Woodland creation - in need of strategic direction and larger scale

ADDENDUM - Scotland's Woodland Expansion Strategy released, 9 February 2009

ADDENDUM - SNP decide against leasing out Scotland's forests, 13 March 2009

It started for me in 1994 on a dreary Sunday morning in late winter. I joined one man, a dog and a young lad in planting trees on Springfield, a 3 hectare site of rough farmland and one of the first publicly funded Permaculture projects in Britain (see Springfield Community Garden). Moving across the landscape, we planted bare-root whips in groups of three as we loosely followed a design that brought a broad shelter belt windbreak up the eastern boundary and then along the northern boundary, with a more expansive copse planting on a hillock to the NW. When all 25 whips in a bundle had been used, we picked up another bundle of a different species, and moved across the area again. In this way, we planted about 700 trees including alder, ash, birch, oak, rowan and wild cherry, and with blackthorn, field maple, guelder rose, hazel, elder and holly. We didn’t much target what and where we planted, except for willow, where we created a willow carr in the wide, boggy downflush from the spring. Later, apple trees were planted along the outside edges of this broad linear woodland to produce a wildfood woodland walk.

I saw tree planting at Springfield in utilitarian terms, such as the wind breaking from the shelterbelt; increasing the infiltration of water into the soil of this sloping site; as a source of woodland products and edible landscaping; and in reshaping the soil ecology and economy through reinstating mineral recycling from leaf fall. It was in keeping with the aim of Permaculture of accelerating the processes of succession to produce multi-functional, multiple-yielding landscapes (see Accelerating succession and evolution). Later I would come to realise that what we had embarked on was an ecological restoration of what was an impoverished and exploited landscape, shackled over the centuries by agriculture and gored by the industry of coal mining (we had to cap two mine openings on site). As we learnt more about the site, we would begin to see the inherent micro-scale variability in natural hydrology, geology and soil, the potential for edge effects or ecotones (niches), and how agricultural land use and drainage had attempted – as it has done everywhere - to smooth out the natural variety in the landscape.

My outlook on tree planting began to change when the environmental action group that grew out of Springfield set up a District-wide forest project, working with farmers and landowners who could give over some space (1). Newly planted field corner woodland began to make some headway in raising the district’s woodland cover of only 4%, held abysmally low by the lack of trees in the rural farming areas. Thus woodland cover began to have an intrinsic value for me as an increasing aspect of the overall landscape. This woodland did not need to have a utilitarian purpose, but I still had uncertainties as to what purpose if any it should have.

I look back now on another localised tree planting project in the District that came about when a trust was formed in the late 70s to preserve and replant a historically wooded local area by buying up farmland lying between the urban fringe and a finger of ancient clough woodland (2). Their first land purchase was in 1982, into which over 4,000 trees were planted as a substantial new area of woodland. More farmland was purchased and planted up with large island stands of woodland, leaving open areas that eventually will scrub up from natural regeneration. The trust owns 40 acres and views this as community woodland. I recognise the open access of this site to local people and its linking of woodland fragments across the landscape as a very early example of “green infrastructure” that is now a key part of the open space agenda for local authorities. It is about the public realm and the reclaiming of our connection with nature, a connection that was ultimately taken from us when the rise of town planning in the 1930’s created a separation that viewed the urban as artificial and the rural as where nature should be.

People like trees

A biennial survey of public opinion by the Forestry Commission found last year that 71% of us want to see more woodland in the country around us, and this percentage has gone up with each survey (3). We are also prepared to see public money support forestry, with almost everyone (93%) believing that public benefit accrues from woodland. Given a range of options, 72% believed that woodland provides places for wildlife to live; that it provides places to walk (61%) and that it improves the countryside landscape (55%). Another high scorer was helping to tackle climate change (61%) but in this, the public are seemingly out of step with the experts. We now have to believe that tree planting is so less important for mitigating climate change than maintenance of the vast areas of sloppy peat that blanket our uplands (4). This is an artificial upland wasteland of 3 million hectares, only punctuated in the uplands by some 43,500ha of ancient woodland, a ratio of about 70 to 1. We may have 40% of the blanket bog in Europe, but why is this a virtue when we have so little natural upland woodland, and when our overall woodland cover is less than a third of the average in Europe (11.8% versus 44% - see (5))? If our woodland is to be sacrificed to woodfuel as a substitute for fossil fuel, “realising the potential of the existing resource” as the experts tell us (4), then why not have less upland bog and much more upland woodland? Why not have more woodland everywhere, as the public obviously wants?

Government lacks direction on woodland creation

With so much public support for more woodland cover, and for its recognized benefits, you might expect Government to have some strategic direction on this. Well, it doesn’t. The situation is complicated by devolved government that creates a differing picture across the UK (5). Thus Scotland has an admirable target of increasing woodland coverage to 25% by 2050, requiring new woodland creation of 14,500ha a year. The forest strategies for England and Wales have no expansion targets. New woodland creation in these home countries is instead given support through the Woodland Grant Scheme, a farmland subsidy under the Rural Development Program. There is a target for this grant scheme, which for England is 2,200 hectares of new woodland a year (6). But even if you were to get excited about this small target, remember that it funds those little strips of roadside infil or field corner woodland on farms, plus a few small blocks of new woodland (there is no minimum area for the grant) and the grant pot is sliced up amongst the regions, based on the aspirations of their regional forestry strategies (7).

It should thus be considered that the farmland grant scheme for woodland is a pretty blunt tool in meeting the aspirations of the public for more trees. This could also be said about the National Forest, an initiative to increase woodland coverage in a large area of the Midlands from a low of 6% to an impressive 17% achieved after the first 10 years, and with the aspiration to go on to 33% (8). The grants that are driving the National Forest have been targeted in a similar way to the farm woodland scheme and, pragmatically, that is the way to increase percentage woodland coverage in our landscapes dominated by privately owned agricultural land, but you just don’t get the large areas of woodland creation for their own sake, and which can be shared in security by both the public and wild nature. I would have to say that this lack of large area woodland creation, and instead the piecemeal infil, is also a characteristic of the 12 areas of the Community Forests in England, although increasing public access to woodland is one of the objectives as is increasing woodland coverage to 30% (9).

To be fair, I should also point out that there are targets for woodland creation in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. But again, don’t get too excited because they refer to specific woodland types, the choices of the experts, and their cumulative total is underwhelming (5). Thus for England, it would be about 1000ha a year, and for Wales, it is a derisory 150ha a year. If you think this betrays a lack of admiration for woodland amongst biodiversity experts, then you would be right. In their headlong pursuit of maximising more of the species that coexist in farmed landscapes, they deny that as a habitat, native woodland contains more threatened species than any other habitat in the UK.

We need to create new woods in the right places and in large enough scale to make a difference to our fragmented countryside. This was encapsulated in a report for the Land Use Policy Group, which compromises the statutory conservation, countryside and environment agencies of Britain. The report, entitled New Wildwoods in Britain: The potential for developing new landscape-scale native woodlands, laid out the basis for creating extensive areas of native woodland that would form the modern equivalent of the original ‘wildwood’ (10). Don’t look for any evidence that this report had any influence. Nor will you have found any carry through into the updated England Forestry Strategy of the proposal for the recreation of large areas of near-natural forest landscapes or ‘wildwoods’ that was given in the Review of Evidence for Forestry Policy Formulation in England (11). As this Evidence noted, to be effective each wildwood would have to be fairly compact in shape and cover thousands of hectares to allow natural dynamic processes to dominate and to provide sufficient range for viable populations of large-territory wildlife species. This was obviously too scary and was perhaps considered too much of an ask from our entrenched landed interests to be included.

There are some good news stories

It is hard to see that the good examples of woodland creation that do exist have necessarily arisen through coherent policy decisions, and it is increasingly seen that Government and its agencies are not always the drivers. Thus there is the fabulous Trees for Life, a charity in Scotland that focuses on the regeneration of the Caledonian Pine Forest, and has had a breakthrough year in acquiring the 4,000ha of the Dundreggan Estate . As Alan Watson Featherstone, its director, famously said - by their owning of the land, it means that they don’t have to overcome the barrier that is often in their way of having to ask the permission of the reluctant land owner before they could plants some trees.

I have written of the linking of two areas of ancient woodland in Suffolk through natural regeneration (see Spouses Vale in Woodland nature notes - from Lilliput to large alders) and of the linking up by the planting of Grassguards Native Woodland between the band of ancient woodland that runs up the Duddon Valley and the Hardknott forestry plantation that as it is cleared will be allowed to regenerate with native species (see Duddon valley - woodland now and into the future).

I started last time to write about the rewilding on South House Moor, located in the Ingleborough National Nature Reserve in the Yorkshire Dales. You will find woefully little information about this in the public domain, and nothing about the planting of the Grassguards Native Woodland on the Forestry Commission land in the Lake District (see above) nor of a similar native woodland planting on FC land next to the nearby Broughton Moor plantation. Thus you do wonder under what context this woodland creation is carried out, and why so little is made of it.

I knew about South House Moor from a conference report on a field trip to visit an upland rewilding. It took me a few years before I went off to investigate, as there were no details of its location. Natural England set out in 1999/2000 to recreate a natural mixture of upland plant communities on this moor, the trees having long gone, and with the dwarf shrub communities going the same way through devastating overgrazing from the rise in sheep numbers (13). They removed the grazing through fencing, and then planted a structural diversity of trees and shrubs, while returning the drainage pattern to its natural course. The longer term would thus see the eventual return and re-establishment of the zoning by altitude of natural plant communities, which here would be scattered native woodland grading into Juniper scrub communities and dwarf shrub moorland.

I saw these early structural changes in the planting of four large patches of native tree species, containing such as birch, ash, oak, alder, hawthorn and willow, and including groups of juniper, the patches spaced out in the 100ha site, and with the two major water courses also lined with trees. Perhaps a total area of 10ha is planted, with around 10,000 trees going in, but it has to be said that it is a difficult site to re-establish trees, very exposed and with a difficult terrain that is wetter than it appears. It is interesting to note that this tree planting on South House Moor cuts across the species that the SSSI that covers the NNR is notified for of upland heath and mires. But if it is Natural England doing the woodland creation, then they can presumably ignore their own designations. The woodland creation is also a reversal from a decision in 1980 when an application for grant aid for afforestation of the moor from the Forestry Commission was blocked (14). The MP for nearby Skipton complained about the grant, and it led to a site visit by various junior ministers and a written answer in the Commons to the effect that afforestation of this area would represent an unacceptable intrusion into a particularly sensitive part of the National Park”. Perhaps it was the long history of the use of the moor for grouse shooting that led this MP to complain. Fortunately, different attitudes prevail now (sheep have anyway destroyed much of the heather that would have supported grouse) and it is perhaps an object lesson for us that Natural England is capable sometimes of joining the dots, as the avowed aim of the rewilding on South House Moor is to demonstrate the ecological impact of removing farming pressures totally, thus allowing and encouraging, the upland vegetation communities to re-establish and develop to a more natural state”.

This exemplary ethos is also at the heart of the other rewilding project I recently visited on a field trip. Carrifran is an stunning U-shaped upland valley with steep sides, nestled in the Moffat Hills of the Scottish Borders (15). It was bought in 2000 through public subscription by a determined group of local people who were convinced that they should try to provide an opportunity for children and adults in the future to experience approximations of the natural ecosystems of their local area. The aim for this valley of 650ha is to establish all the species of trees and shrubs that were present in the area prior to the major human impact of tree clearance and agriculture that dates from roughly 6,000 years ago. The group was aware that their aim may be viewed as naive and perhaps in the end unachievable, because of changes in climate and soils and because of the introduction of exotic species since then. But they would not be diverted, believing that “an attempt to pursue a clear vision has virtue as an example and potential inspiration to others”.

We could have hoped for better weather when we walked the site, seeing how the 450,000 trees and shrubs had been planted in characteristic woodland groups, based on the variation in soils and moisture content. Thus approximately half of the area (300 ha) was deemed appropriate for woodland establishment, leaving the upper slopes and the land around the summits free from trees. The whole valley was first fenced to exclude neighboring sheep and the local population of feral goats, and then juniper, downy birch and a variety of willows were planted at the higher altitudes (about 450m); a mixture of downy birch and sessile oak woodland was planted on the slopes, with some hawthorn, hazel and rowan; and a mixed broadleaved woodland was planted on the valley floor with ash, pedunculate oak, silver birch, hawthorn and hazel. Where they can, they have collected seed from the very few trees that remained in the valley and used those to propagate trees for planting.

