Blog - biodiversity

conifer woodland

Creating diverse woodlands and forests

by blogs at woodlands, 14 December, 2021, 2 comments

We know that forests are important to all life on the planet.  They have often been referred to as the ‘lungs of the earth’, a reference to the fact that they produce vast quantities of oxygen - which is essential for respiration for so many forms of life.  They also take up carbon dioxide and ‘fix’ it into complex organic molecules - from starches, to cellulose and lignin.  Thus, the carbon is locked away for months, years or even millennia.  The equatorial forests of Brazil and Sumatra are species rich, incredibly diverse, but deforestation and the expansion of agriculture are threats to many biodiverse, forested areas across the world. As so many forests and woodlands have been felled, there is now a movement to plant millions and millions of trees (across the world) in an attempt to mitigate climate change and in the UK to increase our percentage tree cover from a pretty low base.  Sadly, twentieth century forestry in the U.K was largely based on monocultures (for timber production). The trees planted were large stands or plantations of conifers - using Scots Pine, Larch and Spruce. These plantations not only lacked biodiversity, but were / are susceptible to wide scale pest infestation and extreme weather events.   Woodlands and forests that have a diverse range of tree species are not only healthier but show greater growth and carbon fixation. They are more resilient.  The diversity of trees ensures the each species accesses slightly different resources from the environment  - from soil minerals, water and light.  Diversity means that trees of the same species are less likely to be clustered together so pest and pathogen outbreaks are less common or less severe.  One area that has undergone an extensive and diverse planting regime is Norbury Park Estate (near Stafford).  Since 2009, over 100 different tree species have been planted, and the woodlands can now produce 1500 tonnes of new wood each year, and harvest 5000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air.  Not only can diverse woodlands / forests fix carbon, supply harvestable timber but they also offer areas for rest and relaxation. Whilst it is not possible to plant an 'instant' forest or woodland, it is possible to plant a range of tree and shrub species that will in time grow and mature to form a diverse and species-rich area.  As Charles Darwin said many years ago “more living beings can be supported on the same area the more they diverge in structure, habits, and constitution” [On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, 1859] Managing woodlands for wildlife - see here.   N.B.  Opens a PDF.    
Woodland and forest cover

Woodland and forest cover

by blogs at woodlands, 14 October, 2021, 0 comments

Compared to some of our European neighbours, it seems that our percentage woodland and forest cover is quite low at 13%; as was recently discussed on the BBC "More or less" programme.  Only Denmark and the Netherlands have similar low levels of cover.  Finland, on the other hand, has almost three quarters of its surface area covered with trees. After the end of the last ice age, trees gradually recolonised the exposed landscape so that vast swathes of the U.K. were covered with woodland/forest - the wildwood. It might be thought that our current low figure is due to increased urbanisation, road/motorway construction etc. In fact, the tree cover is remarkably similar to that at the end of the first millennium CE. More trees were ‘lost’ in succeeding centuries with the expansion of farming, and trees were harvested for boat building and house construction.   The Mary Rose was built using oak and elm. It was the first big ship of the Tudor naval fleet.  It has been estimated that over 600 trees were needed for its construction; that is equivalent to about 16 hectares of forest/woodland. Wood was also used to produce charcoal, which was used to smelt metals, particularly iron.  The history of charcoal burners in the New Forest is well documented. Many woodlands / forests were the preserve of the landed gentry and the aristocracy and reserved for deer hunting.  Anyone caught killing deer or boar from such woodlands could suffer terrible punishments but would more likely be fined.. Woodland and forest continued to be depleted so that by the end of the seventeenth century, the percentage cover had fallen to 8%. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the figure stood at a pitiful 5.2%.  The Asquith administration in 1916 established a committee to report on the country’s woodlands and timber supplies.  This lead to the setting up of the Forestry Commission which was not just concerned with established ‘strategic reserves of timber’ but also trying to create viable communities in marginal areas. Through its efforts over the succeeding decades, the U.K’s area of woodland and forest has increased significantly - though the Forestry Commission’s heavy use of coniferous species (particularly in the 60’s and 70’s) has been criticised.  Coniferous woodland / plantations do not support such a wide range of plant and animal life as deciduous woodland.  However, their current emphasis on diversity (and recreational use) favours a much wider range of species, including broadleaved/deciduous trees and the development of a richer ground flora.

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