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Restoring historic landscapes

Updated Thursday 24th November 2011

Jon Stokes discusses the Tree Council's work to recreate wood pasture habitat which once covered much of the landscape

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Interviewer
Is five hundred years just too far ahead, or should we be more forward thinking when planning our woodlands?  Well joining me now is John Stokes, who’s Director of Rural Programmes with the Tree Council, which organises National Tree Week.  Hello, John.

John Stokes
Good morning Brett.

Interviewer
Brankley Pastures, it’s a very ambitious project there.  How realistic is it to plan that far ahead?

John Stokes
Well you can if you're the owner of the land, and ownership is the important part of the equation because it gives you the opportunity to manage it however you like.  But it can be done and I'm sitting here in Southampton on the edge of the New Forest, which is a new forest that was created a thousand years ago.  So if you have the land and you have the will, you can definitely do it.

Interviewer
Of course New Forest has arisen as a result of the way humans have used that land.  You know, as a hunting forest, deer are in there, ponies have been grazed in there, it’s created a unique character to that forest.  Here we've got a project which is starting from scratch.  You know, should we have more of those?

John Stokes
Well it depends on what we’re trying to achieve with our countryside.  If we want lots of wood pasture with its assemblages of wildlife, then yes it would be very sensible to go down that route.  But there are lots of other pressures on land.  People need food, people need wood, people need fuel, and it’s the balancing act between all of these different pressures that’s the real subtle balance.

Interviewer
So how good are we in the UK at planning woodlands for conservation?

John Stokes
I don’t think historically we've ever planned woodlands for conservation until probably the last twenty or thirty years, because up until that point we managed woodlands for their produce.  We managed woodlands for coppice; we managed woodlands for timber; and the wildlife associated with that wood developed as a result of our management.  Now over the last twenty or thirty years we've got into this place where we’re doing different sorts of woodland creation, we’re doing multipurpose forestry, for example, and that allows the opportunity to start thinking about conservation and about what we, what species we would like to draw into that wood.  But it’s a relatively recent, twenty, thirty year timeframe really, and therefore we’re still learning how to do it.  We’re at the beginning of that journey.

Interviewer
Yes, when we think about commercial forestry plantations, we often think of conifers nowadays.  They're not necessarily all conifers of course, and we tend to think of rather gloomy monocultures. (John Stokes laughs)  Not necessarily people friendly, or if they are people friendly, you know, you might be able to ride a mountain bike through them or take a dog for a walk but they're not bursting with wildlife.  So there’s a big gap, isn’t there, between the commercial aim of forestry and the conservation aim of forestry?

John Stokes
Depending upon which species you plant and which timescale you're looking at, you're right.  If you plant a big conifer woodland for a thirty, forty year return time, so that you get your crop in twenty to thirty years, you're creating a monoculture.  If you're planting a woodland with oaks, for example, you're still planting a monoculture.  But, because of the different nature of the trees, they feel different.  The trouble is these days with all the new pests and diseases that are coming into the country, the idea of monocultures is not necessarily the best one anymore, because if you get a large population of one thing and a disease happens to hit it, then you can lose great chunks of the woodland in one hit.  So mixed forest, multi-purpose forest is probably, definitely the way for the future.

Interviewer
What about the way we use our forests, even commercial ones, are there alternative uses which are more wildlife friendly?

John Stokes
In the sense of…?

Interviewer
Well, in the sense, I don't know, woodchip or coppicing or that sort of thing, you know, which will open up glades, which will encourage wildlife in.

John Stokes
Yeah, different forms of management have different practices attached to them.  Obviously if you clearfell a woodland for the timber that will create a large patch of light for a number of years which will then be refilled, whereas if you do coppice you move the patches of the light around the wood in smaller areas.  And each has its own advantages and disadvantages for the wildlife.  There is no simple measure; it depends what species you're hoping to keep in your woodland and what their value is, you know, what the value of the timber is to you, so it’s a complicated balancing act, always.

Interviewer
What I was getting at I suppose was the fact, you know, is there more, I don’t know, woodchip fuel for example which might open woodlands up and might allow people to make money and protect wildlife at the same time?

John Stokes
Well the future definitely seems to be focused around wood fuel, and the Government are requiring quite large quantities of new wood fuel to be entering into the system.  And that wood fuel management will be positively advantageous if it’s done right, for wildlife if it’s done right, because you will get management going back into the woods.  And what benefits wildlife in a wood is the edge, it’s the edge effect, and there are more species associated with the edges of woodlands than there are with the middle.  And so if you create clearings and glades within the woodlands, you will create more opportunity for wildlife.  And whatever the management is, it’s the fact of management that creates the opportunity.

