by Sarah Walters
Click here to read more articles by Sarah on SoW.
British Woodlands 2012 was organised by the Sylva Foundation, and held at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford. The aim was to hear voices from owners of small woodlands – the people on the ground who own or manage the smaller woods that form the majority of woodland in England. It was also the first opportunity to hear some of the first results to come out of the British Woodlands 2012 survey which was sent out to as many small woodland owners as possible during 2012, and backed by an impressive array of organisations, including the Sylva Foundation, Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Forestry Commission, Natural England, Woodland Trust, RFS, ICF, Country Landowners and Business Association and Confor among others.
After an introduction from Professor Nicholas Harberd, Sibthorpian Professor of Plant Sciences, who told us about the University of Oxford’s own Ragley Wood, and Gabriel Hemery from the Sylva Foundation, Dr Gill Petrokofsky introduced the survey and its preliminary data. The survey was completed by over 2000 owners, representing 20% of UK woodlands, with an average of 90 acres. The survey was based upon previous surveys repeated since 1962 by Dr Derek Nicholls, from the University of Cambridge, so he was able to show dramatic longitudinal data representing larger estates and showing a dramatic decline in profitability of woodland. In 1962 over 50% were profitable, by 2012 under 10% were profitable – a worrying trend, particularly if the vision of the Independent Panel on Forestry in England’s recommendations of developing a woodland culture are to be realised.
Alistair Yeomans from the Sylva Foundation then explored the idea of what a woodland culture means – culture is a fusion of awareness, appreciation and activity. He also introduced the new programme from the Sylva Foundation of having a Ward Forester. This is a forestry professional who oversees management for a group of local woodlands. It is a way of working collaboratively, accessing expertise in planning and management, working more efficiently by working across sites, and at the same time having collective access to markets for products which in individual woodlands may be too small in volume to be interesting to buyers. (http://wardforester.co.uk/) . At present it is operating in Devon, but will be rolled out to other sites in future. He also highlighted a useful app from NERC called mySoil – a map of all soil types in the UK (http://www.nerc.ac.uk/press/releases/2012/13-soil.asp) – an invaluable tool for planning management of woodlands, and creation of new ones.
Mike Townsend from the Woodland Trust then gave an overview of some more of the survey data in a very clear and succinct presentation. The responses were clearly biased towards the South and East of England, and the median date of acquisition of the woodland was 1990, with some held in the family for centuries, but the majority acquired late in the 20th Century. The main aim of woodland ownership was personal pleasure, followed by conservation, biodiversity and timber production. Making money was low down on the list, maybe reflecting the reality of the current market for woodland products. 10% of owners manage for public access, but this is seen as a problem for many. Nevertheless, given the large proportion managing for conservation and biodiversity, the public good and benefits of woodlands in the wider sense are being delivered by a large number of private woodland owners of their own free will and at their own cost. Communication was also discussed – woodland owners are now consulting a wide range of sources for information about woodland management, including books, magazines and the internet, as well as traditional sources of advice such as forestry officers. There is a need to channel information via a wide range of methods of delivery, and many owners valued free, proactive advice ahead of access to money via grant schemes.
James Ogilvie from the Forestry Commission in Scotland talked about community forestry. Scotland differs from England and Wales in that 45% of woodland is owned by the Forestry Commission, and about 1% of woodland is classed as community woodland. This is financed largely by grants and charities, rather than by sales of products. He talked us through the forthcoming Community Empowerment Bill in Scotland, which will make it easier for communities to acquire land for both forestry and woodland crofting.
Rob Penn, whose recent BBC4 series Tales from the Wild Wood was a big success, then talked about the public reaction to his series. The most positive reactions came to the animals, the pigs and horse logging in particular, as well as to the more nostalgic aspects of woodland management, such as charcoal burning and production of beanpoles. The most negative reactions came to the difficult topic of squirrel control, and to the mountain bikers, despite the former being essential and advocated by almost every adviser who came to his wood, and the latter being a good source of income and very low impact on the wood as a whole. Overall the series was well received, with twice the expected viewership and four times the expected positive comments, suggesting that people are keen to learn about woodlands. The reaction to the series highlights the issues woodland owners may have in managing their woods, making money from the woods, and communicating the need for this to the public, who hold a nostalgic view of what woodland should be, and what should be done there. See http://www.robpenn.net/ for more information.
