More forest plantations less green fuzz

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 of Dean plantation

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):

  1. maintain ecosystem integrity;
  2. protect the high conservation values;
  3. are developed through effective stakeholder participation processes;
  4. 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.

Gabriel Hemery


Read more

New Generation Plantations Project, WWF. Synthesis Report 2009

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.

6 thoughts on “More forest plantations less green fuzz

  1. Great article – NGPP is changing opinions on plantations across the globe. It is just a shame in the UK that the FC dont treat the practical support for large scale new planting as a high priority.
    The lenghty EIA process, competing govt departments and shifting of goal posts puts off all but the most determined.
    Re Native Plantations – these would be criminally wasted opportunities – new planting land is extremely scarce not using it to grow the most needed and valuable multi use trees is ridiculous and just means we import yet more timber from Canada and Russia.
    Our lack of native conifers is an accident of the ice age – go back far enough and we could have had Silver Fir and Norway Spruce here. We dont tell farmers they can only rear native breeds of cattle or grow “British” crops.
    What “people” dont like is the perception of dark regimented thicket stage Sitka – drive through Perthshire or the A5 through Betws y Coed and you wont hear people arguing about nativeness – they will just see big trees. I once took an EA advisor to look at a culvert problem in one of my forests – we were driving through some lovely Douglas Fir and Larch, which i was very proud of. The advisor turned to me and asked “These forests, are very nice…… are they native then?”

    1. Thanks Andrew and well said.

      Re Native plantations: native need not mean non-productive of course. It depends on the quality of the genetics, silvicultural design and quality/intension of management. Let’s have more ash, cherry and oak plantations that may achieve more than the “green fuzz”.

      Yes to more productive plantations too, whether native or not, providing they are in the right place for the right reason.

    2. Yes, and why even treat non native species that live on the immediate opposite side of the Channel in France and the low countries such as Norway spruce?
      They simply didn’t quite make it here in time. We’re not islands like Japan or New Zealand where the flora has evolved over millions of years in isolation. Our native flora and fauna is almost a carbon copy of NW continental Europe minus a few species. Why do these “nativists” think that these will somehow upset the ecosystem? It’s daft.

      As for non native species, I’ve long believed many non-native species from similar climates in Europe, North America, North East Asia and New Zealand could greatly benefit the flora here.
      In the Faroe islands Antarctic beech thrives more so than the native birches and could do so in places like Shetland the the Hebrides here.
      Ash threatened by ash dieback could be saved by introgression of genes from Manchurian ash (with back breeding to retain European ash characteristics but Manchurian disease resistant genes).
      Buddleia – another invasive – makes a great habitat for butterflies and insects on otherwise barren wasteland ground, it’s just hated because it invades cracks in pavements and looks untidy.
      Much hated sycamore is another successful colonoser that contributes well and grows fast.

      It’s stupid. So long as a species doesn’t become problematic it shouldnt be targeted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *