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.

Posted in Forestry, Rewilding | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Forestry | 9 Comments

Red deer in Windsor Great Park

These are some photos I took in Windsor Great Park in July. The park has been royal forest and attached to Windsor Castle itself since the time of William the Conqueror. As well as general pictures of the park, its open spaces and woodland, I took photos of very well established rhododendron (showing just how bad it can get unchecked) and the park’s herd of red deer.

I spent about three hours walking from the Virginia Water visitors’ centre to the middle of the Long Walk and back. I noticed some striking fungal brackets and decaying trees; fencing made from machined posts and roughly worked rails from the park itself; a table dedicated to woodland books in the Saville Garden shop; a curving walk with rhododendron bushes either side, some of which had grown into small trees, with dense rhodo undergrowth going back 10 or 20m on each side; in the deer park, the herd of red deer established by the Duke of Edinburgh, showing their division into a small male group and a much larger group of females and younger deer before the rut starts at the end of summer. Red deer are really woodland animals, with adaptations like the stags’ roar to call to females that are out of sight. The deer park has a mixture of open spaces with trees (like wood pasture) and woodland, and is probably closer to their natural environment than the denuded uplands that they now inhabit in the Highlands of Scotland.

In this gallery click on the thumbnails to get a larger version. After the gallery there’s a short video of red deer stags.

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Brown bears at JuraParc

Around the same time I photographed lynx, wild boar and wolves at the La Garenne zoo in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, I also had the opportunity to see the smaller JuraParc with its group of brown bears.

JuraParc is essentially a restaurant in a mountain pass which added a herd of North American bison, and then wolves, bear, and deer in a sheltered valley. The bison aside, all of these species are native to the Jura and Alps and exist in the wild to varying degrees. From the end of the ice age into the Middle Ages, wolves and bears were common in British woodlands too. Reintroducing them is less realistic than bringing back boar and lynx, but it’s certainly being suggested in fenced areas.

You can see in the first two pictures the layout of the site in the valley, with raised walkways which also form boundaries between the different enclosures. It’s much bigger than La Garenne, and they make use of the cliffs at the edge of the valley for the wolves and bears. I’ve included a short video which gives a better impression of the bears moving around the space and interacting.

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Creating the Glade

The glade at the centre of Century Wood was the first major feature I established after buying the wood almost ten years ago. I photographed the process as I went along and in this post I’ve brought the story together.

When I started there were no open spaces in the wood and just a short ride running from the gate but going nowhere near the wood’s centre. So I pretty much had a blank canvas. I roughed out some ideas for how to lay things out at the same time as completing the purchase in the first winter, but didn’t start work until the autumn – almost a year after first viewing and photographing the wood. In online woodland forums one of the first pieces of advice people now get is to wait a year before doing anything, and back then I knew I certainly wasn’t going to commit to any significant changes until I’d seen things in high summer.

In that first winter, I worked out the OS grid reference of the centre of the wood and then located it on the ground with a GPS receiver. I used this area as the initial “base of operations”, and the place where I kept the stuff I left on site, including a trolley, some hand tools, and a couple of benches. You can see this area in the photograph, with larger plantation poplars interspersed with natural regeneration including hazel, sycamore, and elder.

When I was ready to start felling, I worked out the placement which would require removing the least number of trees and bushes, which had the centre point of the wood near the north boundary of the clearing rather than at its own centre. My plan was to edge the glade with sections of the poplar trunks, and to drag all of the smaller branches and trunks past the boundary and allow them to rot away. I wasn’t going to burn any – apart from some hazel trunks I cut up and stacked as firewood. Having a definite, easily identifiable edge has made it easier to maintain, whether when mowing the ground vegetation or cutting back bushes which start encroaching. It gives you a clear line to work to.

To minimise the amount of hung up trees during the felling, I started near the centre and went round in a spiral felling the trees towards the centre into the increasingly large space I was creating. Doing this created the big mess shown in this photograph but it meant that when I came to cut the trees up on the ground, I did so from the edges inwards, with clear ground to drag branches across to the edge once I’d cut them free. Elsewhere in the wood I’ve cut up each felled tree as I’ve gone along as I’ve not been faced with the same scenario again. I still think it was the most efficient approach overall, but it was messy at the time.

The next pictures show some of the process, with the smaller branches removed first until I was just left with trunks, which were then cut up and used to edge the glade.

At one point I was joined by this mousey friend who I found hiding in amongst the logs waiting to be cut up.

I tackled the big trunks by making spaced cuts in the top sides, using wedges where necessary to stop the chainsaw getting pinched and trapped, and then turning the trunks to expose the uncut lower side. I didn’t have a cant hook for manhandling the trunks at that point, so I tended to turn them by getting them rocking back and forth until I could turn them over by giving a big heave at the right moment.

These next two pictures show the glade with the trunks cut up and used as edging, and only the stumps left. I cut all of the poplars at this height for safety (it’s easier to get away if you’re standing upright) and because I knew I was going to cut their trunks up into sections anyway. Over the next year or two I removed the stumps too, first by cutting them to ground level and then digging round them to be able to cut them down to below ground level. That’s a messy job that also blunts the chainsaw chain as you hit things in the soil, and it would probably have been easier with a stump grinder.

Finally these two pictures show the glade at the start of its first spring and in summer. You can see a couple of the poplar stumps with green shoots of regrowth in the summer picture. Now that the light could get in, a different mix of ground vegetation took hold. Still nettles, but increasingly being out competed by grass encouraged by mowing.

Posted in Tools, Woodscraft | 1 Comment

Cheshire steam fair

Last weekend I was at the Cheshire Steam Fair, and one of the stands had a collection of vintage chainsaws and a portable steam saw. You can see some photos and video of them here.

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