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Planting Woodlands

A few weeks ago I was peering down hundreds of tree protection tubes trying to see if the young ash saplings we planted last winter showed any signs of chalara fraxinea, the fungus that causes ash dieback.  It was a fruitless search with such young trees so late in the season. We won’t know for sure until next year at the earliest, or possibly some years in the future.

Last winter’s planting had been a race against deadlines. The first hurdle had been getting the land registered in time so we could apply for Forestry Commission funding, which requires a fixed period of public consultation. The winter tree planting season is over by the end of March and we had multiple forms to submit before we could order the trees and book the contractors. I thought my problems were over when we finally received the necessary approvals in good time for an early March planting. Then the early spring drought started, and I began worrying about how the young saplings would establish with no rainfall to encourage them. Of course, in the end, lack of rainfall was hardly a problem this growing season and the trees got off to a good start.

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‘Mindless’ tree planting?

So I was feeling pretty pleased about our new wood. It is 4 acres and designed to encourage bio-diversity. We have glades, rides, a good mix of native trees and shrubs and an irregular layout that means it looks very different from regimented timber plantations. Fifteen percent of the trees are ash. I started reading about ash die-back some months ago but thought we would be fine as all our trees were British grown. Then I heard that some growers have been sending tree seedlings abroad to be grown on. So a UK grown label is no guarantee that the tree has not spent time in a foreign nursery. So I began to worry that our lovely wood might lose  fifteen percent of its trees.

And then I started hearing the condemnation of what one commentator called ‘mindless tree-planting’. Around 5 million ash trees have been imported into the UK since 2003 from the continent. Grant schemes have been devised that encourage landowners to plant new woods and the tree nurseries have worked hard to supply the demand for trees. The aim is to reverse the decline in woodland cover in this country. Just after WW2 the percentage of tree cover in England had fallen to six percent. With the encouragement of various schemes, it has now risen to eight percent.

Some commentators claim that this grant-funded tree planting has been ‘mindless’, resulting in ‘dull woodland’ that can actually decrease biodiversity. I would like to see the evidence for this claim. In my experience, the grant schemes’ requirements for improved bio-diversity and sympathy with the landscape are rigorous. The purists assert that we should not be planting saplings, with their doubtful provenance, but wait for woods to regenerate naturally. The climax vegetation for most areas of England is woodland. If you leave a piece of land for long enough, say 50 to 100 years, it will eventually become a wood. Perhaps this is a more ‘natural’ approach that will be guaranteed to produce an authentic, site-specific wood.

It is a very long time, however, since our landscape has evolved without the intervention of man. Almost all natural woods in Britain have been managed for literally thousands of years. Woods are the result of long-running interactions between human activities and natural processes. We learned early on that some trees can re-grow from the stump and this knowledge led to a deliberate management of woods. Woodlands were valuable sources of income. We managed woods for two products: timber for construction and wood for fuel.

The first major human intervention in the original post-glacial wildwood that clothed Britain was by the Neolithic farmers, who arrived about 4.500 BC. During the Bronze Age (2,400-750BC) most wildwood disappeared. Oliver Rackham, whose definitive History of the Countryside is a must-read for those interested in the landscape, estimates that half the wildwood had been felled to create farmland by the early Iron Age (500BC). When the Domesday Book was compiled around 15% of England was covered in trees. The greatest threat to woodland came after WW2 when hundreds of woods were grubbed out for farmland and plantation planting of conifers replaced the older, ‘uneconomic’ woodland.

So while it may be ‘natural’ to increase our tree cover by waiting for natural regeneration of woodland this natural woodland creation hasn’t happened in England, to a significant extent, since the end of the last Ice Age. We have been managing trees for millennia.

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An ancient tree at Stourhead

If we accept that more trees – the right trees in the right place – increase bio-diversity and create beauty in the landscape we need to be pragmatic about the way we will achieve it. Much, not all, tree planting has taken place on private land where the landowner has already taken a long term view by planting saplings. Expecting landowners to wait for natural regeneration to create their woods seems unreasonable.

We have been managing woods for a long time and we have the knowledge, and experience, to do it well. Ash, a native tree, can easily be grown in UK nurseries, although not necessarily as cheaply as abroad. It is a prolific, self-seeder that is fast-growing. Once a resistant strain has been developed, we should be able to grow ample trees to replace the ash-dieback casualties.

Perhaps we need to question the real cost of ‘cheap’ imports when it comes to plants. As fossil fuel becomes more expensive all imports will increase in price. The fact that we live on an island has protected us from pests and diseases for thousands of years. We ignore this natural protection at our peril.

But we shouldn’t condemn genuine attempts to improve the landscape by planting woods just because they don’t comply with some perfect-world conservation scenario. Humans are on this planet to stay. And while we want to touch the earth lightly, we can’t float above it with no impact at all. We should plant woods that suit the needs of nature, and the people that live with them.

Michelle Wake in Frome nr Bath, Somerset, UK on Houzz

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