Plant more trees or Manage existing woodlands? Have your say …

Should we be planting more trees or managing our existing woodlands? I have strong views on this that may not be shared by others. I’ve written on my blog before about the hundreds of thousands of hectares of woodlands in England that are not being managed (England’s wall of moribund woodland). I have also had a poke at the large number of short-sighted planting schemes that are resulting in low-value (read ‘unsustainable’) woodland littering our countryside (More forest plantations less green fuzz). Finally, I have discussed the likely scenarios of a future where, with 7 billion people to feed today increasing to 9 billion by 2050, land will be too important for food production to permit an increase in land area dedicated to the growing of wood fibre (Land for trees or food).

Next time I tackle my teenage daughter over the state of her bedroom, I could say “Never mind, just leave it and have this empty room next door and start over!”.

In short I believe simply that we should be managing our existing woodlands better before we plant more. If I was allowed a caveat it would be “to manage existing… at least while we plant more” so I may be tempted to answer “Both”. But what do you think? I would like all my readers to have a say by completing this poll. I am sure I can be criticised by trying to persuade my readers first and then ask them their views, and I’m sure a social scientist would have a field day! However, I am confident that there are many readers with equally strong views that will differ from mine and that they will not hold back in setting out their arguments by using the Comment box below, so we should have a good debate to help inform. So over to you …

I will keep this poll open for several months in the hope of a good response rate. I am sure that this poll need not only apply to English forests and land use, but also to many other countries around the world. So wherever you’re from, do have a say.

Gabriel Hemery

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8 thoughts on “Plant more trees or Manage existing woodlands? Have your say …

  1. Hi,

    plant more trees should always be the default position as recent history has shown us that trying to encourage people to manage existing woodland is fraught with difficulties, although i believe that with fuel costs spiralling the wood fuel market will naturally lead people to, by default manage their woods. If we are planting trees for climate change mitigation then in the short term it doesnt really matter about future management, that will catch up as and when market forces dictate its cost effectiveness. In reality we should be doing both, however because the forestry sector is always scrutinised in fine detail by the politicians, as opposed to other land management sectors, we can usually only cope with one ‘issue’ at a time, the problem with the forestry sector is that is tries to be all things to everyone. On the food security issue i believe this is a scare tactic being used by the farming sector to ensure marginal land isnt planted with trees and is still available to maximise landowners claiming inflated grant aid to prop up a cost negative farming system. Rather, food security should be renamed food logistics, as we have plenty of food in the world just not in the right places, and most affluent places over consume and refuse to allow free global trade to redistribute this basic commodity.
    As for the teenage daughters bedroom analogy, then im afraid i know exactely what you mean! although maybe its just us trying to impose our will on that of someone else, whos to say the teenage daughters arent right???
    great blog which i follow weekly so keep it up!

  2. I vote provocatively for NEITHER!
    My focus is avoiding dangerous climate change. I suggest that foresters and timber interests have exaggerated the carbon value of managing woodlands for timber production, it is part of their values and they are looking for subsidies to support intensive loss making activity. Our slow growing native woodlands may sequester as much or even more carbon if left well alone to develop as natural undisturbed wildwoods.
    I would not advocate a major intensive planting programme because artificial methods involving cultivation, herbicides and pesticides etc can bring early carbon emissions particularly from soils.
    I would like to see an increase in woodland cover for carbon and biodiversity reasons, but believe this could be achieved by reducing agricultural subsidies so that marginal land becomes natural woodland through “abandonment” or perhaps less provocatively, “rewilding”.

    1. Hi Alec

      Thanks for your comments; as thought-provoking as always.

      A short alternative view: aren’t we in danger of falling into the same traps as the “flow country economic plantation” or “social forestry” eras if we were to move to a focus solely on “carbon forestry”?

      Equally, rewiliding or abandonment is a concept totally unrealistic in terms of land availability and values, at least in the UK – isn’t it? Also, in terms of biodiversity, the woods that would be formed are unlikely to support the needs of our threatened woodland specilialists that have developed in response to centuries of woodland management by man. It’s not me who says this either it is the RSPB, Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation, Plantlife plus 10 or so more other environmental NGOs.

      Surely sustainable forestry needs to address all the needs of society in as many dimensions as possible where possible and appropriate.

  3. We have lost far too many forests and woodlands already and I say we need to do both.
    Of especial interest to me is the protection of Ancient Trees and Ancient Woodlands. If we allow these to decay and disappear then we lose all the genetic strengths that these old timers have (or had if they go) and we alos lose the diversity that is inherent within the Ancient Woodlands with their massive lists of flora and fauna built up over centuries of continuous occupation and development.
    As with a lot of arguments there will be those that argue about the need to feed and the need to develop landscapes for more factories and more housing but what no-one is seemingly prepared to admit is that to be sustainable and here in the UK self sufficient we need a minimum area of natural landscape just to process our needs and usage. It is not simply about having a farm for every family either. It is about sensible usage of what we have and as we bury more natural landscape under tarmac and concrete in the misbegotten belief in the great gods of sustainable development and economic growth we miss the very thing that will actually save our backsides from the fire and that is the least profitable in terms of bankers salaries and big bonuses and most important in basic clean air, fresh clean water and somewhere that we can grow food. And yes we can grow food within a forest. Watch the Bill Mollison documentary on permaculture on Google for the supporting evidence of this fact. If we don’t act now we will lose any chance of ever reversing our mistakes of the past. And also yes we need to better manage ‘some’ of the woodlands and forests. Not all forests need human interaction. After all did they not evolve to be what they were without our intrusion for many centuries before we came along?

  4. and in the real world………

    the answer is both.

    There is only one construction and printing material which is renewable and is far more sustainable than all the other and that is wood – if we wish to continue to build houses, and heat them then we should grow more trees NOW.

    The UK has this very strange “little Britainer” attitude to forestry and other environmental issues – so we reduce co2 emissions by closing our manufacturing and exporting it to China. We like the idea of wood in our homes but dont like the idea of felling trees, our planting new ones anywhere near us. We love our bare, sheep grazed hills as something natural and cling to the strange belief that creating scrubby woodlands of squirrel damaged hardwoods is achieving something in terms of global biodiversity.

    I do agreee with Alec that by reducing ag subsidies that there would be a major positive benefit.. Commercial foresters would be quite happy to work with fewer subsidies, if some of the restrictions were also removed, and we were allowed to stick with for example just FSC guidleines, rather than endless pointless EIAs and surveys for non-existant species. The volume of herbicides and pesticides used is minute compared with agriculture and over a 30 – 40 yr rotation inconsequential. Frequently in upland areas it is a single application of each.

    I recently attended a conference, where the aggregates industry were promoting low carbon asphalt and renewable recyclable concrete; whilst the forest industry bickers about whether and how to plant more trees!

  5. Andrew Heald wrote:

    ‘We love our bare, sheep grazed hills as something natural and cling to the strange belief that creating scrubby woodlands of squirrel damaged hardwoods is achieving something in terms of global biodiversity.’

    Er? Not me mate. I prefer trees and the more the better. A bit of woodland management will sort out the grey’s and biodiversity requires not mono-culture woodlands but biodiverse woodlands with natural indigenous species in their thousands.

    I have long since lost count of the number of times major areas of forest have been cleared by idiots who’s only reason for doing so is because ‘they spoiled the view.’ How sad is that? One example near me involved the felling of 24 black poplar’s. Now whether they were the real deal or just the Americanus hybrid I don’t know. I didn’t get chance to discover the type before they were felled and disposed of. Precisely because they spoiled the view of some recently built properties on some landed gentry’s estate. Oh and the leaves covered the lawns in the autumn. Well I never!

    Very often the councils will side with the individuals freedom of choice in choosing to desecrate the landscape in exchange for ‘the view(s)’ (Which they did in the case of the Poplars) when everyone else is suffering from the downhill erosion of the landscape and the pollution of the streams and rivers due to this erosion. Its constantly happening around the globe and yet no-one has grown the spine needed to stand up and say ‘no more!’ Common sense has become virtually extinct in the real world.

    I can agree with your sentiments towards planting tree’s for the purpose of building materials and for maybe paper but to use the wood simply to heat the home(s) is futile. We need alternatives to ‘Burning!’ Too much of that has happened in the past from burrning books, witches and property all in the name of regime change and enforcing control by fear. By continuing this trait of burning the generate electricity is simply no-longer the sustainable option if we are to seriously challenge the climatic emissions levels.

    How hot do we really want things to get?

    People like me are constantly ignored because to tne majority of wood managers we’re just a bunch of tree hugging hippies with no idea of what we speak. Yet we probably know more about the ecosystem functions and the long term sustainability of all the other ‘trades’ that we all take so much for granted than the ‘Managers’ do.

    However as you state building is one such trade. Another that automatically springs to my mind is woodland crafts from coppicing. Not necessarily life threateningly important but non the less a trade which has further benefits to the greater community. Less plastic and more wood furniture would be one hell of a way to save the environment beyond the forestry world. Less oil means less plastic floating in the natural world, blown around like so much floating detritus and contaminating the oceans beyond merely the formation of gyres. The fish have long since started to become contaminated with the debris and its toxic effects. The higher up the food chain you go the toxins have accumulated to dangerous levels. So its easy to blinker our world view to just the woodland when on real world terms the problem goes so much further.

    Its about time we became more reliant upon sustainable production. I fear the thought of using pesticides and herbicides when good old biodiversity and bending of ones back will acheive the same results. Plus lets not forget we reap what we sow and we have sown climate change which is now coming back to bite us in the bum big time. All those new threats in the form of phytophora’s and processionary whatevers have started to change the very landscape for us to such an extent that the landowners don’t need to use the excuse that the tree’s spoil the view anymore. The elf and safety brigade do the felling for them with the ‘Its dangerous and might fall on someone’ excuse for clear cutting the landscape.

    Hill farming anyone? 🙂

  6. I don’t understand why woodlands have to be managed. There were woods all over the UK before the Middle Ages. Nature seemed to deal with itself OK before we humans came along to mess things up. If woods were designed to be coppiced, surely trees would have evolved their own chain saws to do it themselves. I see financial gain being disguised as conservation.

    1. Your are right of course but we no longer have natural woodlands in the sense that all have been affected to differing degrees over centuries. Much of the biodiversity we most value is adapted to our man management. Sixteen of the UK’s leading conservation charities agree that our woodland specialist species (e.g. Bats, birds, vascular plants, butterflies) are declining due to lack of management.

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