Friday, 6 July 2012

Saving the Forestry Commission is just the start.

Government has now committed to keeping the public forest estate in public hands.  This, however, is not the end of the matter.  There are many good recommendations in the Independent Forest Panel report and we need to ensure that these now get adopted.

The point I’d like to pick up in this blog is about woodland management and restoration.

Woods generally need to be managed in order to keep the whole forest ecosystem in a good state.  This may seem counter-intuitive because surely woods are “natural” and should be able to look after themselves.  This is a big subject and perhaps something I’ll touch on in another blog but for the present I’ll just summarise by saying that woods are not natural, they are semi-natural.  They are the product of centuries of interaction between people and wildlife; their value will generally be best maintained by keeping that interaction going – ie traditional management.

There are exceptions, but generally woods are best when they are managed.  Obviously this is not carte blanche for any management, it has to be appropriate.  But, done well, we are really talking about sustainability, not simple exploitation.

The Forest Panel report does bring this out.  This should provide good support for the forest industry, and in the process should underpin the public benefits gained from woodland (whether public or private).

What does this mean in practice?  Woodland wildlife is under threat – species and habitats are still in decline.  This is not due just to woodland loss (although this will contribute in some areas), indeed woodland area has increased steadily over the last 100 years.  The evidence shows that one main cause of woodland decline is woods becoming dark and overshadowed.  This is linked to lack of management.

For centuries, when woods were managed this provided clearings and openings within woods which then went through regeneration and growth before becoming dense woodland again.  The result was a patchwork within woodland, all at different stages of growth and supporting a diverse range of species.  This, in effect, mimics the natural disturbance that might have taken place in truly natural woods.  If management stops, the diversity goes and woods become dark and overshadowed.

The nightingale provides just one example of a species that has suffered as our woods have dropped out of management.  This is a woodland bird that has declined as woods have increased.  The reason, it actually prefers shrubby regrowth - part of the woodland regrowth cycle.  If woods get dark and overshadowed consisting of tall trees with little shrubby regrowth then nightingales loose habitat.

Today nightingales are often found in blackthorn scrub rather than in woodland.  However where woodlands are managed the nightingales can return.

I’ll stress again that there are exceptions to this rule.  There are woods that are to some extent “re-naturalised” and are maintaining their own diversity without the need for great management input.  These places are special, there should probably be more of them and they need special consideration.

But staying with nightingales, try this link – an incredible recording of nightingales in the second world war, singing as the RAF bombers flew overhead.  It’s a long track – but listen and you can here the birds sing louder as the planes get closer! 

A sign of success for forest policy in the UK will be if southern England once again reverberates to the sound of nightingales every spring.

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