Britain is the second-least wooded country in Europe, a fact that I’ve written about previously. The prominent clarion call by Professor Sir David Read and colleagues in the Read Report of 2009 (see below) identified “a clear need for more woodlands”. The proposed woodland expansion programme is for an additional 4% of forest cover to be established in Britain, which would see a welcome increase to a total of 16%, although Britain would remain one of the least-wooded European countries.
Unfortunately some seem to have seen used this as a call for more ‘native woodlands’. Try a Google search for “read report increase woodland cover” and you will see what I mean. As far as I recall, Read never called specifically for more ‘native woodlands’. The native obsession is ironic and narrow-minded in that plantations of any appropriate species, if they are well-designed and managed, will remove the pressure from our existing and precious native semi-natural woodlands that many of these same organisations are striving to protect.
There’s nothing wrong with new ‘native woodlands’ per se but when their design and composition has ambition limited to greening the countryside, which is admirable in its own narrow way, they fall very far short of deliverying the sort of outputs that Read anticipated.
Read saw the increase in Britain’s woodland cover making a “significant contribution to meeting the UK’s challenging emissions reduction targets” with the aim of creating an emissions abatement equivalent to 10% of total green house gas emissions. To achieve these targets we need to either lock up carbon in wood, and the most efficient means of doing this is by growing trees as a crop that will produce timber, or create renewable energy by producing wood fuel. These can be provided together with social (e.g. recreation) and environmental (e.g. habitat provision) benefits. This is the essence of modern plantation forestry: the activity in which the UK Forestry Commission excels.
If we continue to plant green fuzz across our food-producing fields, with little concern either for the impending need to be more self-sufficient in food production (read more), or for the need to reduce our enormous reliance on timber imports (Britain’s sixth largest import), Britain’s environmental credibility will be increasingly undermined.
Forest plantations in the 21st Century are a long way in their design from the monocultural and regimental coniferous plantings that scarred so much of Britain’s upland landscapes in the early and mid 20th Century. Advances in tree breeding are bringing the production of quality hardwoods nearer to becoming economically viable, while the new market for wood fuel is helping by producing income from thinnings; a natural by-product of a well-managed woodland. Woodlands with ambitions to produce timber and fuel can deliver equally well in greening the landscape, or in providing wildlife habitat and places for people to exercise than any ‘native woodland’. Conversely, planting more of the same ‘native woodlands’ that now litter the English countryside with little more ambition in their creation and management than a membership publicity drive or community engagement excercise, will be regretted long after the PR-masters behind them have past. In their own way, these are as regrettable as the dark satanic rows of conifers that were planted sixty years ago.
The WWF is promoting a New generation of plantations that (note the fourth objective):
- maintain ecosystem integrity;
- protect the high conservation values;
- are developed through effective stakeholder participation processes;
- contribute to economic growth and employment.
The WWF suggest we should rethink our attitude to plantations, suggesting that they can be part of the solution more than the problem. They recognise that plantation forestry is controversial:
Some companies have put profit before the planet and destroyed valuable forest habitats in order to expand their plantations. Some have also trampled the rights of forest communities and workers. Yet tree plantations can be developed without these impacts and thus help maintain the most valuable ecosystems while contributing for economic development and employment.
So, in the global context, Britain could help in its own way by aiming to satisfy more of its own timber and wood fuel needs by planting and managing more forest plantations. We must wake up to our real environmental responsibilities, which extend way beyond our tiny shores.
As a first step, and so as to avoid the native debate for now (remember beech, sweet chestnut, walnut and all productive conifers are not native to most of Britain), let’s have a drive to plant ‘native plantations’. To do so will mean that some environmental bodies will have to bite the bullet and start talking to their members about felling trees as well as planting them. Now, that would demonstrate real environmental vision.
Read, D.J., Freer-Smith, P.H., Morison, J.I.L., Hanley, N., West, C.C. and Snowdon, P. (eds). 2009. Combating climate change – a role for UK forests. An assessment of the potential of the UK’s trees and woodlands to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The synthesis report. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh.