Trees are essential to life. Wood is the most sustainable material on Earth. Managing our forests properly means that we can have healthy forests and produce wood.

It can be difficult to understand how cutting down a tree in a forest is sustainable. The most common questions I’m asked when I give public talks are usually about sustainable forest management. What does it mean?

The official answer to this is:

“ … the stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems” Forest Europe

This definition is helpful for its thoroughness, but not a lot of help when trying to explain the concept simply and quickly, especially to kids. And that’s the heart of the problem for forestry, and for foresters. The great diversity of the benefits derived from sustainable forest management, and the diversity and importance of wood products and use, only create complexity in communications. And then there are the timescales of forestry, which typically transcend human generations: how can felling a 100 year old tree be sustainable?

In an attempt to help, in my own small way, I recently came up with a new way to explain sustainable forest management. I created a fun song, complete with actions.

The song is a four-line ’round’ – meaning that all lines are sung at the same time by four different groups. It is sung to the traditional tune London’s Burning.

Plant a tree, plant a tree sit + hands on head
Help it grow, help it grow sit + raise hands above head
Be a forest, be a forest stand + stretch hands high
Cut it down, cut it down! sit + arms folded

With a large enough audience, that is split into four groups (ideally randomly around the room), it is possible to create a ‘forest of people’ that when singing + doing the actions, appear as a forest being managed sustainably on fast forward! I hope you enjoy my film.

Gabriel Hemery


  1. Before you start reading this isn’t a normal posting, more an essay ! Gabriel asked me to put it up because he thought it would be of interest.
    Roderick Leslie

    Woodland Management

    ‘Wildlife prefers a variety of species, made up of trees of different ages, lots of dead wood and with a few sunny glades. The best way to look after these ‘Atlantic Oakwoods’ is to leave them alone.’

    The National Trust, Wray Castle, Windermere, Lake District


    These conflicting statements, cast in aluminium rather than stone, clearly demonstrate the confusion across much of woodland management in England: heavily managed in the past for bobbin production, the implication that no management will maintain the full range of biodiversity must surely be wrong. Managers and visitors are quite entitled to make a value judgement of what they want, maybe untouched woods – but it is wrong to ignore the fact there will be losers as well as winners.

    With the Woodfuel Strategy proposal to double the area of non-FC woodland in management in England this is a critical moment to re-examine woodland management: roughly half of England’s woodlands, and a far higher proportion of native and ancient woodlands, are currently unmanaged. It is a fact that has been almost completely ignored in half a centuries debate over forest policy. If the management of woodland increases rapidly all the arguments over woodland management become more acute – with the added risk of real losses to the value of these woodlands.

    Biodiversity Values

    The greatest diversity, and many of the species we currently value highly , are found in the earliest and latest stages of woodland succession – the oldest trees and woodlands at one end, clear felled or coppiced environments at the other. Most of our woods are middle aged, closed canopy and getting darker because they are unmanaged.

    There is an immediate and urgent need for there to be more early succession habitat. In the longer term, if management rises, there will be an equally important value in ensuring the resource of old woodland, including managed woodland with old trees and planned non-intervention, is developed.

    Continuous cover management of currently unmanaged stands should play a significant role, preserving the stability of the woodland environment, but on its own will not provide habitat for the species of early succession.

    Diversity, Rarity & complexity

    Woodland is by far our most diverse habitat, measured by species and is the dominant natural climax vegetation. It is the most widespread habitat with semi-natural character. However, since attention shifted away from damage to ancient woodland following the introduction of the Government’s Broadleaves policy in 1985 woodland has been seen as a low conservation priority.

    Because woods are widespread compared to most other habitats relatively few species are ‘rare’ in current parlance. The anomalies that many accepted rarities will always be limited by the past and future rarity of their habitat – like Avocet – and the high diversity of the habitat as a whole have not registered fully in processes like the Biodiversity Action Plans.

    This problem is exacerbated by the complexity of woodland: there are 4 separate Habitat Action Plans. On top of the range of biodiversity management options for management for biodiversity but there is the cultural dimension of the history of a woodland’s management. People naturally feel woods are stable – one of the few things with a life longer than ours – and particularly in woods from middle age to early old age it is a natural assumption that they are stable and will be there for ever. In an era where natural history and ecology still intermingle, dealing with a dynamic habitat which doesn’t look dynamic is a real challenge.


    Scale is a key problem area.

    Most debate on scale takes place at a compartment or individual wood scale – and attempts to look at the woodland resource at a larger scale invariably are interpreted back to the smallest scale.

    Generic proposals are derived up from a very small scale and presented as the ‘one route to God’. There is no clear perception of the resource as a whole: the fact that most is not in any sort of management and that the area of current coppice is tiny is simply not recognised – but if you don’t believe it, just look at the proportion of published coppice photos that are of Bradfield woods !

    Where the wood is the largest recognised unit scale becomes a problem in another way: even where there is active intervention, there is inevitably a clear desire to create all habitat types in a balanced way, and, in particular, not to do too much too quickly. Forest Enterprise’s larger scale interventions are criticised on these grounds, but evidence for woodland butterflies suggests that the largest ‘acceptable’ scale of intervention may be at the lowest margins of what some early succession like Heath Fritillary species need to survive.

    Rewell wood in Sussex is a very clear example: modified into an industrial sweet chestnut coppice in the 19th C, Forest Enterprise has followed the traditional cutting cycle as closely as markets allow. This intensity of management, traditional though it is to many coppice woods, might well be difficult to introduce more widely at present – but the site is one of the few places in South East England where Pearl-bordered Fritillary are thriving.

    We need to look at the resource on a real landscape scale – all the woods in SEE for example – and think about what the ideal mix of management should be – I suggest that all the biodiversity drivers favour an increase in scale for all components through the reduction in neglected middle age high forest – we should have more early succession and, equally, a robust network of woods for undisturbed development towards old trees & woodland. Every wood should have old trees , from individuals to whole stands, but as well as old trees as a component there should be whole woods and habitat bigger networks of undisturbed woodland developing the values of late succession.

    It is always argued that ownership precludes this sort of approach. It does if one is intent on a Stalinist approach to planning where categories are allocated regardless of owners attitudes. It’s also impossible if you believe there is only one approach – managed, natural, planted, clear felled – the current norm. But what if it is seen through the eyes of existing committed & uncommitted owners ? – far from one owner favouring limited activity and another wanting to do more being the problem as seen now, these differences potentially become an asset.

    Most importantly, the present situation, with ½ England’s woods in no planned management, there is a lot of space – the idea that we have to manage in one direction or the other is quite wrong: there is room to enhance a wide range of woodland values, with the overriding priority being to look after our woodland resource as a whole better, through whatever routes may be seen as valid & valuable.

    Semi-Natural & Natural: nature & people

    Woodland history and the interaction of culture, landscape and biodiversity remains a big problem area as the headline quote clearly demonstrates. Still, there can be a strong perception that our woods have been devalued from a natural state by human activity and will return to that natural state if we do nothing. The fact that they can regenerate without man’s intervention is put as a powerful, though spurious justification: it is true, but selection of a management approach remains a value judgement nonetheless.

    Rackham & Peterken have both argued for the real & unique value of the human-natural interaction – different from the pure ‘natural’ but of special value in its own right. Biodiversity has dominated ancient woodland debate, but in an era where most of the population has lost almost all contact with the countryside and its role in our history, the cultural understanding of ancient woodland may be even more important. Peterken has also pointed out that leaving woods untouched does not return them to a ‘natural’ state in the foreseeable future – although recognising the real value of what he calls ‘future natural’ as a component of the woodland mix.

    Bearing in mind that historic management created the conditions for valued early succession species, surely there has to be a strong argument for a significant restoration of activity in a proportion of our woods ? It is made all the more relevant by the return of these woods to providing the sustainable, low carbon, local products we are once again looking for today.

    A key point in looking at woodland history is that each wood has its own, distinct history. Surely, the answer lies – parralleling several other arguments – in treating each wood or woodland region as an individual case – within a broad framework, yes, but with its own unique & distinct character and history; and equally its own future in which people – owners & local people – should continue to play the role their ancestors did in the past.

    This doesn’t fit well with national bodies trying to set rules for grant schemes, NGOs looking for hard guarantees from Government or promoting a particular campaigning view. But surely if we are to look forward to a varied, exciting countryside with real quality and variety we have to leave the comfort zone of the single view, single prescription ?

    This understanding probably needs to develop mutually – not through foresters (or conservationists) simply trying to sell their version of the world as ‘education’: both groups have got it wrong often enough to apply some humility and to engage in an exchange, a conversation, rather than a one way lecture.

    Site Impacts

    Linked to woodland history is the key issue of the site impacts of woodland operations. These cause concern at two, intimately mingled, levels: first, the concern over actual damage to biodiversity and cultural heritage; second the negative appearance of operations eg rutting and the change to what is popularly perceived (despite its history) as a very stable, fixed part of the landscape. For some owners the two become inextricably entangled resulting in argument against management on damage ground because of the fear of public opposition – and their own real fear of damaging an irreplaceable resource. Public concern may actually be a valid reason for not actively managing – we should tease that out, rather than falling back on other ‘more acceptable’ arguments.

    Hard evidence does suggest a far greater level of impact from historic operations than is generally accepted, even by foresters: sunken lanes did not come from low impact activity, and evidence of industry suggests very significant impacts in the past. Whilst damage is easy to recognise, the corollary – that some of the habitats created may have supported biodiversity – is not generally discussed.

    Experience since restoration of ancient woodland began has continually reinforced the resilience of these habitats – extreme events like the die back of Norway Spruce in the East Midlands has provided examples supporting a much more optimistic view than we could have held 10 years ago. This sort of understanding needs to be used thoughtfully – not being transferred lock, stock and barrel from the heavy clays of the Midlands to an acid brown earth in the Marches !

    ‘One route to God’

    Foresters and conservationists are equally guilty of promoting the idea that there is one right answer. The Forestry Commission was not alone in trying to manage all its forests to the same standards (most notably in this context, planting ancient woods with conifers): it is a characteristic of forest services worldwide. Many articles on woodland management draw from a single, localised example to promote a universal approach. Either you are for a ‘natural’ approach, or you are for management , or for management as against creation of new woods, for example.

    There are some things we simply should not do and that must be covered by single, national approaches – destroying irreplaceable ancient woodland must surely be a very clear example – but just how critical are some of the other prescriptions we are ready to treat as gospel truths – especially when the main outcome at present is that half our woods in England aren’t covered by any of them ?

    Forester & Conservationist conservatism

    Both foresters and conservationists are deeply conservative and struggle to recognise it. Both claim to be scientific and objective and cling to firmly held prejudices regardless of the science.

    Foresters are particularly guilty of always wanting to intervene. All woods must have timber extracted for the same semi-religious reasons that we must farm all our land to the maximum of its potential. And once we’ve felled we must plant.

    Conservationists, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to go the other way – frequently with equally disastrous results, with nature reserves loosing early succession species due to cessation of coppicing, or deer destroying regrowth and flora.

    What is ‘Managed Woodland’ ?

    Currently managed = activity = timber removal, and is frequently linked to woodland management for profit (not that there is much of that around in reality !). I suggest this is unhelpful, not least in setting foresters against conservationists, and that we need to move towards an understanding of management that is about the wood having a clear direction & being within the sort of stewardship that ensures its long term sustainability. That could and should include woods that are planned to remain undisturbed.

    Planning for undisturbed woodland may involve ‘management’ decisions – most obviously grazing but also issues like tree safety.

    There is also a fundamental difference between a wood where a positive decision has been taken on its future and it has a responsible guardian compared to a wood that is simply left to get on with it.

    This will become a clear issue once condition takes a higher profile. It is not a fundamental change: the Ancient &Ornamental pasture woodland of the New Forest is classified as ‘managed’, which indeed it is, although no wood is now removed from it. Off FC land the current emphasis on activity of the FC grant schemes tend to accidentally preclude low intervention management.

    Whether management is for money, conservation or whatever is surely a fringe issue: large scale work does not take place without some financial return, and a sound economic base is the best guarantee for future management. Issues only arise where, for example, there is a cash advantage in planting rather than natural regeneration – to what extent is that sort of thing largely grant driven, with both foresters and conservationists vulnerable to the lure of cash payouts ?

    Making Choices

    That there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers is best demonstrated by species: that there will be no Pearl Bordered Fritillary, Dormouse or Nightingale in middle aged or older woodland with no early succession or shrubby under storey; lack of light will make it impossible for these species to survive. Equally, woods without older trees with dead wood and holes won’t hold woodpeckers or roosting bats.

    These are matters of fact, not opinion. As the needs of different species conflict, when we take decisions on management we take decisions of which habitats and species to favour and disfavour. This isn’t a problem – it only becomes a problem if we try and pretend the issue doesn’t exist and that there is some science based solution that dodges the conundrum.


    • Not only is there not one right answer, but striving for a median that satisfies all the conflicting arguments will almost certainly produce the worst possible outcome for woodland values, especially biodiversity and cultural heritage.

    • But there may be wrong ones: continuing to generate as little early succession as we do now will result in regional level extinction of valued species; unconstrained management driven by new markets like wood fuel could over the next 20 years have exactly the same impact on the late succession future of our woods.

    • Leading on from this, within a landscape scale approach, there is a strong case for more rather than less extreme management at the site level – so that some woods have a much higher proportion of early succession, whilst other large areas are positively managed as non-intervention.

    • We must recognise that however good our factual understanding of a wood a value judgement has to be made, for example between ‘traditional’ management, a different type of active management or more natural processes.

    • Non-intervention is currently the de facto norm in English native woodlands, with species of early successional stages suffering severe, measurable decline.

    • Given the rich mix between culture & nature and the diversity of our woodland types, we need to know more about individual woods, and base management around that understanding rather than over-relying on generic approaches.

    • Operational impacts on our native woods is an area where we need more understanding: there is clear conflict between the real concern at damage to valued habitat (whether perceived or real), the history of management of these woods and the direct visual impact of operations themselves.

    • As woods vary, so do managers – to what extent can we match the ambitions and abilities of different land managers to the differing mix of woods we are looking for ?

  2. Author

    Great comments thank you. This is shaping up to be a really interesting debate. Keep them coming…!

    I agree about people in the sector ‘doing the communication’ although it can be a special skill beyond those typically found within practicising foresters. I don’t mean that we (yes I am one) are retarded communicators, just that our skill set may be elsewhere. And when ‘we’ are slightly fighting against the tide of communication currents emerging from powerful NGOs with scores of professional marketing and communication professionals, backed by large budgets, the odds are stacked against the forestry sector achieving a balanced understanding by members of the public.

    It’s interesting that once when I commented publicly in a national newspaper, in defense of forestry, there were several comments in reply suggesting that my views were suppported by a powerful and co-ordinated lobby representing the forestry sector … oh if that were true!

  3. Great song.

    The whole basis of forest education came home to me literally not long ago, when my son, 7 years old, came back from school with a worksheet they had been working on, which detailed tree species, and what uses they had to humans. In the UK I once attended a walk and talk lecture for undergraduates where they were being taught the same thing – post A level UK students being taught what they teach French 7 seven year olds! It is sad that it is now considered the remit of the forest industry itself to have to educate about trees when it should be schools, yet regretably in England now it will be difficult to find many teachers who know about the subject well enough to be able to teach it.

    In the recent Tree News, Pauline Black Buchanan’s wrote a great piece about trees in the urban environment and how this was a factor in the recent riots – I rarely disagree with her commentary, but in this there was (and is in much wider circles) a believe that ‘give them trees’ and it will solve many of English societies ill’s. Go to St. Denis or any other of the deprived areas of France, which in social terms are very much on a par with the UK and prone to ‘kicking off’ at any moment and the one thing they do not lack are trees. There is thus an element of ‘Let them eat cake’ in regards the expansion of urban tree planting. The benefits to health and well being as well as biodiversity benefits of trees have to be taught to those in the community, not rolled out as part of another nationwide, corporate PR type campaign, which does little more than further disconnect the community from the choices being made for it rather than with it – and using a local volunteer base does not work in this regard.

    Using France as further case study in regards the supply chain. French home grown timber is now cheaper, as it is in the UK, than many imported timbers for particular purposes. Larch, (a timber I am assuming is starting to stockpile in the UK), is the primary choice for cladding and decking now in France. Short videos of the felling and replanting work in French forests are displayed in the DIY and supplier stores on screens which in the UK are used for the advertising of new ‘innovative’ but uneccesary products that usually adorn the pages of a betterware brochure.

    TV is THE most effective method of educating into the home, which I agree with Andrew is the most important need for the forest industry. UK television enjoys huge ratings on all its natural heritage programming, particularly those bringing home the wonders of nature in the UK itself. Why then is little ever discussed with regards trees or issues which go beyond the boundaries of a biodiversity or ‘fluffy animal’ remit? Indeed as far as I know it is only a small slot on Countryfile by John Craven himself which dares to delve into issues which show the voids in perceptions surrounding the UK countryside and landscape. Usually it is all cosily wrapped up in line with the images potrayed by the leading NGOs. UK natural perception is a product in itself and we see the ludicrous situation where the many retail shops which cater to the tea towel brigade will happily sell ‘ethical’ foreign timber products (and even nurseries and garden centres selling invasive and unsuitable plants), but rarely pubilcise the very high quality products on offer from forests on their doorstep, which result in very good timber being used in pallett production because it cannot be used for any better purpose.

    It is surely the personality of the pratitioner, the arboriculturalist or forester, to enter schools to tell the children about trees and their purposes, not some PR or third group who will refuse to engage with issues that need to be realised.

    As an example; I once attended a conference in Wolverhampton about this very subject – a drama group dressed up in the costumes of squirrels, deer and rabbits were busy showing off their methods of teaching ‘forests and forestry’ to children. This included the waving of rhododendren and laurel branches by the audience. So forest pests and invasive plants were being readily yet unwittingly used in the education of our children. One step forward, two steps back.

  4. So glad to see this on your site Gabriel, it’s wonderful! Simple and powerful. Will the Sylva Foundation be taking it on tour any time soon?

    This focal point is one of the main issues highlighted during the and Save Our Forests campaign. Most people realise there has to be timber forests (or tree farms!) but you’re right, as with most things the worry is what it means for their local forest. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it NIMBYism.

    I think there are valid reasons for peoples concerns about some forestry practices, whether it’s understood or not. Often the shock of clear felling is enough to stop anyone wanting to hear about the management of their local forests for timber. I know my experiences of areas clear felled in Scotland and Wales have been enough to send me into a rage at times.

    Interestingly, the majority of NGO’s, Government, business and some academics completely missed (& still do miss!) the point about peoples relationship with a ‘tree farm’. Hence their surprise that people cared about the ownership of timber forests within the Public Forest Estate enough to kick up a stink about their being sold off. As far as I understand it; if a forest is local to them, then it’s important to them, whatever trees grow in it.

    For people to accept timber forestry, the shock of felling operations has to be diminished. Good communication and educating the people who love the forests about it’s management plan and perhaps even giving them an idea of what happens to the timber and as Andrew says; connecting it to everyday items, would go a long way towards that end.

    I discussed this with the Forestry Commission at Salcey Forest after I had a few people complain to me about the management there, there were complaints about clear felling, land strewn with small branches and blocked streams. Contrary to the complaints I’d heard, the FC described to me some of the fantastic (and frankly exciting!) management plans for Salcey and so I made the suggestion that they should put the details of their management plan on their Salcey Forest web page, which I see they’ve started to! I think this is a huge step in the right direction and I hope all PFE woods do the same.

    It’s not just the public that needs educating though. If ‘forestry’ dismisses the concerns of the people who daily use and love their forests, aren’t they missing out on a chance to create truly sustainable forests (and by that I mean economically, environmentally and socially sustainable forests)?

    So.. I reckon that education in this area is a two way thing; it’s crucial that forestry and the public listen to each other and work together to create a sustainable future for our forests.

    Well, that’s my two penneth..


    1. Author

      Hi Hen and thanks for taking the time to contribute to the discussion…I was hoping to stimulate a good debate.

      If I may, I think you are in danger of falling into the same stereotypes promulgated by the public at large. I don’t think the forestry sector exists today as you suggest. Forestry is now all about the social and environmental dimensions, as well as the timber. Yes of course we have plantations focussing on timber, while deliverying other benefits (think of Keilder). However, don’t forget that we do not have ‘wild’ woodland in Britain. All woodlands have been affected over centuries, and there is not a wood existing today that has not been influenced by previous management in some way. All our best loved-woodlands, those most visited such as the Forest of Dean, the New Forest, Sherwood and so on, were intensively managed in the past. Now our lack of management is impacting negatively the ecology that developed to rely on our management.

      Today these are not viewed as timber woodlands but they can and do produce timber, along with beauty in the landscape, recreational values, ecological importance etc. We believe that there about 649,000 hectares of woodlands in England alone, note that these are mostly broadleaved woodlands, that are not being managed (read more). It is these woodlands that are decreasing in ecological value from lack of management, and which are failing to deliver a robust resource for the future; whether producing sustainably-produced home grown timber or fuelwood. These are not ‘timber’ woodlands any more than they should be viewed as semi-natural woodlands, recreation woodlands, or nature reserves. They are our woodlands and forests. They are capable or deliverying so much more for society in the broadest sense, including the environment we cherish.

      I think foresters have much to proud of in terms of where the profession now stands in its consideration and balancing of economic, social and environmental interests. The problem is that the public has been spoon fed so much ‘native’ – ‘organic’ – ‘sustainable’ that they are confused and ill-informed. Certain NGOs and groups continue to plant trees of dubious quality and with dubious motives other than creating green fuzz across the landscape (read more). What will these woodlands deliver for the future? Will our children and children’s children thank us for creating a robust resource? Do you think the Forest of Dean was managed just to look nice?

      I agree about the impact of clear fell, both visually and reputationally. The sivicultural system I managed to get these children to imitate in the film is impressive. Technically it is called ‘close-to nature’ or ‘continuous cover forestry’ (and other names). It has the benefits of always maintaining a cover of trees while supporting generations of trees are different ages. The problems are that it is expensive to manage, and complicated, and will not equally work on all sites and with all tree species. So, it is difficult to avoid clear-cutting in certain circumstances yet we have made real improvements in recent decades to minimise landscape and ecological impacts through good design and implementation. I am sure that there is more we need to do in this area of forest management, and we are already considering the benefits of different forest management systems in the light of climate change and emerging threats from pests and diseases.

      As for NIMBYism, I think that is exactly what it is when people object to seeing woodland being managed when trees are felled. I can guarantee that these same people will have wood in their lives: in their homes or offices, in myriad uses. Where do they think wood comes from? I have a lot of experience of talking to the public and it is simply true that very few people have ever stopped and wondered where the wood in the lives has come from. This is what I mean by out-of-sight and out-of-mind, and it is easy to draw an analogy with producing meat from livestock farming. The only difference between forestry and farming in this analogy is that no member of the public ordinarily witnesses the culling of the lamb,cow or pig; yet the roar of chainsaw and crash of tree is obvious to any person who walks in a forest. There are enormous benefits to be gained from producing more home-grown timber and wood products.

      I would be pleased to hear more views on this from other people too. Thanks for getting me going!


  5. Gabriel – great song!

    But i think we to often start at the wrong end of the chain – we should start in people’s home not forests, people can identify with products which they use everyday, and then discuss about where these products come from. Then we can take people to forests, steel works, cement factories and they can decide for themselves which is best.

    1. Author

      Thanks Andrew – yes I think you are right too. This is the angle that was explored in the recent conference on the Art & Joy of Wood. However, the cultural gap between loving trees and appreciating wood, and the acceptance that to get wood we must fell trees, is enormous. Many people are quite content with using wood without ever never needing to question where it came from. It is a little bit of NIMBYsim, in that if tree felling is out-of-sight and out-of-mind in some foreign land then that’s fine, whereas any management in a local woodland is frowned upon.
      I think that we are both absolutely on the focal point of one of the biggest issues for forestry.

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