Last month saw the sad closure of the Silvanus Trust, a charity based in the south west and dedicated to conserving woodlands and bringing small woods back into active management.
Silvanus was established in 1986, growing from a three year pilot called the East Cornwall Small Woodland Project. The projects only member of staff was our very own Simon Humphreys, who later became the first General Manager of Silvanus Services Ltd and later Chief Executive of the Silvanus Trust. I first met Simon on the East Cornwall Small Woodland Project, where I spent 11 months as the woodland ecologist. Over thirty years later it gave me pause for thought and reflection. What has changed and what is still the same?
I recently said to someone that either Simon and I were thirty years ahead of our time, or completely useless at our jobs, as so much is still the same! Steep ground making management difficult and harvesting expensive, poor prices being removed from some of the larger markets, and a majority of woodlands still unmanaged, being seen by many farmers as unproductive land on the margins of their farm.
On the other hand, global warming and sustainable low carbon fuels have a much higher profile than all those years ago. As well as traditional woodburners there are many more woodchip boilers, pellet burning stoves and some subsidies under the Renewable Heat Incentive. Forest Fuels Ltd have also driven up some prices of lower quality timber, buying large volumes for chipping and retail.
The growth of small woodland owners has also been great, especially in the last ten to perhaps fifteen years, bring a whole new type of owner to the market. This was initially driven by Woodlands for Sale, but has now become mainstream. Indeed the demand is so great that it is leading to many larger woods being split and sold in small parcels. While this can work for broadleaved woodlands, where small scale thinning or coppicing for firewood is often great management, it can cause problems in conifer plantations, where economies of scale are lost.
Government grants have moved in stages over the years, and are now heavily geared to biodiversity and flood alleviation in the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Woodland cover in England has increased from to, but due to public sector cutbacks and lower grants, the rate of planting in recent years has collapsed.
Another movement that has been and almost gone is the National Forest movement; a number of very large areas were designated for additional funding to attract additional planting. Most were on the urban fringe, with the National Forest focussed on an old coal mining area, the Mersey Forest and Forest of Avon around big conurbations. There was also the South West Forest on the Devon Cornwall borders, aimed at planting some unproductive very heavy soils in the culm area. The urban fringe woodlands have left a legacy of sites important for amenity and recreation, as well as wildlife. The South West Forest is more dubious: it has not triggered the planned local supply chain, or any new sawmills, and many of the planting schemes were farmers planning for retirement, and basing decisions on the fifteen years of grant payments. The real test will come in the next ten years, as many of these woods are now coming up for thinning. The signs are not good though.
Silvanus Trust’s closure has been precipitated by the loss of core funding for their office, a reflection of public sector funding cuts. Another irony of cuts is that they often hit independent charities first, just when David Cameron had been talking about the Big Society (though I have to admit he has gone quiet about that recently!) My own feeling is that Silvanus probably should not have sold their trading arm, which generated significant profits for the charity every year. Initially it was to a management buyout, but was then sold on to Glendale Countryside, a traditional large scale grounds maintenance outfit.
So, in an effort to be more cheerful, what is going well, and where could we be heading in the next thirty years?
- Woodland prices have climbed steadily over a long period of time, and the large number of new small woodland owners seems likely to maintain that trend.
- The Small Woodland Owners Group is a vibrant source of information exchange
- Demand for firewood should continue to increase, although big industrial sites are being built on the coast to utilise imports!
- Government targets remain to bring more woods back into active management (a managed wood is a valued wood and therefore a conserved wood).
There remains an interesting balance between wildlife conservation and timber production. The current grant schemes favour more conversion of conifer plantations back to their natural broadleaved state. And the role of woodlands in reducing flooding and promoting health and well being feature strongly in government policy. But if we go too far along that route where will we be getting all our timber needs from? Timber can be the ultimate sustainable renewable eco-friendly crop. So it’s time for a few foresters to get out there and win over the hearts and minds of the great British public!