Plantlife, a charity dedicated to protecting wild plants, recently published a report called Forestry Recommissioned: Bringing England’s woodlands back to life. Thanks to Mike Carswell (Manchester urban coppicer and role model) for the heads-up.
It’s really refreshing to read a glossy report from a conservation body (or anybody, frankly) which gets (almost) to the heart of the matter. The central tenet is that the current forestry debate – about who owns England’s woods and how many more hundreds of thousands of hectares of trees should be planted – misses an essential point: that existing woodlands are not managed effectively. They are becoming darker, more fertile, and deer-infested. Which is not good for the diversity or habitat of the many specialised plants who populate the woods (which incidentally seem to have really great names: common gromwell; sanicle; woodruff; helleborine; ladies’ smock). Many of these plants are under serious threat of extinction on these islands. There are some amazing statistics, like: “In 1947, 49% of broadleaved woodland was classed either as coppice or scrub and just 51% as high forest. By 2002, high forest represented a staggering 97% of the broadleaved resource.” And some class one liners, like: “It matters little who owns dull woodlands devoid of natural beauty and nor do we need more of them.”
It’s heartening that there is an increasing understanding that if you just leave woodlands to their own devices, minimal intervention style, they oftentimes do not look after themselves. We were all taught the standard textbook theory of a dark, stable, old “wildwood” existing before neolithic humans began to clear the land for agriculture. This was shown to be cobblers about ten years ago thanks to Franz Vera and his awesome book “Grazing Ecology and Forest History” – in reality large herbivores would have kept the landscape a lot more open, a mosaic of woods, scrub and grassland constantly moving, changing and shifting. Humans have driven to extinction on these islands most of the large herbivores and all of their predators, and in addition have fenced woodlands so that they cannot move. So basically the “woodland ecosystem” has been massively messed with. Leaving woods alone does not mean that they will do their own thing – essential members of that environment are now missing. So the least we can do is cause a bit of controlled disturbance to help out the remaining members. And if we can make our livings at the same time, all the better.
The Plantlife report mentions the Forestry Commission’s Woodfuel Implementation Plan and the Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive as possible economic bases for the increased management of broadleaved woodland. And then it comes out with the classic, “…if undertaken sustainably.” I don’t want to dive into a rant about the problems with top-down drivers of forestry activity, because it will become an essay. I’ll just say that the track record of using capitalist approaches to solve conservation issues is not particularly encouraging. Blackbark is firmly committed to supporting networks of small firms, co-ops and self-employed people who are trying to make a living in the woods. They tend to care more about helleborine and white mullein than UPM Tilhill et al.
Talking to Mike (Carswell, see above), he mentioned that a lot of the sites he coppices are, like ours, ex-industrial, and the growth rate of trees is fantastic. We’re totally familiar with summer jungles of head-high nettles and brambles. It’s really interesting that so many niche woodland plants like low-fertility soil. Dr Oliver Rackham (legend) has documented how the length of coppice rotations increased over the centuries: in eastern England from an average of six years in the 13th century to fourteen or fifteen years by the 19th. This is taken as a sign that as biomass was constantly removed from woodlands, the soil fertility decreased and thus coppice growth rate slowed. Apparently the fertility of woodlands is increasing, and more management would help to reduce it by removing biomass, thus helping these niche woodland plants. I’m still don’t fully understand what’s going on here: post-glacial soils would have been really poor, but fertility must have been increasing for ten thousand years before medieval demand for coppice products reversed the trend. Were these special woodland plants rare during that time? Were neolithic woodlands all nettles and bramble? What will the coppice cycles be like on our fertile landfill woodlands? I seriously hope we get top quality hazel in six years.
The last thing to say is that actually it’s really great if more trees are being planted in areas set aside to become woodland. Two thirds of Blackbark are actively involved with Treesponsibility, Calderdale’s brilliant climate change awareness group who plant many hectares of trees each year. The woodland cover of Calderdale is currently around 4% – it should be much higher. For the sake of the wood-based economy, planting a few fields with nice dense hazel will start to create jobs in a decade. Managing the existing mature woodlands on our steep slopes involves a lot more hard, marginal work before any serious job creation will happen. Both need to happen though. And here, they are :)
Still haven’t seen any common gromwell though. I’ll let you know if we do.