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Out of the woods?

Updated Tuesday, 17th May 2011

Chris Baines talks to the Saving Species team about the uncertain future of British woodlands, which provide us with much-needed access to nature and biodiversity

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Copyright The Open University



Chris we’re standing here between two very different types of woodland, behind us we’ve got open birch woodland turning into oak woodland and some heath as well, regenerating woodland in what is actually part of an ancient forest, the Forest of Kinver.  Behind us we have a very modern pine plantation with some larch in here obviously put there for commercial reasons, it’s eclipsed the old heath, it’s eclipsed the old woodland as well.  When we’re discussing woodland we need to differentiate between the different types of woodland.  It’s almost like fine wine isn’t it, there’s a very subtle distinction sometimes, except they’re very obvious here.

Chris Baines

The subtle differences between different kinds of woodlands are really important to the connoisseur.  If what you’re looking for is half an hour with the dog, get away from the kids, out of the traffic and be amongst trees then actually a walk along, a ride through the centre of a conifer plantation or a walk across the heath or through an ancient woodland delivers.  If you really want to hear a fantastic dawn chorus then being introduced to that in the glade of an ancient woodland carpeted with wild flowers, with lots of decay, very high insect populations, lots of holes in the dead branches and so on, the difference is striking.  So I think all those woodlands, all those different variations on a theme have an important role to play particularly given how crowded we are, how many of us there are and how difficult it is for most of us to get to what the conservationist might call the real thing.  And I think we just need to be realistic about that, and we need to be more proactive about how we manage what traditionally is seen as the second grade and the third rate because actually in terms of introducing people, in terms of the capacity to cope with pressure it maybe that the birch that’s sprung up on the old gravel pit down the end of the road has a much more significant role to play for most of the people in that neighbourhood than the woodland an hour’s drive out into the countryside where you might hear nightingales. 

I was in my garden this morning and really was struck by the fact that the soundtrack, even there in the middle of that very urban environment is woodland; robins, blackbirds, thrushes, blue tits, great tits, nuthatches, they’re all there and at night it’s the tawny owls.  So in the kind of background, I think, of who we are there is still that strong sense that woodland is synonymous with nature, but it’s not just nature conservation that people are relating to, it’s actually the sense that this is one kind of landscape where you really can get away from it all and be dominated by things natural, things varied, by the changing seasons, and I just think that as an antidote to modern urban living is why people are so passionate about it.  It’s why so many people sign a petition when they thought they might be losing it.  So there’s the sense that there’s a permanence, a continuity, and I just think people are desperate for that.  

I think it would be nice to think that we could begin to rebuild the tapestry of the landscape that we’ve done so much to damage over the last, well particularly the last 50 or 60 years.  And so physically it would be good to have policies and strategies that link landscapes back together.  That’s not just about woodlands it’s true of wetlands, it’s true of all of the different landscape policies, it should be a mosaic but it should be linked together.  And I think as long as I’ve been involved in conservation we’ve been driven into a corner which is about sites, it’s about saying well we need to buy that woodland because it’s for sale and it’s under threat.  And very little overview to say actually, we might be better off buying that conifer plantation than that piece of ancient woodland, because that conifer plantation if managed differently might actually begin to make the really critical link between two existing broadleaf woodlands.  So thinking in that more strategic way is still not really on the agenda.  And I think the debate about selling off the forestry did us a real disservice in that it began to really talk energetically about the good woods and the bad woods rather than the role of management in making all of the woodland landscape better than it previously was. 

If that’s going to change I think one of the reasons it will change is because we’re beginning to think about landscapes, and wooded landscapes particularly, in a much more functional kind of way again.  I mean there was a time when the woodland on the edge of the village was where you got the timber to build your houses and heat your houses and it was a very functional relationship and if you lost the woodland you couldn’t live there any more.  We’ve had a very long period when that’s not really the case.  We’re now returning to that I think but with a different set of expectations, because our real requirements now are to do with stress relief, are to do with easy access to fresh air, so there’s a realisation that actually if we want a healthy lifestyle we need a healthy natural landscape that is providing that support. That, I think, is beginning now to get policy makers to think in a much more strategic way.  In the urban areas, there’s a big movement across the world actually, but very actively in the UK, to think about what the plans for strategic green space, or strategic green infrastructure is the buzz word, but it’s actually just really beginning to think about the practical physical role that a continuity of green spaces can provide for people.  

In the rural landscape the same thing is beginning to happen because we’re starting to relate our rural land management to things like flood defence; how can we make the upland landscapes more water absorbent, how can we make sure that the rain that falls there stays there longer and poses less of a threat to the towns downstream.  Well in the case of woodlands there’s a beautiful crossover between managing for water retention and managing for nature conservation because actually broadleaf woodland with really deep spongy leaf litter and mosses on the ground and wild flowers just holds the rain water better than a coniferous plantation with pine needles.  So I get a real sense that at last the policymakers are beginning to think of the landscape as something which is there to serve us as a functional thing for the first time in several hundred years probably. 

I think finding a modern way of attaching real economic commercial value to our woodland heritage is a challenge.  The easy hit is to say we chop the trees down, we turn them into timber and you can sell it, there’s money there.  If you actually think about the stress relief aspects that come from access to green spaces and woodland and bird song, and then you think about the cost to the national health service of stress-related illness, we have here a natural antidote for many, many people, and I think that relationship between our stressful kind of urbanised lives and the antidote of access to woodland does have immense value to society.  I can say all of that - the challenge is how to we get the policymakers, the budget writers to actually make the connection, and part of our difficulty is that we compartmentalise everything.  So the compartmentalising of policy is a real challenge when you’re talking about these rather more subtle and sophisticated economic benefits.  So there’s a challenge I think in making the connection for people between the subtle benefits and actually the real economic value to a society like ours. 

I think the most important thing of all for me is that we need to really be much more realistic and analytical about what we have, not be completely preoccupied with ancient woodlands as the only place where nature conservation happens.  I think we need to think much more honestly about who we are and where we are, and for me that means fundamentally recognising that we are an urban society.  We, and I’m one of them, need access to nature, need trees on our doorstep more than anybody because of the stresses and strains of the way we live and the idea that we therefore need to go out and plant lots and lots of new woodlands where people live is not the full picture.  It’s very interesting to me.  I live in the middle of the industrial Black Country, there’s lots of land there, it all belongs to somebody, it all has an aspiration to be a new factory or a new branch of Marks and Spencer’s or something else, but whilst people are trying to decide what to do or trying to find a buyer for the site, woodland is moving in.  The Black Country Open Forestry Unit did a very interesting thing about 15 years ago, it compared aerial photographs of the Black Country with a 12 year gap, and I think from memory there was something like a 10 or 12% increase in woodland over that period.  Almost none of it had been planted by anybody.  This was birch and willow, and increasingly oak and other species, finding their way into gaps in the urban fabric and turning into trees. 

And you think about the beeching forest that is now lining every railway line and following every abandoned railway cutting, nobody planted a single one of those trees.  What we’re very bad at is standing back and letting it happen.  Those emerging broadleaf woodlands that are growing up on the old gravel pits and the clay pits and the railway lines will never have bluebells in them unless somebody goes and puts bluebells in there because woodland wild flowers don’t spread, they colonise very, very, very, very slowly.  But you can do a pretty good job of establishing foxgloves, red campion, yellow archangel, primrose, violet, lots of the kind of easy woodland wild flowers by going into those 10 and 15 year old birch woodlands and sticking them in there. 

The really high quality ancient woodland is something very special and it delivers extra things on top of the kind of escape space, bird song, those kinds of qualities, the fact that it still needs to be managed to maximise its potential is a really challenging idea.  I mean we kind of know what we need to do in terms of rotational coppicing, creating the glades and opening them for sunlight and removing occasional trees and perhaps making sure that the weed species of things like sycamore don’t move in and dominate, that’s not the issue.  The issue is one of communication to a society that’s kind of one or two generations removed from that and actually was never engaged with that.  There was never a generation in the British Isles that thought how do we make this woodland better for bird song, they thought how do we make this woodland better for providing firewood in five or ten or 15 years’ time or timber big enough to build ships with. 

So the nature conservation objective I don’t think has ever been really a part of the thinking behind why we manage woodland, and that means we need better interpreters, we need the countryside managers, the rangers, the people who can talk to people, tell them stories, explain why the complexity is important so that you can then have a more intelligent conversation about the deer which are damaging the place, about the need to cut down trees from time to time, about the whole way in which so often the short term intervention looks like damage when actually it’s a part of the long term thinking about managing the whole habitat.  In the extreme case, the Woodland Trust work on what they call their PAWS programme, their Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites, is all about removing all the trees that are growing there at the moment gradually, but those are the conifers that were planted that shaded out the wildlife, and allowing the underlying surviving bits of broadleaf woodland ecosystem to regenerate and recover.  Now that is going to look terrible in the short term, and for people who walk their dog through that woodland every day if you don’t talk to them, if you don’t engage them with the process of course they’re going to object. 

The future of the woodlands I think is going to be about intervention and management, not because of the woodlands but because of who we are.  It’s because, you know, of all the people on the earth today 1 in 100 lives in the British Isles, this is a very crowded place, if woodlands can’t serve a multitude of purposes they’re lost.  What matters most to me is that we begin to see woodlands as a relevant resource for modern society and not just as a kind of museum piece that we ought to hang on to in small pockets.  It’s as functional now as it’s ever been it’s just that the functions that we value are different from the ones that were valued five or six years ago.  But it all adds up to the same thing; we need policies and strategies and funding and resources and skilled people that can actually work with public perception and understanding to make sure that the woodlands we still have get better and better with management, that there are more woodlands coming on and as many as possible ought to be on sites that have had woodlands in the past because you then get a kind of double bonus.  And for me, most importantly, that we continue that idea of managing trees and woodlands as a valuable resource as far into the cities as we can, as close to where people live and work and study as we can, because that’s the point of contact and point of entry.


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