A green and pleasant (and under-managed) land

In the UK, we boast over 3 million hectares of woodland – that’s 13% of our land area; and until not so long ago, 60% of that woodland was under-managed. More recently, that figure has dropped considerably to around 40% – sounds like progress doesn’t it?

But as one of the founders of Grown in Britain, an organisation with a clear objective to bring our woods into management, I make no apologies for pointing out, that this means almost half of our woodlands are still under-managed in 2019. Is this a statistic to be proud of, when we are the world’s biggest importer of timber after China? I’d suggest not.

Whilst I fully appreciate that there are indeed some excellent forestry and woodland management practices going on in all parts of the country, for the purposes of this blog, I shall focus on the failing parts of this particular machine.

If you fly over parts of the UK, you see thousands of woodlands – most of them with closed canopies, showing little evidence of rotational felling and thinning. Why is it that so many landowners allow valuable trees to deteriorate, instead of having them felled and sold? There are of course many practical reasons: access to the site, the physical size of the trees and quality of the timber etc. But I’ll be honest – I have often observed great timber, in perfectly accessible woods, being neglected; which grates on me when I see similar timber being transported in from abroad.

Around 15 years ago, I was part of a group that conducted a survey of every woodland owner in a parish in Southern England – we wanted to know why they weren’t managing their woodland. I’ll take an educated guess, that if we did the same survey today, their answers would be similar: “I didn’t realise the timber was worth anything”, “I don’t have the skills to manage it and don’t know who to contact for help”, “we keep the trees for pheasant cover”, or “It’s our garden and we like it the way it is.” We also discovered another set of landowners who were absent and simply couldn’t be traced!

 So where does the burden of responsibility lie, for this ‘glitch’ in our timber supply chain?

Maybe the answer lies with incentives; so let’s investigate this point a little further.

Much of the under-managed woodland lies around farms and estates, where the agricultural elements are extremely well managed, with intensive inputs and high-value outputs – and I find it strange that the woodlands are not treated as part of the revenue-earning crop mix. Hopefully the new Environment Land Management incentive package, which is set to replace the current common agricultural policy, will encourage farmers and landowners to treat their woodlands as another valuable crop, to be managed sustainably and economically.

But, the new system could go one step further, by only offering incentives to farmers for their agricultural management, when they have shown that they are also actively managing any woodlands within their holding. I would also go as far as suggesting, that farmers should not be given access to public incentives for the planting of new woodland, if they are not actively managing existing areas, that they already own.

My frustration also spills into the large-scale commercial sector, where there is a tendency to harvest much less than the growing yield. Some major forest owners in both the public and private sectors, consider it an adequate target, to only harvest 90% of the yield. Year-on-year, this results in potentially millions of tonnes of timber being left in the woods. Instead, these millions of neglected tonnes are replaced by millions of imported tonnes.

Would it not, therefore, be a valid argument, that having had decades of missed targets, we should observe a period of harvesting more than 100% of the target, in order to catch up a little?

Timber is an amazing material; it’s recyclable, renewable, carbon neutral, and derived from a habitat, which, if managed responsibly, produces a wonderful, healthy environment for people and wildlife. Let’s face it, what could be more of a blessing, than a majestic plant, with the ability to devour carbon and release oxygen?

Maybe, by harvesting and managing them more effectively, we would be showing them the respect they deserve.