Interviewer
I'd like to talk, you know, go back to Brankley briefly, because at Brankley they were looking at lots of habitats surrounding this core of wood pasture, which is quite a rare habitat in itself nowadays, and they're looking at natural regeneration, they're looking at glades, they're looking at plantations, this combination of woodland habitats.  Getting that mosaic right, getting the quality of woodland right seems to be pretty important, but how, again how well are we doing nationally for getting that quality?

John Stokes
It’s so difficult to answer that one, Brett, because it depends on your definition of quality. 

Interviewer
Well we’re talking wildlife, I suppose, and conservation value.

John Stokes
Quality for wildlife, yes, is one issue; quality for timber is another.  And it was very interesting, in your first piece, the gentleman who was managing his wood by creating more deadwood in the habitat, it is said that 90% of the biodiversity of a woodland is associated with its deadwood, therefore the greater the amount of deadwood, the greater the wildlife.  The problem is if you're managing the wood you're wanting that deadwood as produce from that wood.  And so there’s this perpetual dichotomy between managing it for wildlife and taking the wood out to be used for whatever you want to use it for.  The more you take out, the less wildlife rich the wood is, and so balancing that is such a subtle balance.

Interviewer
Do you think woodland wildlife conservation is a bit of a luxury nowadays?

John Stokes
Ooh, there’s a really interesting question.  Certainly over the next twenty to thirty years it’s going to be an issue that we have to debate quite long and hard, and at the moment the forest panel is looking at these issues, and it is looking at how we might be managing our woodlands in the future.  I mean there are all sorts of needs that we’re going to have.  We’re going to need more fuel, we’re going to need potentially more wood fuel over the next twenty to thirty years, and therefore managing the woodland for that produce will be good.  That means more woodland, potentially that means more wildlife if we manage it correctly, and you can do the both at once.

Interviewer
Now the Tree Council organises National Tree Week, the Tree Council is very heavily involved in planting trees, but a conservationist might say do we really need to plant trees?

John Stokes
Well it depends.  The Tree Council is an umbrella organisation of about 180 different organisations across the country involved both directly and indirectly with trees.  And tree planting as a statement, you know, we’re involved in conservation, has been used by a lot of people over the centuries to plant new trees.  But you're right, the key question is that you must plant the right tree in the right place, and you wouldn’t want to plant up an ancient meadow for example with a new wood because you'd be destroying one habitat at the creation of another.  So there is no rule that says you should always plant trees everywhere, it’s about planting good trees.  However there are some places where you're never going to get trees growing naturally.  If you're trying to plant trees in a street, they will never occur there naturally, and so different trees get planted in different places for different reasons.

Interviewer
Natural regeneration is again perhaps a luxury we can't afford, is it?

John Stokes
Well natural regeneration is fantastic if there’s a source of seed nearby where you're starting, or actually in the ground where the site is.  I mean tree seed can last for surprisingly long amounts of time, twenty, thirty years within the soil, and therefore if you just stop cutting it or whatever you were doing previously, that seed bank can develop into a woodland quite fast.  But the trouble is that seed bank is often not there, and if it’s not there leaving it to get seeding naturally can take twenty to thirty years.

Interviewer
The problem with us, we want quick fixes all the time, don’t we?  We come in, if you're thinking and planning five hundred years ahead, what’s twenty or thirty years?

John Stokes
Exactly, what’s twenty or thirty years.  But then that, and then you get local species drifting in from the neighbouring area, which is fantastic.  But if you want to give a place a bit of a head start and get it started slightly faster, then setting off on a planting can be fantastically advantageous in terms of promotion of the concept, in terms of getting people engaged and also in terms of changing the habitat much faster.

Interviewer
How important do you think it is to plant next to existing woodland, particularly existing ancient woodland which is wildlife rich, you know, as a sort of buffer if you like for the future?

John Stokes
The problem with the landscape at the moment is that it’s become incredibly fragmented.  There was a report called the Lawton Report that was published earlier in the year which said that what we needed to do to make the countryside more robust is to join up the fragments, is to basically join together all of the bits that are out there.  And you can do that by either planting stepping stones in between two or three ancient woodlands that might link them up, or by extending the area of woodland that you’ve got and allowing the species to colonise from the ancient wood that it’s next to.  Both are equally advantageous, both provide different opportunities.

Interviewer
Is that something that the Tree Council would recommend?

John Stokes
It’s certainly, the area of planting trees next, adjacent to ancient woodlands is fantastically sensible, and in terms of this, as I say, stepping stone concept, yes that’s certainly something that we would recommend.

Interviewer
John Stokes from the Tree Council, thank you very much.

9’58” 

Woodlands Creative commons image Icon good_day under CC-BY-NC-ND under Creative-Commons license Wood pasture is being restored by the team at Brankley Pastures
 

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