Monday, 27 January 2020

Trees need a purpose (4 of 4)

Tree planting has caught the mood of our time.  We all want to do our bit to contribute both to the restoration of nature and to the climate emergency.  Yet if you refer to my previous blogs, tree planting can cause problems.  Furthermore, there is another element that often gets forgotten.  Trees and woods need a purpose in society.  If they do not have one, then today’s planted woods will not be valued so will be cleared away to make space for other uses. 

Look at a map of England.  Where do you see the woods?  Are they in the most rural, agricultural areas?  No, not usually.  They are quite rare in areas of high agricultural productivity (think of East Anglia).  Even areas that have historically had a low human population can be poor in woodland.  If you look at the actual distribution of woodland, particularly ancient woods, you find they are not just in forgotten corners, they have survived in areas where they were most valued. 

Therefore, counter to what you might expect, the places where trees were valued for timber and fuel is where the woods remain.  They were not simply exploited and destroyed; they were conserved and valued.  The Weald of Sussex, Forest of Dean, Furness Fells in the Lake District and Coalbrookdale (near Iron Bridge in Shropshire) all have high concentrations of woodland, constantly needed for example in the iron industry.  Iron Bridge was one of the birth places of industry, fired by charcoal from local wood.  Where you do find woods in rural areas, they were there because they provided a vital agricultural product.  For example, you get hazel coppice woods in Hampshire, highly valued in the past to provide hazel hurdles to make sheep pens.  Being truly ancient, it is unlikely that any of these woods were planted.

Hence you get a quandary – woodland is conserved, not where it was most often planted, but where it was most often cut down!  A long history of cutting in woodland reflects a long history of use of woodland products, not a history of destruction.  The Forestry Commission have long recognised that woods are most likely to survive when they are managed to provide the woodland products that are wanted.  If not managed and their products not wanted, the woods get cleared.

Understandably, people are keen to expand tree cover by planting, or regenerating woodland.  However, perhaps the best way to conserve woods is to demand products made of wood.  When these products are used to make long-lasting, high quality products (like finely crafted furniture and in modern architecture) then the carbon that has been captured by the tree is locked-up in that product for decades (perhaps centuries), contributing to combating climate change.  Thus, the best way to conserve woodland is to encourage the chopping down of trees!

The old maxim “save a tree, buy PVC” could not be further from the truth!  Society needs a “wood culture”, a culture where the first choice in any product is wood – preferably in long-lasting, high quality items.  This is not just for antiquated trinkets (three legged stools and sheep pens!) but in high class, long lasting contemporary use of wood such as in modern buildings.

The current push for tree planting needs to be matched by a demand for products made from wood.

The story, however, cannot end there.  Woodland management can conserve woods and enhance their ecology; it can also be extremely destructive.  Checks and balances are needed to ensure management is sensitive and sustainable.  England does have a long history of sustainable woodland management, and modern regulations should maintain this.  But I’m not sure we have the political will, or that the authorities (like Forestry Commission) have the resources to ensure that management remains sustainable.

Finally, the way we value woods now, and in the future, may be different to how they were valued in the past.  Modern approaches show that other outputs can be far more valuable than traditional forestry products.  For instance, the best woods for locking up carbon are often the “old growth” woods, which are largely unmanaged.  These are rare and precious, so we need to protect, expand and appreciate them.  Forest re-creation to reduce flood risk is also a modern high-value purpose for trees.  And “green lungs” in and around urban centres consisting of new trees can provide huge recreation, health, wellbeing and community values. 

In short – trees need a purpose, maybe to lock up carbon, to reduce flood risk and as a green lung for urban areas.  But often for trees to achieve their purpose they might need to be cut down! 

You are more likely to conserve British woodland by buying a finely crafted oak table than you are by planting a tree!

1 comment:

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