Foresters – friend or foe?

I am lucky to live next to a wonderful nature reserve in Oxfordshire.  It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a popular site with open access to the public.  It is owned by a small charitable trust, so in the private sector, nonetheless it is delivering fantastic public benefits (note this is a poke at the proposed public forest sale and at those who are anti-private sector ownership!).

Anyway, to get back on track, I was pleased to see some sensitive woodland management in evidence during a recent walk through the woodland.  Then I came across this …

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It was an ancient Ash coppice stool; carpeted in green moss, fantastically gnarled and partly hollow.  Clearly to one concerned member of the public its cutting was a tragic misadventure at the hands of a forester.  On the largest cut face of the coppice stool someone had written in black pen:

“This was one our best loved trees.  We are sad that you have cut it down”  Anon., January 2011.

As a Chartered Forester my initial thought may well have been defensive:

“It has not been cut down but coppiced.  It was a wonderful tree that looked that way because it had been cut, just like this, many times over for tens or even hundreds of years.  Cutting it in this way regularly, called coppicing, keeps the tree alive and healthy.  Coppicing also allows sunlight to reach the forest floor and this type of management is very important for woodland wildlife, especially woodland plants, insects and birds.

Come back in a few months and you will see the first signs of tree regeneration, as tiny dormant buds under the bark start to shoot and then to grow into new stems on the coppice stool.  The tree will be here for your children and your children’s children, its wood will heat our homes, and it will be home to this woodland’s wildlife.”

However, on reflection perhaps the fault is in the hands of the forester: not for cutting the Ash tree but for failing to inform members of the public about it, and to explain why it was done.  On this busy nature reserve, next to a popular path, it would have provided a great opportunity to sing the praises of forestry and of woodland management to the general public.  Forestry is complex and I think we have much to do to build public confidence and understanding.

Gabriel Hemery

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