Cuckoo at Century Wood

A short video of bird song at the start of May, including a cuckoo.

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The Long Tail in Smallwoods, Spring 2018

An expanded version of my post from January, The Long Tail of Forestry, has just appeared in the Small Woods Association’s “Smallwoods” magazine! (Spring 2018 edition)

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Woodland management in France

Earlier this week I revisited a woodland at the foot of the Jura mountains in France that I also photographed in mid February before the snow returned. I was able to take some before and after pictures of small trees marked for felling by the French Office National des Forets, and then felled, and also see how property boundaries are marked.

The contrast between the two visits is striking. Warm and sunny in February, but cold, overcast and snowy in March. The wood is mostly oak, with patches of Scots Pine, and hazel trees here and there. It’s very open at ground level, one of the hints that it is managed.

On my second visit, guys from the Office had signs up and were felling small trees beside a track alongside a farmer’s field at the woodland edge.

These two pictures show some of these trees marked up with spray paint and then felled. The brash has been placed over some of the stumps to protect the regrowth from deer.

When you walk deeper into the wood, you cross banks and ditches which help mark out the boundaries of the “parcelles cadastrales” into which the French countryside is divided, for the purposes of land ownership or rights to collect the produce of the land like wood.

Occasionally there are also marker stones like this, which are much easier to spot in the snow. There’s another one at the bottom end of the ditch on the right, highlighted with orange spray paint.

This photo shows more orange boundary markings sprayed onto stones and trees. It’s at a point where there is a dog leg in the ditch, which is indicated on the tree trunk by spray paint. You can just make out the line of the ditch from the splashes of orange colour. I’m expecting to see activity in this area now that it has been marked out.

Snow changes the character of the ground. It hides some features, but makes others easier to see. In this last picture, you can see a small root plate and due to the snow, the soil gradually coming off the roots can clearly be seen whereas normally it would be lost on the ground.

I wasn’t able to photograph my last observation of the March trip: I startled a group of half a dozen deer who bounded off before I could get a photo of them.

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Extending the Glade

The boundary of the Glade at the centre of the wood has been fixed since I cleared it nine years ago, but yesterday I started extending the area beside the Log Cabin to make room for a shed for storage and wood drying. This “drying barn” has been an off and on project for a few years, and three years ago I felled the poplars which could drop branches or fall on the eventual footprint of the barn. Some of the clearing work yesterday was to cut up some of these poplars and use them to edge the extended Glade boundary.

You can see the new edge on the first of these pictures I took during the day. The second picture shows a cut I made through one of the poplar trunks that was felled three years ago. You can see the brown, black, and orange staining from fungi growing within the wood and starting to break it down. The final photo shows fungal caps growing in a sheltered corner where one trunk crossed over another .

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Natural regeneration: Nature’s grassroots rebellion

There’s a rebellion going on in Britain. All around us. The resistance wins some battles and loses others. It has fought us since we first began to clear woodlands and create fields thousands of years ago. Its aim is reforestation with native trees, its method is natural regeneration, and in more and more places it is winning – increasingly with our help.

Often when trees are felled, worried people want to be reassured that the land will be replanted. People talk as if trees are like a field crop that has to be replanted after harvesting, to avoid leaving the treeless earth bare. Tree planting has an important place, but it must remembered that in most places it accelerates the reestablishment of native woodland, or guides what species will be present. It is not the fundamental and necessary way in which we find ourselves with a woodland. Ask yourself: why would native trees have to rely on human planting?

The fundamental way woodland reestablishes itself is natural regeneration. Trees grow from seeds already waiting in the ground; or brought there by birds and animals; or by undead, overlooked stumps and hedge trees reasserting themselves and breeding a new generation of rebels to lead a local revolution. We can interfere with this process with scythe, brush cutter, and mower. We can delegate the job to flocks of sheep. We can let unchecked populations of deer, rabbits, and grey squirrels put down the insurrection. But the trees keep trying and more and more of us are finding ways to help them.

