The year end brings me to ponder a few woodland thoughts, which are very much of a personal mature. While primarily a conservationist I was drawn into woodland management because I thought there were too many woods unmanaged and neglected. The theory of the then Countryside Commission was make a small wood commercially viable and it will be valued by its owner. One of their first pilot projects was the East Cornwall Small Woodland Project, where my woodland career started. Over thirty years later, the problems seem to be the same. I did say in one talk that either I was ahead of my time, or I have been very ineffectual in my career!
The Woodland Trust and other wildlife charities continue to publish doom laden reports about loss of ancient woodland or bird numbers and other items, which the press lap up, but they choose a baseline of 50 years ago. The reality is that the large majority of the reported losses occurred in the first twenty-five years, with losses dramatically slowed since then. Indeed woodland cover has seen a steady increase in the last thirty years, much of it broadleaved, and planted with amenity or conservation in mind. Bit naughty there, Woodland Trust!
However, in recent years new woodland planting rates have been falling dramatically, and the reason is quite clear: grants from the Forestry Commission have been both cut and made far more complicated.
The government remain committed to their targets for increased woodland cover, but the reality is that there is virtually no chance of achieving them with current incentives. Very naughty and economical with the truth there Defra!
The main woodland creation grant is now geared to biodiversity and flood alleviation, but what about sustainable UK timber supply? We still import over half of our timber requirements, sometimes from dubious sources. Timber imports are a serious economic and environmental issue; they are often deforesting important locations, especially in eastern Europe, not just the headline grabbing tropical rainforests. Conifer plantations have a bad name, but they provide the vast majority of our timber for construction, and are a sustainable and renewable resource.
The majority of our woods are still unmanaged and something of a wasted resource. Time for a brief pop at the Forestry Commission to complete the set; they count any wood with a management plan as managed, with no checking on whether its actually implemented, this inflating the outcomes. Going from a plan to implementation can be the most difficult bit – just ask a few of our customers!
So, having vented my spleen a little, here’s a brief action plan from me:
1. More conifers please (we still need to be more self-sufficient).
2. More productive forestry in our uplands (its controversial, but uplands over-grazed by sheep are ecologically poor and take a huge amount of taxpayer subsidy).
3. Rewilding is a good idea to try in limited areas (see for example Ennerdale in the Lake District)
4. A return to previously higher levels of new woodland planting (I’m only asking for existing policy to be actually implemented)
5. More commercial management of broadleaves (unmanaged woods can be a great source of local woodfuel if nothing else)
6. More continuous cover forestry (done well can provide the best of both worlds – timber production and excellent wildlife)
7. Time to organise some significant reintroduction of pine martens (grey squirrel control is essential to enable good productive management of broadleaves, even if pine martens upset gamekeepers)
8. Looking ahead a few years, we need a revamp of woodland and farming grants. There are two specific opportunities to consider as we head towards Brexit: renewable energy grants and basic farm payments. The current grant system for renwable energy is geared to major industrial plants and manufactured wood pellets, but good local woodfuel is even better for the environment and helping tackle climate change. Perhaps more significantly could be a change to the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). All farmland qualifies for the BPS, yet woodland does not, despite it contributing enormously to society’s wider environmental agenda. Time for a redistribution?
Ah well, keyboard warrioring will only go so far, but hope I have also provided food for thought and debate. Meanwhile I have to practise what I preach, so time to nip down to Treragin Wood for a bit of mental therapy and woodland management. With global warming the early daffodils should be well up above ground now!
A happy Christmas and new year to everyone.