of trees and the opening up of clearings, as ‘interference’.

Whereas in 1947, 47% of broadleaved woodland was made up of coppice (ie actively managed for a crop) and scrub, today 97% of it is high forest. We might think that we like it that way, but this is bad news for many species which do not thrive in the resultant deep shade. There are about 250 species of flora which flourish in a woodland habitat, but one in six is now threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, the Woodland Bird indicator is at its lowest level since 1970, and the UK Butterfly Monitoring scheme shows a 56% decrease in woodland butterflies. The Pearl-bordered Fritillary, once known as the ‘woodman’s friend’, since it seemed to follow him round on his labours as he created the coppiced clearings it so favours, has declined by 80% in a quarter of a century.

Plantlife says that there are three main reasons for the declining state of or woods, but the most obvious is the lack of active management. For centuries, our woods were used for a variety of purposes, from grazing livestock and hunting, to harvesting for timber and the gathering of fruit and fungi. This created a dynamic mosaic of habitats over relatively closely-knit areas, highly beneficial to diverse species of flora and fauna. Most of these traditional uses declined within the first half of the last century, and as management was neglected, the tree canopy closed in, creating ‘high forest’ devoid, as Plantlife’s report says, ‘of structural complexity, habitat diversity and, crucially, light’.

Other contributing factors to the degeneration of our woods are a rampant deer population grazing off ground flora and the shrub layer, and rising levels of nitrogen, caused by atmospheric pollution from transport emissions, agricultural fertilisers and nutrient run-off. Plant species such as nettle, brambles and wild garlic flourish in areas of high nutrient levels, but they are so vigorous that they out-compete the delicate, low-growing species we more readily associate with a spring walk in the woods.

Plantlife’s report is not merely an exercise in hand-wringing. In truth, if the nettle is properly grasped now, we could be on the verge of a woodland renaissance. It is a fact that the wood-fuel market presents the best opportunity for bringing large tracts of neglected woodland back into management for the first time since the 1940s. The Forestry Commission’s Woodfuel Implementation Plan 2011-14 has the potential to bring half of the area of currently unmanaged woodland back into use. That could be good news for those looking for a career in this sector, as well as for the wildlife.

Andy Byfield gives a pretty emphatic thumbs-down to the idea of selling off large tracts of the Public Forest Estate, believing that the National Trust and Woodland Trust do not have the resources to acquire and manage – ‘with due attention to wildlife and habitat protection’ – large amounts of woodland. Nor, in the current economic climate, does he think that the private sector could pick up the tab. What he does want is for owners, both public and private, to take a more informed and active approach. Otherwise, he believes, our woodlands face ‘a dark and dull future’. Middle England might have thought ‘job done’ when it saw off Caroline Spelman, but the battle to rescue our woods in a truly meaningful way is only just beginning.

To read Forestry Recommissioned, visit www.plantlife.org.uk

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