Where to with conifer plantations?

When I moved up to the Lake District in 1977 my supervisor recommended I read H.H.Symonds‘s Afforestation in the Lake District (Symonds, 1936). This is an early polemic against large-scale conifer planting. Similar language was used in the 1980s at the height of the controversy about planting in bogland of Caithness and Sutherland (Tomkins, 1989). There is still debate about the place and nature of production forestry, but hopefully it is now conducted in a less dogmatic way on both sides and from a better evidence-base.

Blanket planting alongside the A74, taken in 1981; mature stands in the Lake District that would have been planted at the time Symonds was writing.

Some plantations will be cleared and restored to open habitats, but others will be restocked after felling and remain as forest. What will these be like? The Nature Conservancy Council commissioned quite a lot of studies of the changes that occurred when open ground was first planted-up in the late 1970s, e.g. Hill, (1979). The concern was however mainly with the difference between what was developing and either the former open ground communities or those of ancient woodland; the stands themselves were generally seen as unlikely to develop much ecological or conservation interest.

More patchwork felling and restocking in the second rotation – mid-Wales.

There has been some, but rather, limited study of the subsequent changes (Wallace and Good, 1995, Quine, 2015). Yet these plantations cover a large area of the country and are likely to be considerably more diverse than most lowland farmland. Across the latter species are (generally) continuing to decline, the second and subsequent rotations in the big plantations are likely to become richer. These new habitat types are however less studied.

Lowland farmland versus mature plantation: which has more wildlife?

Purely from a silvicultural point of view breaking-up large uniform blocks makes sense to reduce the risks from windthrow; using wider range of tree species may lessen the potential impact of pests and diseases. Even if you write-off conifer blocks as being of no interest, particularly when they are in the thicket stage, there are still, in the most hardened production forest, gaps along rides and in poorly stocked stands. Imaginative use of this ‘open space’ can improve the look of the forest and diversify the wildlife.

Heather growing along a forest ride; windthrow adding diversity to the landscape!

The conservation world has accepted, even encouraged the sowing of wild flower strips along field margins in farmland. Could we do more to encourage the development, including through introductions, of more mature woodland plant communities in production forests? Rather than continuing to reject them, should we increase our efforts to integrate them into the future changing landscape?


A landscape where production forestry fits?

HILL, M. 1979. The development of a flora in even-aged plantations.

QUINE, C. P. 2015. The curious case of the even-aged plantation: wretched, funereal or misunderstood? In: J., K. K. & WATKINS, C. (eds.) Europe’s changing woods and forests. Wallingford: CABI.

SYMONDS, H. H. 1936. Afforestation in the Lake District, London, Dent & Sons.

TOMKINS, S. 1989. Forestry in crisis: the battle for the hills, London, Christopher Helm.

WALLACE, H. L. & GOOD, J. E. G. 1995. Effects of afforestation on upland plant communities and implications for vegetation management. Forest Ecology and Management, 79, 29-46.




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