Planting woods is not an end in itself…

…but it can be a beginning.

A new report from Plant Life*, Forestry Recommissioned, (download it here)  has concluded that we need quality, not quantity when it comes to the country’s woodlands.  Planting more trees, by itself, is not a sufficient approach to deliver all the benefits we ought to be getting from woods and forests.

The problem is that the woods that we have are too dark, too overgrown and too silent.  Our lack of management and maintenance is leading to stands of trees growing up that stifle all other plants, such as wildflowers and low shrubs and this results in less animal life in them too.

I have noticed this in an informal way when I’ve walked in the countryside.  It’s easy to find woods where the trees have been planted and then allowed to grow without any control so that they crowd each other and create a dense, dark, lifeless interior.  These woods should have been thinned out long ago.  By omitting to periodically do this work the whole stand of trees is usually ruined.

Planting trees then leaving them to their own devices leads to poor quality trees, damaged by tree tubes and left to grow too close to each other

The report also stresses the need to link up ancient semi-natural woodlands (ASNW) with other woods in order for wildlife to have corridors to travel through.  This is good but it doesn’t address the problem of the edge effect.  The greater light and wind experienced in the outer edges of a wood mean that there is more life there but there needs to be a deeper interior to the wood which provides ecological niches for other plants and animals.  A long, thin wood is of less wildlife value than a rounded or wider wood.  Woodland edge effects can be noticed for quite some distance from the start of a wood and this makes it important in conservation terms to protect and manage woods in as large blocks as possible.

In this context a darker woodland is better – but it is managed and not at all like the dense, dark desert produced by lack of management.

The Plantlife report calls for more management of woods, pointing out that before 1950 50% of our woods would have been coppiced (cut down to ground level periodically and allowed to regrow) or been maintained as scrubland (having lots of shrubs and grasses and kept like this often by grazing) whereas that figure is now only around 3%.   Many traditional woodland flowers, such as wood anemones, violets and primroses are being affected as a result.

This wood is choked with poor quality birch that has grown up after storm damage

Lack of management also means we lose out on the chance to grow high quality timber trees, or trees for other specific products.  Many woods and copses seen today contain trees in poor health and of poor shape, with short, twisted trunks that will only ever be able to produce firewood.  But one major problem is that management of woodlands is expensive.  Any maintenance operations have to be funded and if there is no early return on this investment it usually doesn’t get done.  The usual rotation length for English oak grown in England for timber is around 120 years.  This would include a number of operations between planting and felling, including weeding, protection from pests and disease, pruning and thinning all designed to result in a stand of trees that are all of good quality and high timber value.

If we are going to produce good timber we need to have markets for the produce that comes out of the woodland whenever we reduce the number of trees standing.  In coppice woods the same problem is seen.  Coppice on a large scale needs to be serving a market for the coppice poles produced.  Conservation bodies can get some coppicing done with volunteer labour but it’s an uphill struggle.

Hazel coppices well and fosters a rich carpet of woodland plants

I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think, as a nation, we are still struggling to deal with this reality.  We need more innovative input in identifying new products like chippings or bio-fuel.  However, these are all low-value products that would best fit into a woodland system by funding the periodic operations that lead to a crop of timber.  To concentrate on them as the final or only product is to impoverish our woodlands.

According to the report our woodlands are growing.  That’s a good thing.  Let’s find ways to improve the current situation and avoid squandering a valuable resource.

Maybe we can make it fashionable to carry out these woodland maintenance tasks in the same way that many people see planting trees as fashionable and cool.

The old adage of not planting what we can’t maintain is being found to be wisdom once again.

*Plantlife, a charity, speaks up for the nation’s wild plants. It carries out practical conservation work, manages nature reserves, influences policy and legislation, runs local plant-based events and activities to promote conservation of plants for the benefit of all.  Find them here:

Article written by Steve Cox on November 25, 2011