Dr David Boshier from the Earth Trust and University of Oxford then looked at genetic resilience in a very interesting and topical presentation, given the current situation with Chalara fraxinea. The key to coping with both the exponential increase in tree diseases and pests seen since the 1960’s as well as the issue of climate change is to build resilience and genetic capacity into our tree populations. It is about getting the right species for the site and purpose, and within that, the right provenance within species. Breeding for resilience and diversity takes longer than for arable crops, and this is best achieved by out-crossing rather than cloning. Using local seed seems intuitive, but can actually result in very low genetic diversity, particularly where seed sources are few and close together e.g. on restoration sites. Paradise Wood is a research wood in Oxford used for genetic trials, and a wide range of studies have been carried out at this wood looking at phenology (e.g. leaf flushing, seed chilling requirements). Early leaf flushing in ash can lead to frost damage, and this varies hugely depending on provenance, with Eastern European trees particularly susceptible. They have also examined growth rhythms – Chalara resistance is higher for those trees showing early leaf senescence in Spring. Cross-pollinated seed shows much higher diversity than self-pollinated seed. The Future Trees Trust is promoting improved and qualified seed for future production of good trees that are resilient, as well as functional (e.g. good timber form). There are more details on the Fraxigen project web page at http://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/fraxigen/
Christine Read from Natural England then presented further results from the Survey, looking at grants and barriers to management. Woodlands are of disproportionate importance to biodiversity, constituting about 10% area of England but over 20% of BAP listed species. The public are aware of this, with 80% saying woodlands are important for wildlife and 60% wanting to do more for wildlife themselves. The UK Forestry Standard has a wide remit that includes a wide range of management activities for wildlife and biodiversity (protected habitats and species, varied structure, diversity of species, open space, deadwood, biosecurity, more and better connected woodland, dealing with deer browsing, grey squirrels and invasive species). Responders were confused about climate change, with few knowing what to do, although half trying to do something around the areas of either mitigation or building in resilience. Only 35% of responders were receiving grants for management or creation or capital works. Those who had applied liked the pre-application advice received, the prompt payment, the application process. However the payment rates, on-going advice and monitoring of outcomes were rated less highly. The biggest barriers to grant uptake were the off-putting bureaucracy and lack of information.
Nick Brown from the University of Oxford then gave a very interesting talk about whether we can manage woodlands proactively for environmental and ecological benefits, in a very thought-provoking session. First of all, he defined woodland management as “caring for woodland in ways that help to provide many benefits whilst making sure it stays healthy and thrives into the future” This can clearly encompass a wide variety of purposes, and doing nothing is a management option provided it is arrived at by an active decision. Only 7% of woodlands surveyed have a management plan, and the majority of owners are disengaged from forestry organisations and are unaware of or do not take up the available grants. There is pressure to plant trees for mitigation of global warming, but many questions remain about how best to do this, and where do the new trees go, given the competition with food and biomass crops? Most new trees since 1948 have grown outside woodland sites – along infrastructure, in urban areas, around buildings, in gardens, and so planting more in these areas is one option – in and around cities, in floodplains, on brownfield sites, for rehabilitation of land, for erosion prevention etc. He also mentioned the new conservation paradigm that is emerging – rather than doing conservation of single or few species on reserved sites, we need robust, diverse and resilient communities serving social and environmental needs. We need to think more about this robustness, diversity and connectedness. There has been a real decline in professional forestry, which needs to be addressed – Forest Research is internationally recognised but funding has been cut, in particular for field trials taking basic science through to practice.
Sarah Walters from Alvecote Wood then gave a talk about managing their 20 acre woodland for wildlife and community groups. She talked about the issues that had confronted them when they bought 11 acres of ancient woodland in 2007, supplemented by a 9 acre field for woodland creation in 2010. She looked at the work that had to be done in overcoming many years of grazing, over-fertility, and under-management to create a diversity of habitats, as well as the project to link the woodlands to other sites to produce a robust, diverse and resilient wildlife corridor. The latter included establishment of a new 9 acre wildlife site incorporating mixed and wet woodland, ponds, hedgerows and wildflower meadows. She also talked about how the site is being developed for use by community groups, establishing public access through open days, open evenings and public events, and how a wide range of products and activities are being developed to produce some income, as well as the support received from other organisations and individuals, including grant support from the Forestry Commission. See www.alvecotewood.co.uk for more information.
Alistair Yeomans of the Sylva Foundation then deputised for Mike Seville, and talked about Markets and Forestry. Only 50% of owners in the survey had sold wood products, the majority firewood or roundwood, and there is a clear need to develop markets for this, perhaps by tapping into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, and timber marketing websites such as Logshed and Timber Auctions. Owners had also sold a wide range of services including shooting, recreation and tourism, courses and use for film sets. There is the potential to bring in funding from the Woodland Carbon Code on sites where planting is feasible, as well as tapping in to Biodiversity Offsetting via the Environment Bank – where habitat is created in one place to offset damage at another.
Peter Long of the University of Oxford then led us through a new tool being developed to assist owners in making decisions about their woods, called the Local Ecological Footprinting Tool. This is an IT project that draws together freely-available data from satellite databases to produce a street map, land cover classes, Ecoregions, species records, and a biodiversity score. It also brings in biodiversity turnover, presence of protected species, habitat fragmentation, presence of migratory species, vegetation resilience and wetland connectivity scores. At present this data is only available at 300 metre resolution, so not terribly helpful in smaller woods, but there are plans to increase to 30 metre resolution. It is in early stages, and there are clearly some issues with the data (given that puffins were apparently recorded in a wood in Oxfordshire!), but has potential to inform decisions about how to manage land, and where biodiversity and connectivity could be best improved. See http://www.biodiversity.ox.ac.uk/LEFT for more information.
John Deakin, the head forester for the Crown Estate at Windsor Great Park told us the story of how timber can be produced and used, even within a SSSI, and be incorporated into the management plan, and used for local projects. He gave the example of the stunning Savill Building and the proposed new pavilion at Virginia Water.
The final speaker was Jim Matthews who is a farmer in the Chilterns. His entertaining talk showed just how a small farm woodland can be managed to provide a wide range of services. First of all, he told us about the brickworks that they own and manage, producing heritage bricks for restoration projects. He talked us through how the fuel bill had been reduced by careful use of wood that was sustainably harvested from not only his farm, but a network of woodlands nearby, for the drying of bricks and firing of kilns. This has led to diversification into selling woodfuel stoves and boilers, and has changed what was an unused liability (90 acres of unmanaged woodland) into an asset and a thriving business, as well as engaging other woodlands in the nearby community – a fine model for the future expansion of wood-based industries, and how small woodlands can link together to produce benefits for owners , business and local communities alike. See http://www.hgmatthews.com/ for an example of what they do.
Overall, this was an extremely interesting and engaging conference. Unlike many conferences, this was targeted at small woodlands, and so we felt at home there, and the issues being discussed felt very relevant to us. It is clear the survey has highlighted many of these issues, and can help to inform future woodland policy, and in particular the way in which forestry organisations communicate with, engage with and help owners, as well as the way in which markets can develop and be used to support owners with small quantities of produce. The way the conference linked basic research with policy and through this to the people on the ground who are out there, doing stuff in their woodlands was very well managed. There is potential for a further follow-up survey in 2014, and we left the day hopeful that things would be taken forward to the benefit of all woodland owners, and via them to the environment, biodiversity, wildlife and the general public good.