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.

11 Replies to “Small woodlands: the Long Tail of forestry”

  1. Fantastic article. Really enjoy your perspective and perceptive comparison to the Long Tail. Have you considered sending this in to the QFJ? Or maybe to the economics pages of newspapers? I think it might stimulate some conversation given that the conversation is alive?

    Might it be worth spelling out a bit clearer in your 2nd paragraph of solutions that it is not just that some owners ‘want to do some finishing’, but actually the market for round-wood timber is a set-sum nationwide, which you can’t rise above… and therefore in small woodlands where cost of management is usually higher and more labour intensive than the use of harvesters, it is an economic necessity to add value where possible. Sadly in some areas even the most primary of processing into planks and firewood and it’s storage has been enforced against by our planning authority.

  2. On Thursday parliament had a Westminster Hall debate about the future of forestry in England with this helpful exchange which quotes the last sentence of point 2 above:

    Mr Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con): Would it help to improve access to, and the quality of, smaller woodlands if crafts using wood grown within the same woodland were always regarded as ancillary to forestry within the planning guidance?

    Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton)(Con): Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. It will also be about linking the woodland and the craft to a given area. We could do the same with types of wood and the crafts that come from them as we do with food, farming and types of cheeses. It is an interesting point. Linking it to planning is not necessarily the responsibility of the Minister today, but is something that I am sure the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government could look at.

    I know some people were forwarding this post to their MPs for the debate, and it looks like the message got through!

  3. The Oxfordshire Woodland Group has been on this case now for over 4 years. We decided to stop talking about it and instead start doing something that would help to kick start the process of activiely managing small woodlands. We are now nearing completion of the construction of a cruck timber-framed barn being built in a small woodland in South Oxfordshire. This has been constructed under “permitted development” in The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Our proposal met with zero local objections and had the full support of both the South Oxfordshire District Council tree officer and planning officer. We did not consult with anyone other than those directly involved with the project prior to making our submission so that we arrived at a true traditional local vernacular design for the cruck frame. The cruck frame has been built from timbers (DF / EL / WRC) felled in the woodland, hewed by hand, framed using scribe and square rule carpentry layout systems and cut using only hand tools. Only the rafters remain to be fited to complete the cruck frame. We will then saw up planks / boards / joists in the woodland to clad the barn and make lath and shingles to cover the roof.

    We aim to use the barn for storage of woodland management equipment (tractor / trailer, etc) and will also use the finished building to demonstrate how it is possible to build in a completely satisfactory and acceptable manner using only home grown timber that both blends in with and enhances the countryside.

    To learn how to build a similar barn check out the OWG web forum at :-

    If you would like to get involved please contact trustees@oxfordshire

    “If you build it – they will come”.

    Ken Hume – Executive Trustee
    The Oxfordshire Woodland Group

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