Many articles published in the mainstream media over the past few years have spoken of the urgent need to plant more trees in the UK. Earlier this year a report by Helen Harwatt & Matthew Hayek, ‘Eating Away at Climate Change With Negative Emissions’, was published. It recommended that “Restoring agricultural land currently used for farmed animals back to native forest would contribute substantially to aligning UK GHGs [Green House Gases] with the Paris Agreement …”
More recently a former sheep & cattle farm, Doddington North, in Northumberland has been in the press as this upland farm is being converted to woodland – some 350 hectares of land is being planted with 680,000 trees. This project will be a mixture of commercial forestry, along with broad-leaved woodland and open grassland which provide mixed habitats for a wide range of species.
This will be a planted woodland, and yet Edward Milbank of Pennine Forestry, which is overseeing the project, says – “When you disturb the soil, it becomes a wood very quickly. But the Forestry Commission forced us to put in Scots pine as well. The entire area could be birch without spending a penny, but you have to be seen to be doing something to justify the [planting grants].”
What we need to do is to move away from planting trees, and enable more natural regeneration. Making space for natural processes will result in a more natural mix of species, a mixture of habitats, including open spaces where trees have not self-seeded, and importantly there will be a varied age structure – which will create a much richer and more dynamic ecosystem.
The birch tree, mentioned by Edward Milbank, is known as a pioneer and a nursery tree. It produces large quantities of light seed which is carried on the wind, and will self-seed in a wide range of situations, as a pioneer it is generally the first tree to take hold when natural regeneration is taking place. It then performs its ‘nursery’ function, as it looks after other trees which come later. Birch leaves are not very palatable to browsing animals, including deer, and this enables oaks and other trees to seed and grow up within the protection of groups of birch trees. The acorns from which the oak trees grow, are often planted by squirrels and jays – all playing their part in maintaining and sustaining a natural ecosystem.
The desire that we as humans have to ‘manage’ and to ‘control’ nature and land means that we have a real difficulty in letting nature take its course and allowing natural regeneration to take place. We need to make space for natural processes – even if it means that the outcomes are different to what we want or expect. Or that, for example, the woodland takes longer to establish.
More flexible funding schemes to help landowners and managers to make space and time for natural processes, need to become available if we are serious about creating a sustainable and resilient countryside for all.