Bringing UK woodlands back into management – it’s time to get tough

As a forester, I enjoy taking pictures of the countryside that depict it being brought to life by those who care for it, and derive their livelihoods from it.

Photographs of tractors harvesting crops in the fields, bales of straw sitting like sculptures in the late summer light; and what particularly attracts my attention – and that of my camera – is the sight of a stack of timber thinned from a woodland, ready to be transported to a mill.

But actively managed woodlands produce more than just timber. In addition to the obvious advantages – carbon neutral products, jobs and financial benefits to the owner and those who work in the woods – the thinning of the trees and felling of woodland compartments, throws essential sunlight onto the forest floor. Seeds that have been waiting to flourish will come to life, producing a burst of colour and fantastic pollinating opportunities for insects and butterflies, which in turn benefit the higher food chain such as birds, mammals and predators.

Well-managed woodlands slow down flood, ward off drought, improve air quality, reduce pollution, fix carbon and release oxygen into the atmosphere. In fact, there really is nothing not to like, about a well-managed woodland.

For most of my working life as a forester, half of our woodlands have been under-managed, according to government statistics. Admittedly, one could question how those stats are gathered, in that they largely rely on owners who have connections with the forestry commission and other public bodies. The figure has fluctuated from 60% under-managed to a more recent 42%, but the exact figure is largely irrelevant.

The shocking point is, that the UK is the world’s second largest importer of timber after China.

Just think about that for a moment.

The second largest – after China.

We know that timber is a wonderful building material, fixing and embodying carbon for decades and lifetimes, yet we leave it standing neglected in the woods. And to add insult to injury, this neglected timber, whether it’s every third tree in a thinning, or a compartment in a larger wood, then prevents the trees around it from also thriving.

Whilst the figures are moving slowly in the right directly, I have to say, quite frankly, it’s just not enough. I am therefore calling for a dramatic increase in woodland management – of another 20%.

I am not suggesting this happens over the next ten or twenty years, we need to toughen up and get this done over the next five. If we are to address climate change and meet the public’s challenge to extract the full value from our trees and woods, then we are looking at a serious game of catch up.

From my decades of experience in forestry, knowing the woods of our nation as well as anyone, I know this is perfectly feasible, if the right levers and attitude changes are put in place.

We also need change the way we measure woodland management and its tangible outputs, rather than simply accepting the fact that a management plan, felling licence or maintenance grant is in place.

Over the years I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of owners, obtain grants from the public sector, with contractors entering the woodlands to build tracks, erect fences, dig drains and map the woodland compartments. But I’ve also experienced a distinct lack of anything coming out of the gate in the opposite direction, to replace the millions of tonnes of timber that we import, unnecessarily in some cases. There are possible solutions to this scenario, which I will cover in a future blog.

I find it frustrating that protestors, the government, pressure groups and lobbyists, generate so much noise and rhetoric about expanding our woodlands; about more woodland cover; about more trees. This is of course incredibly important for the future and is a vital part of the mix – but what I find extraordinary is that we propose such expansion, whilst turning our backs on the existing and amazing resources we already have, yet are failing to use.

Managed woodland is proven to be an exceptional habitat for sustaining the life cycles of many of our essential pollinators. I believe, that if 20% or more of our woodlands are brought back into management, we will see a revival in declining butterfly species; bees and other pollinators will thrive again, and as a result our future security will be less precarious.

Education is key.

Perceptions and attitudes are clearly an issue here.

When we look at the farming landscape or activities carried out on a nature reserve, the importance of their management is never questioned. Yet the idea of managing woods and forests, with machinery and chainsaws, provokes immediate questioning from laymen – and to me, the irony of this is palpable.

The woodland fabric is a combination of both farmland and nature reserve, and in order for it to produce the array of potential benefits on offer, it must be managed in exactly the same way. Most importantly, we need to start seeing this activity as ‘normal’, just as we do when harvesting farmland. Especially when the woodland harvester produces at least ten times the public benefits from its activity, than the agricultural harvester!

We need a rapid re-think. The public needs to realise that stacks of timber piled up at the side of the road, should be celebrated. It’s fantastic – it means this precious material has not been brought in from half way round the world, and we are giving Mother Nature a much-needed helping hand.

Changing the rate of woodland management can be done within a few years; changing attitudes and behaviours will perhaps take a generation; so the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll get to a position where the true benefits of woodland management are understood by everyone.

The overriding message really is very simple – thinning or felling woodland, breeds life. Not doing so has the potential to destroy it.