One of the pioneers of rewilding and reforestation is Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of “Trees for Life” in the Highlands of Scotland. In George Monbiot’s “Feral”, he meets Alan and sees the now inspirational landscape in Glen Affric:

Glen Affric is one of the few parts of Britain in which the work of the Forestry Commission has, from the beginning, been largely benign. Since a sawmill was built in the valley in 1750, the old trees had been under siege, while the sheep grazing beneath them prevented almost all recruitment. The commission bought most of the glen in 1951, and, neglecting its customary duties, decided to preserve it rather than to wreck it. In the 1960s a young forester persuaded his bosses to let him fence 800 hectares of the glen, arguing, against the received wisdom of the time, that the trees could regenerate without being planted. The results were spectacular, an unequivocal rejoinder to those who said it was impossible. We could see them on the brae on the far side of the loch: stockades of pines a few decades old, their spiky profile broken in some places by the great humps of older trees. This experiment was one of the factors that had inspired Alan to found Trees for Life.

An hour’s drive north of Glen Affric is Glen Strathfarrar, and Alan took this striking photo there of forest regenerating naturally, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce from his blog post. There’s a deer fence in the middle. To the left, trees are coming back naturally with deer excluded. To the right, the trees are scarce and the deer are free to browse any saplings that emerge.

You can’t see the deer in a photo like this, but without their natural predators like lynx and wolves their effect on the landscape is huge. It would be easy to look at a hillside like the one on the right and assume trees can’t grow, if you hadn’t seen what’s flourishing on the left. This emerging wood in Glen Strathfarrar is between about 150m and 250m above sea level, and as we can see this isn’t too high for natural regeneration. (For reference, there are birch woods in Norway at altitudes higher than the summit of Ben Nevis.)

Nature’s rebellion benefits the reestablishment of the forest cover we once had, but it’s increasingly being recognised that increased tree cover could benefit us too. Not just visually and emotionally. Perhaps even financially, and not just with things like tourism. Further south again is Loch Eilt, with this barren hillside at about 50m to 100m that’s been in the news this week. This landslide poured mud and rocks onto the West Highland Line and derailed the first train to come along, blocking the line for days and costing money for Network Rail and the people who finance it (principally taxpayers.)

There are trees in the landscape, including that small wood just to the right of the train. But there could be a lot more, and one of their benefits is to stabilise hillsides and protect against erosion, both the gradual carriage of soil down to rivers and off towards the sea and more dramatic erosion events like this.

With Brexit coming and our eventual withdrawal from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, there’s a debate about how these benefits can be recognised, with concepts like “natural capital” and “environmental services”, and proposals to dramatically increase tree planting. But for now the CAP payments still provide incentives to land owners to keep these barren treeless landscapes. Various euphemisms are used to refer to the natural progression from grassland up to woodland via scrub and pioneer tree species, but they implicitly and unintentionally recognise that the trees’ insurgency will succeed unless checked. As we reconfigure rural policy and support, it mustn’t be assumed that all trees have to be planted. If deer numbers were controlled and sheep removed, woodland could regenerate itself over huge areas without having to wait its turn to be planted.

Nature’s rebellion isn’t just against the moorland landscapes maintained by sheep and deer. Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands” describes Shrawley Wood in chapter 19, where the Forestry Commission attempted to replace native lime trees with a conifer plantation:

Shrawley Wood, Worcestershire, is probably the biggest limewood in England. Most of it is nearly solid lime (including one of the tallest native trees in the kingdom). … In the 1530s it had been a wood with common-rights of woodcutting, divided into ten named coppices. …  Shrawley Wood fell into the hands of the Forestry Commission and was given the usual treatment. But Agent Orange here met its match. By 1985 Shrawley was back to being a magnificent limewood, and one had to look carefully for miserable remains of conifers.

I’m seeing the start of something similar at Century Wood, which is a 1980s hybrid poplar plantation, with natural regeneration of hazel plus some ash and oak, and then a few naturalised species like sycamore and horse chestnut. These non-native poplars are susceptible to cankers, and shed their upper branches. Some of the resulting stags are dying, leaving standing deadwood trunks a few metres high. Some of the still living stags are even overstood by the highest branches of the hazel. Even if I wasn’t gradually removing the poplars, they will be gone within a few decades, and the native (and naturalised) species will have won their rebellion.

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Woodlanders Ep7: Off grid forestry

I’ve just watched the beautiful Episode 7 of the Woodlanders series of films. This episode is about Tinker’s Bubble in Somerset and how they do forestry without using fossil fuel: felling with axe and saw, extraction with horses, and a saw mill powered by a wood-burning steam engine.

The Woodlanders series is made by Costa Boutsikaris and is crowd funded. Please consider supporting his work if you like the film.

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Small woodlands: the Long Tail of forestry

The long tail concept is now commonplace in business and computing. It’s the idea that most subjects are dominated by a very large number of small categories. That the “big hits” are actually outsold by all the niche songs or films or books that sell in ones and twos. Some of this thinking can also be applied to forestry, and how small woodlands can be brought into management.

The Long Tail was introduced by an article in WIRED magazine in 2004:

What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.

How does this compare to woodlands in England? The most recent comprehensive survey we have is the Forestry Commission’s report “National Forestry Inventory 2011 woodland map”, and the picture is strikingly similar.

Tables 7/7a have the figures. 69% of all the woodland in England by area meets the original UKWAS definition of small woodlands: less than 100 hectares or 250 acres. Looking at woods smaller than 20 hectares or 50 acres, the percentage of the total area is still 41%. If we turn to English broadleaved woodlands, woods smaller than 20 hectares cover 51% of the total area.

So it’s obvious that smaller woodlands really matter. People in the small woods community have been saying this for years but it’s still not properly reflected in our national debates about forestry, especially in the media. The image is of rolling hills and valleys draped in conifer plantations and their patches of clear fell.

What lessons do Amazon and the rest have for policy towards small woodlands? What does their success with the Long Tail tell us?

To answer this we have to think about how they manage to turn all those niche titles into dollars and pounds. In the past, out of print books and forgotten films sat on shelves or were boxed up in the corners of warehouses. Out of sight and hard to find. “Unmanaged” as it were. To bring those titles back to life, companies like Amazon harness the enthusiasm of customers to find them and to recommend them to other people. Star ratings and the words “Customers who bought this item also bought” suggest what else might be worth looking at. This means the enthusiasts of the Long Tail of niche titles power the whole process themselves. Amazon staff don’t have to decide what to show people or guess what is worth looking at.

The small woods problem is very similar. How can the government, or the Forestry Commission, or even a hundred unitary and county councils help manage 200,000 small woods? They can’t, obviously. What they can do is provide an environment where the owners of those woods can get on with it themselves. But they don’t: legislation and planning rules which are tailored to big forestry aren’t appropriate for the half of English woodland in small woods. The rules are focussed on timber production and don’t scale down to the management of small woods, both those run with a commercial aim or those managed for “Natural Capital”, as part of flood defences or for conservation or amenity value – such as an ancient woodland site with a plan to remove invasive species and encourage native ones.

There are three planning issues which come up time and again amongst small woodland owners and managers:

  1. The existing permitted development rights for forestry buildings aren’t applied consistently or fairly by local planning authorities. Some councils are very reasonable. Some are obstructive. A family managing a small woodland at weekends isn’t the same as a self-contained contractor turning up with all their highly automated equipment on low loaders to start clear felling.
  2. To make small woodlands economic, many people want to do some finishing of the wood and timber they are harvesting. To go beyond just preparing it for sale as wood or timber. For instance making things into finished retail products like furniture, hurdles for fencing, even wooden sculptures. Simply including a line in the government’s planning guidance saying that all crafts using wood grown within that same woodland are always counted as ancillary to forestry would largely solve this problem.
  3. Lots of people want to live in the woods they work in. Maybe full time like Ben Law; or maybe part of the week or part of the year. You can already live in a “caravan” in woodland you work in, and a “caravan” can be a prefabricated log cabin brought on site in two sections. But you can only do this for “a season” at a time, which is “less than a year”, and outside of that time you need planning permission to leave your caravan there. If people are happy to live in their caravan where they work all year round, in a country with a housing shortage, they should be allowed to do it.

Brexit is turning everything upside down. Changes to grants. Changes to foreign trade agreements and tariffs. Changes to what we think it’s all for. If we want to make the most of what we have and do in this country, we need to think about what is underused. And in our corner of the debate, which has the label Forestry, it’s the half of woodland that is in small woodlands which is underused.

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