Brave new treescapes?

One view is that our ancestors left the forest for open grassland and that change in our environment helped to make us human. However, we never really left the trees. They continued to provide us with necessary commodities, enjoyment and inspiration. They helped to maintain the stability of the environment that is essential for individual and societal survival. We have not fulfilled our side of the bargain nearly as well; on all continents where trees exist, old growth/virgin forests have been cleared, their wildlife destroyed, the structure and composition of the remaining forests simplified.

A typical England landscape from which most tree cover has been removed and what is left is heavily modified compared to a more natural state

Our cavalier attitude to forests extends to the rest of the planet. Reports on progress with the Paris Accord on climate change suggest we have less than a generation to act if we are to hold the temperature rise below 2 degrees . We seem to be on course to exceed several of the safe environmental planetary boundaries . It is not possible for all the world’s increasing population to achieve and sustain the lifestyles and levels of consumption currently enjoyed by the richest, most developed countries. Major changes to how we live and use resources are likely to be needed in Britain over the next 50 years.

The ‘Vision’ from the 2007 England Forestry Strategy did, I think, a pretty good job in summarising what we want from our future tree and woodland cover.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE“It is 2050, and England’s trees, woods and forests are helping us to cope with the continuing challenge of climate change and are also valued because many more people now enjoy using them. Trees are not just an important part of England’s history, but an essential feature of a modern, sustainable society, which has significantly reduced carbon emissions”.

[To achieve this the strategy aimed to]:

  • Provide, in England, a resource of trees, woods and forests in places where they can contribute most in terms of environmental, economic and social benefits now and for future generations.
  • Ensure that existing and newly planted trees, woods and forests are resilient to the impacts of climate change and also contribute to the way in which biodiversity and natural resources adjust to a changing climate.
  • Protect and enhance the environmental resources of water, soil, air, biodiversity and landscapes (both woodland and non-woodland), and the cultural and amenity values of trees and woodland.
  • Increase the contribution that trees, woods and forests make to the quality of life for those living in, working in or visiting England.
  • Improve the competitiveness of woodland businesses and promote the development of new or improved markets for sustainable woodland products and ecosystem services where this will deliver identifiable public benefits, nationally or locally, including the reduction of carbon emissions.

However, ideas  on how we develop those future treescapes and what they might look like have moved on quite a lot since then. The Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has suggested cuts of between a fifth and a half in beef and sheep production. This is justified on climate change grounds but may also gain more traction from animal-welfare arguments and from pressures to go Vegan. The Committee estimates that 3-7 million hectares might become available for other uses through reductions in livestock production, which could allow the space for rewilding projects, but also more land for production forestry. Even if this is an over-estimate, we need bigger visions to encompass this order of change.

More rewilding

I think rewilding has an important future place in British conservation, but we must stop worrying and arguing over precisely what rewilding is. It is about reducing the degree to which humans intervene in determining wildlife and conservation outcomes – letting nature look after itself – but within broad limits. What those limits are will take different forms in different places. I doubt there is anywhere in Britain where we can step back completely from intervention because there are always human impacts, some legacies of the past, some ongoing, that will still affect rewilding areas in future.

We need to be cautious about claims for what rewilding can deliver. The outcomes and benefits are uncertain; that is part of the difference to planned conservation management where we work towards promoting particular habitats and species. The conservation sector will need to get used to this. Some of the species we currently value may decline while others may increase in rewilding areas. Some rewilding projects may turn out not to ‘work’ so well for conservation, so rewilding must run alongside other more interventionist and targeted work.

The term, while attractive to some, raises hackles in other quarters. So, while rewilding, ideally, should be done on a large scale, it must be done by consent, by owners wishing to be part of such schemes, or by default if there is the sort of large-scale withdrawal from farming seen in parts of the Continent. Re-introductions are part of some schemes, but other species may be a step too far, for the foreseeable future. There must be dialogue and discussion about each case.

More tree cover is likely to be an outcome of rewilding in many situations, but not necessarily in all cases and the woods that develop are unlikely to look like our ancient coppice woods; not will they look and function much like most of our ancient wood-pastures.

The Knepp Estate – new landscapes in the making, not repeats of the old.


More production forestry

Increasing production forestry in a sustainable way could help reduce our environmental footprint on forests overseas. Many in the conservation sector still view any expansion of production forests with deep suspicion – memories of the Flow Country conflicts are close to the surface. Yet the forest industry generally has a good record overall of adopting practices recommended by the conservation sector to improve the structure and composition of production forests. One question though is whether the sorts of small-scale conservation management done in existing woods and plantations is the most cost-efficient way of getting big conservation gains, in our changed and changing environmental conditions.

Rather than concentrating broadleaved planting in purpose-designed native woods, what if we spread the same area out as a network of bands along waterways, paths and boundaries to provide functional connectivity over a wide area for poor colonists.The ‘holes’ in the network could be filled with blocks of more productive, generally coniferous trees

.forest landscape SS9842 13 _5 mixed woodland landscape 4

A mixed and productive forest landscape as a model for the future?

Rather than lamenting that it takes (say) fifty years for some specialist woodland species to colonise new sites let us try to introduce them through targeted management earlier on. Rather than trying to mould Sitka spruce or western hemlock stands into the poor cousins of a native broadleaved wood, put more effort into building up the types of wildlife assemblages that occur in mature coniferous stands. Rather than keeping forestry apart from other land uses, embrace and plan for new mixed landscapes where trees, woods (at all scales) and open land function together both ecologically and productively.

One of the above is from Kielder, the other a Swedish nature reserve.


An exciting future, with new treescapes

We need to be clearer than we are at present as to the balance of land-uses and land-covers that we need and want in future, but  whatever is decided I am pretty sure that ‘business as usual’ in the conservation and forestry sectors is not going to get us there. New approaches are needed – some will work, some not – but if we don’t try, then we won’t make progress.


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