It was interesting that the risks to establishment of the planted trees became such a dominant theme during our walk. The group had taken advantage of the generous Woodland Grant Scheme in Scotland for woodland creation, and it is the pressure from the exacting conditions of the funding that would seem to have led the group to take a forest industry approach, using herbicide treatment to clear surface vegetation prior to planting. Bracken was also sprayed (ariel spraying from a helicopter was used on some of the steeper slopes) to knock it back so that establishment of trees was made easier, and because roe deer hide in bracken with their young that, through their browsing, can seriously damage young saplings (there is some management of roe deer numbers while the trees establish, but this will eventually stop). I was also surprised by how much of the tree planting had been done by commercial contractors, but it would have been a tall order to have community volunteers put in so many trees. And I was interested to know how the project got around the SSSI that covers the valley, since the designation would be for open landscape species, especially those in mires, and thus there would be a presumption against woodland creation. Scottish Natural Heritage did have some concerns about planting certain parts of the valley at Carrifran, but overall it had been flexible about the ecological change being orchestrated. While this has helped the group, it doesn’t necessarily set a precedent for elsewhere.

Size matters in woodland creation

For really large scale creation of new, native woodland in recent times, we have to turn to a couple of private landowners. John Mackenzie set out 10 years ago to restore the native woodland on his Gairloch Estate in the Wester Ross National Scenic Area of the Highlands. Interviewed back in 2003 when the planting was half complete he said (16):
"It's a positive, practical use for a large piece of land that frankly was almost totally useless. The forest should become a great amenity for visitors and local folk. It will be wide open for all and sundry to come along and enjoy it"

Now, three million trees have been planted within 5,400 hectares in the largest native woodland scheme in Scotland, backed by an impressively large grant from the Forestry Commission (17). Another way to think of that area is 20 square miles, large enough to walk around in woodland for a whole day and still hope to get lost. The species planted included Scots pine, alder, birch, hazel, holly and mountain ash, with the seed being collected from the remnant ancient woodland on nearby islands in Loch Maree. These new forests of Baile Mor and Bad na Sgalag will provide habitat and home for the charismatic species of the Highlands, such as capercaillie, wild cat, pine marten and black grouse. Mackenzie, whose ancestors have lived on the land around the Gairloch for more than 500 years, is obviously keen to give something back to the land: "It will be wonderful to see the return of native species that have not been seen in these parts for many years."

Felix Dennis, publisher of the notorious school kids issue of Oz magazine during the 1960’s, is using his wealth now as a successful publisher to create a vast native woodland in his home county of Warwickshire (18). Dennis bemoans the lack of large scale woodland left in Britain other than the plantations of conifers, which he thinks are as sterile for wildlife as sticking a plastic pole in the ground (19). His is the pursuit of a deciduous forest of some scale, the largest in England he hopes (19):
"When you travel by helicopter - as I do - you see exactly how denuded of high trees we are. You see big trees planted around the edges of fields and nothing in the middle. It's a facade......In terms of high tree cover, Germany has 25 per cent cover, France 26 per cent, Italy 24 per cent and Britain a pitiful 4.5 per cent. For the country in Europe with the most temperate climate, that is rubbish"

Dennis often cites the lessons on landscape that he gained while on business flights in helicopters. Thus flying over the New Forest lasts but a minute, when he would hope there were larger forests that took more time to fly across. And so, starting on his estate 10 years ago, Dennis has established a young forest of native deciduous trees that already covers 420 hectares with approximately 600,000 saplings planted to date. In has gone oak, ash, lime, beech, hornbeam, hazel, field maple, aspen, hawthorn, willow, alder, black poplar, holly, wild cherry, rowan and occasional stands of Scots pine, along with numerous shrubs and bushes. Where possible, saplings are sourced from locally collected seed. Planting of about 125ha with saplings will continue each year indefinitely with the aim of eventually providing for the public’s enjoyment a forest of 4,000 hectares before his death and rising to between 8-12,000 hectares thereafter from his endowment. It will be a modern day Forest of Arden, with parkland and linked wooded areas, and will encompass existing small areas of ancient woodland. Dennis started with his own land and has bought up more, although landowners triple and quadruple the price of land when they know he's involved. As each area is planted with trees, the land is handed over to a charity – the Forest of Dennis!

I marvel at the foresight of the many people involved in the woodland creation described here. I have my own woodland creation project of watching the trees return to my local moor through natural regeneration, now that sheep no longer graze the common. I sometimes wish I could sleep for 100 years so that I could see this new, natural wildwood in all its glory.

