"The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"
Aneurin Bevan

Friday, 4 February 2011


It looks like the government's plans for the Forestry Commission is likely to be yet another u-turn. I will address their policy in my next post, but to set the scene let me make a declaration: I am a tree hugger.

Tree Hugger

I have to declare some interest here. When I got the first royalty cheque for my first book (in 1996) I put it into my woodland fund. For most of my life I have taken an amateur interest in woodlands and enjoyed walking in them. Not only do woodlands sustain a large amount of wildlife and some very interesting symbiotic relationships, they have also been important for our nation as a source of fuel and construction materials, and food sources for livestock. All of this interests me because it explains the roots of our nation. For about 10 years I was on the mailing lists of several land agents and I viewed several woods, but none were ion my limited price range, nor near enough to where I live. My woodland fund has since morphed into my rainy day fund and regularly gets raided to pay the bills (it always seems to rain here).

A while ago I went on a woodland management course and learned a lot about how to maintain a wood. Interestingly, I was the only person on that course who didn't own a wood, but afterwards, and my enthusiasm boosted, I decided that a wood was something worth saving for. Some of the people who are protesting about the government's policy on the Forestry Commission say that it will mean that the rich will own "our" woods. It is as if they think that when a tree grows on a piece of land that land suddenly becomes public, with an automatic public right of access. That is nonsense, of course, every square inch of land is owned by someone (and the state does own a lot), but ownership of land does not change any public rights of access.

In the days when I actually thought I would own a wood, whenever I saw someone drive a brand new £20k car I used to think "oh, that's half a wood". I drive a 12 year old car because I put my savings into my woodland fund and not into a "I buy a flash new car every year" fund. Priorities, you see. (For those interested, woodland costs between £5,000 and £15,000 per acre, depending on where it is.)

I am a tree hugger, but you may retort "so do conservation work and everyone can benefit?" Good point, and I have. But I would also like to do what I want. I own my own house and so it means that I can paint the front door whatever colour I like, similarly I want to own a small amount of woodland and I want to manage it the way I want. Since I am a tree hugger it means that I would not clear fell my wood. (Indeed, I would not be able to because I am sure the Forestry Commission would object.) But it would mean that I could try new techniques. Call me individualist, if you must.

If I own 10 acres of woodland (sadly, I don't) then that to me is my garden. If there is a public right of way through it, then that is fine by me, but I would not want people to roam off the footpath. Firstly for their safety (I may be felling or lopping trees) and secondly, for mine (can I be assured of the intentions of the guy skulking behind that tree?).


So, let's talk about trees. The first thing is that a forest does not have to have trees. Woods have trees. Forests can be moorland, fen, heathland or woodland. It's all about the forest laws of hunting deer: deer live in a forest, and although there may be trees in that forest, it may not have trees and yet it still will be a forest. My personal hero on the subject, Prof Oliver Rackham (the author of The History of the Countryside, a must read book), uses the term woodland rather than forest. He also uses the term forestry for managing plantations. I defer to his expert opinion.

The term "ancient woodland" (or "ancient forest") is thrown around rather carelessly. The fact is, many tree species live longer than humans so most woods are going to be older than any living human. Most of the trees in our woods are little more than 100 years old (I'll qualify this a little further down), and the reason is because most woods were clear felled during the First World War woods because of the great demand for wood. The age of a wood is not the age of the individual trees, instead, it is how long there has been a wood in that location. (You have to distinguish the wood from the trees!) There is evidence that man has managed woodland in the British Isles for 6500 years. There may well be woods which have had trees for this time, but there will not be trees of this age. When a wood is managed it means that it is no longer natural, it is being used as a crop (compare grassland - natural - to a field of barley - a cultivated grass, woods managed for a crop are like a field of barley). Natural unmanaged woodland is called wildwood. According to Rackham, there is no wildwood left in Britain, although there are fragments of comparable temperate wildwood in North America.

Deciduous trees are wondrous, truly amazing. The reason why I say this is because when you chop down a deciduous tree you do not kill it; it will sprout again. This is the basis of English woodland management, you chop down trees, they re-grow and 25 years later you've got more trees to chop down. This process is called coppicing and it means that the tree may well be much older than the trunk that you see above ground. So when the English woods were clear felled during the First World War it did not mean that the woods were being removed from the country side. It just mean that the current crop of trunks were harvested and the trees would simply regrow.

There are only 35 tree species that are native to the British Isles, but there are something like 700 different species that grow in this country. Some of these are grown as specimen plants in domestic gardens and arboretums and some are grown commercially. Native English woodland is mostly deciduous: ash, oak, willow, hazel (technically, a shrub), birch, beech, hawthorn, rowen, elm, lime, alder are the common species. Holly, yew, juniper and Scots Pine are the native evergreens, although as the name suggests, Scots Pine is native in Scotland. The native part is important because it means that not only is the tree suited to the climate but it also supports native wildlife and fungi.Non-native trees support less wildlife.

Woodland Harvests

For centuries every community in England would have a wood to provide the community with fuel, fodder and materials. These woods would be managed with a technique called coppice with standards. The standards are the tall, straight trees that provide the timber for construction; they also have the genes for good healthy offspring and so provide the seed for replacement trees. A standard may take 60 years to grow to its full height, so a woodsman manages the trees for a future generation to harvest. Such long term thinking is absent from modern policies: can you imagine a company making an investment that would only make a profit 50 or 60 years later?

Coppice is harvested at much shorter periods than standards: say 6 years or up to 25 years, depending on what the wood is used for. Before the large coal fields were exploited coppiced wood was the main fuel in Britain. For example, Cheshire was deforested to provide the wood to feed the salt industry where brine was boiled to produce crystalline salt. Even after coal became the main source of energy wood was still important because the coal mines needed pit props, which were mostly made of wood.

When you walk in a wood you are often awed by the height of the trees, but I urge you to look down. The width of the trunk rarely shows the age of the tree, instead, look at where the trunk grows from the ground. If the tree has been coppiced in the past there will be several trunks from the same roots (the term for where the trunks grow is the stool). Sometimes the stool is a metre or more across indicating a very old tree.

Trees also produce edible products, for example, some nuts can be eaten by humans. However, other tree seeds are a valuable food sources for animals, as are tree leaves (particularly the young leaves). Indeed, many established woods have a woodbank which marked the edge of the wood and was used to keep the livestock that is feeding in the wood, in; and to keep the livestock that is not supposed to be in the wood, out. Walking through an old wood you can often see these woodbanks.

Man has been practicing woodland management for something like 6,500 years and so this has encouraged specific flora and fauna suited to this style of woods. Tree branches block out light and this means that woods support flora that prefer a lot of shade. But when a tree is coppiced light floods in and it means that for several years the area will be bathed in light, yet largely uncultivated and this encourages flora that benefit from sunlight.Thus coppicing encourages a cycle of flora, some plants preferring sunlight, some preferring shade.

The Decline of Woods

It is widely known that Britain almost ran out of wood during the First World War and so the Forestry Commission (note, Forestry not Forest) was created to ensure that in the future the country would be supplied with wood. However, as those people who have watched Downton Abbey will recognise, there were huge social changes after the First World War. The community woods that I mentioned above had long since stopped being used by the communities for fuel, and they had mostly been taken over by large landowners who used them for game. After the carnage of the First World War these private woods were largely neglected, and no longer coppiced. Ninety years later, this has resulted in tree stools having fully grown trees. 

The following table is taken from the Forestry Commission and show the decline of coppiced woodland in Britain in the twentieth century. This table shows the estimated areas in thousands of hectares of simple coppice (C) and coppice with standards (S).

Year England Wales Scotland Britain Total

It is quite clear that over the last 100 years private woods have not been maintained. They really have little value commercially. In addition, the increasing demands on agriculture has lead to many woods being grubbed up (the roots removed) and the land used to grow food. However, in the last couple of decades woods have taken on new value for recreation for tree huggers like me.


You cannot coppice conifers; if you chop down a conifer you kill it. However, a softwood conifer has a distinct advantage over a deciduous species: it is much faster growing. The construction industry needs timber with even grain and few knots, so modern conifer species are grown as tall, straight trees with few branches.

To supply Britain with the wood it needed, the Forestry Commission was given the task of rebuilding and maintaining a strategic timber reserve, and it did this through purchasing land and planting. Inevitably much of these woodlands were plantations of conifers, since their focus was on timber that could be used. By 1934 the Forestry Commission owned 370,000 hectares, and of these 130,000 were under plantation. During the Second World War some of this was felled: yet again the country needed wood (mostly for pit props) but this time the Forestry Commissioned delivered.

About 30% of the English Forestry Commission woods are broadleaf. To some extent this is due to their stewardship of the large woods of the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, but it is also due to efforts to plant more broadleaf woods. However, it does highlight that 70% of the Forest Commission's woods are conifers, and since conifers are not native in England we can deduce that about 70% of the Commission's woods are non-native plantation. The problem with plantations is that they are mostly monoculture, non-native, fast growing conifers: they are wildlife deserts, the trees are grown as a crop.

Walk through any plantation and you'll see that little grows in the pine needle leaf litter. This is because the trees are grown so close together that there is little light reaching the ground, and no coppicing is carried out. It is also because the trees are non-native. Walk through a broadleaf wood and you'll see undergrowth with many types of flora and shrubs, and if coppicing is carried out then you'll see many more undergrowth plants. Plants means animals, so broadleaf woods support much more wildlife and flora than plantations.

The Forestry Commission does a lot of good. They fund research, they maintain rights of access and pay for rangers in their woods. They supply grants and give advice for private land owners to grow woodland. All of this costs money. The Commission costs the taxpayer relatively little money because it has a separate source of income: plantations. So while plantations are non-native and mostly wildlife deserts, they are necessary to fund conservation work that the Forestry Commission performs.

In my next post I will describe the government's policy towards the Forestry Commission.

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