Mark Fisher 30 November 2008

ADDENDUM - Scotland's Woodland Expansion Strategy released, 9 February 2009

The target of 25% woodland cover for Scotland by 2050 from its current 17% (see earlier) is faltering on an insufficient rate of new woodland planting or regeneration. A total of 650,000 hectares of new woodland would reach the target, needing a sustained annual planting program of around 10,000–15,000ha. This is more than double the current rate. In light of this, the Forestry Commission in Scotland has produced a strategy paper for woodland expansion (20).

The strategy paper lays out the Scottish Government’s thinking on how woodland expansion can best increase the delivery of public benefits from Scotland’s land. This re-covers ground in the Scottish Forestry Strategy 2006. It then goes into what sort of woodlands are needed (native, mixed and softwood, and woodland in and around towns - urban woodlands); what kind of land is targeted for woodland expansion; the regional strategies that indicate where this land is; and what mechanisms there would be for delivering this new woodland.

The only new idea on the latter comes from the highly controversial proposal that the Scottish Executive has been pushing, of leasing out some of the more productive plantations that the Forestry Commission has in Scotland so that "resources might be released from better utilising the capital value of the National Forest Estate" (20, and see 21). The expected income from this is £200m, which could be applied as an additional form of incentive for new woodland creation. However, this level of income is disputed by Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Jim Hume MSP, who has led the campaign against leasing out Scotland's forests to private investment companies. He believes that instead of an income, the leasing scheme would lose £20m per year over the 75 years of the lease (22).

ADDENDUM - SNP decide against leasing out Scotland's forests, 13 March 2009

The plan to lease off as much as a quarter of publicly owned forests will not go ahead. Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham wrote to members of Holyrood's Rural Affairs Committee to state that the leasing proposal has been ruled out by ministers (23):
"After giving this serious consideration and in view of the comments we received, I have decided not to take leasing any further"

(1) Forest of Bradford www.beat.org.uk/bm/forest_of_bradford/index.shtml

(2) Heaton Woods Trust www.heatonwoodstrust.co.uk

(3) UK public opinion of forestry 2007, Forestry Commission November 2007


(4) Carbon Management by Land and Marine Managers,  Natural England Research Report NERR026 November 2008


(5) Position statement: Woodland creation, Woodland Trust October 2008


(6) Written Answers (Lords) Hansard 21 Apr 2008 : Column WA274 www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldhansrd/text/80421w0012.htm

(7) Woodland Creation Grant Guide, Forestry Commission/DEFRA Version 5/May 2008


(8) The National Forest www.nationalforest.org

(9) England's Community Forests www.communityforest.org.uk

(10) New Wildwoods in Britain:The potential for developing new landscape-scale native woodlands, R.Worrell, S. N. Pryor, A. Scott, G.F. Peterken,K. Taylor, R. Knightbridge and N. Brown. LUPG report June 2002


(11) Review of Evidence for the Formulation of Forestry Policy in England, Final report for DEFRA, CJC Consulting October 2005


(12) Dundreggan, Trees for Life www.treesforlife.org.uk/dundreggan

(13) Ingleborough National Nature Reserve (NNR), Ingleborough Complex SAC (Natura 2000), A brief review of the site


(14) South House Moor, Written Answers (Commons) Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, HC Deb 13 March 1980 vol 980 cc695-710W


(15) Carrifran Wildwood www.carrifran.org.uk

(16) Forest to Be Restored to Scottish Highlands, James Owen, National Geographic News, 7 February 2003


(17) Three million trees planted in largest native woodland plan, David Ross, The Herald 3 July 2007


(18) The Heart of England Forest Project


(19) Chainsaw massacre: They clean our air, reduce carbon and will save the planet ... So why are trees public enemy No1?, Lucy Siegle, Observer 12 October 2008

(20) The Scottish Government’s Rationale for Woodland Expansion, Scottish Government & Forestry Commission Scotland February 2009


(21) Climate change and the National Forest Estate, Consultation on forestry provisions in the Scottish Climate Change Bill, Forestry Commission Scotland November 2008


(22) Scotland 'needs a billion trees', BBC News 9 February 2009


(23) SNP decide against leasing out Scotland's forests, The Scotsman, 13 March 2009



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk