Blog - fire
Fire in the woods
Last weekend, we visited our woodland for the first time since officially completing. Although it’s May and the forecast had promised sunshine, the day dawned cold and gloomy. Undaunted, we packed up the car for the 45-minute journey and rolled into Lamberhurst around half nine in the morning. Our biggest fear was that we would have missed the bluebell peak entirely during all the wrangling over conveyancing across two counties (the boundaries between Kent and Sussex neatly bisect our wood). But we needn’t have worried – as we drove down the shared track to our new purchase, the entire woodland was a sea of blue punctuated with hard fern and last year’s brambles. It was almost painful crushing them under our boots as we made our way from the car to the central clearing, but it couldn’t be helped. Although some animals had left faint traces here and there, it only took one or two passes back and forth for us to create a blatantly visible path – I felt like a big, brutish human, moulding the land irrevocably. I hoped that our footprint would not ever be heavier than that. The seasonal creeks were full and rushing after so much recent rain. For us, having running water was one of the non-negotiable criteria for our purchase. Owning a woodland has long been our dream, but it was only recently made possible due to the inheritance of my late father, the man who taught me how to love camping and being outdoors. But these ancient English woodlands were nothing like what I grew up with in America; there is something magical about the stillness in that sea of unearthly blue. I am certain that my father would approve – though as a keen fly fisherman, he would be disappointed to learn that the creeks dry up in the heat of summer and no trout could survive there. The first thing we did was to dig out a large firepit and ring it with stones we’d brought from home. Everything was quite damp, but our son, aged nine and an enthusiastic Cub Scout, helped us to coax a blaze from his ferro rod, and sawed his first logs. The warmth was welcome, and we used our Storm Kettle (a kind gift from Ruth at woodlands.co.uk) to make hot chocolate. A pair of fallow deer – clearly surprised to see us – bolted past, and the canopy was full of birdsong. I didn’t want to leave when other chores and obligations eventually called us away – the sun had come out, making the bluebells glow, and there was no place I’d rather be. Our next step is to build a compostable toilet so that we can camp overnight. We’ll let you know how that goes!
Parts of a tree (1): The Bark.
Bark exists to protect a tree from ‘attack’ by the elements, pests, ‘predators’ (animals who would eat it) and disease causing organisms. There is no easy definition of what constitutes bark, a slightly technical definition might be ‘the tissues that lie outside the vascular cambium'. The vascular cambium is a layer of dividing cells that gives rise to xylem tissue and phloem tissue. The cells nearer the centre form the xylem, those towards the outside form the phloem. The inner part of the bark contains various types of living cells, for example, glands that produce latex (as in natural rubber), oils and resins. Moving outwards, there lies the rhytidome or outer bark, an amalgam of living and dead material - notably cork cells. The cork cells fill with a waxy material - Suberin. Eventually, these cells die and form much of the bulk of the bark. The nature of bark is immensely variable. Wind, fire and frost can seriously damage or kill trees but bark helps to protect them. Trees are eminently combustible as is evidenced by the recent forest fires in Australia and California. However, some trees have a very thick bark that can protect them against fire. The cork oak has a bark that can be up to 30 cm thick, it is so thick that it can be harvested periodically without killing the trees. Cork oak is grown extensively in the mediterranean region. Giant Redwoods too are noted for having an extremely thick bark. Their bark is very fibrous and can be up to three feet thick, it offers protection against fire (and rock fall which is also a hazard in their home habitat). In contrast to cork oak and redwoods, some trees like the eucalypts have a bark that is rich in oils and very flammable. The bark also ‘peels’, strips are shed onto the forest floor. There are many species of Eucalyptus and several different types of bark are recognised. [caption id="attachment_35352" align="alignleft" width="300"] Woodland recovering from a fire[/caption] If and when this oil rich bark builds up on the forest floor, it will contribute significantly to the intensity and ferocity of any fire. Indeed, it has been likened to adding petrol to a fire ’3 centimetres of leaf litter can cause a conflagration equivalent to one fuelled by a centimetre of refined gasoline’. The leaves are also rich in oil so the crowns of the trees can also contribute to / exacerbate any fire. The peeling or exfoliation of bark is not restricted to Eucalypts, it can be seen in trees much closer to home - such as the birch. Its bark can be removed in long strips and has been used in covering a canoe or roofing material. Whilst bark can protect against fire, it can also deter animals - large or small from inflicting damage. For example, there is an African species of Acacia known as knobthorn that has a bark covered with thorn-like structures. These 'thorns' deter elephants from eating the bark. Elephants can consume a lot of vegetation in a day and tree bark is much favoured. A variety of animals may feed on bark material, for example deer, squirrels, and beavers, but the list could also include orang-utans, rhinos, bush babies and porcupines. North American porcupines use their large front teeth to eat bark and stems. Bushbabies generally feed on insects during the wet seasons, but during drought / dry periods - they feed on the resins / gum that flows from the trees in their woodlands. In the UK, a lot of bark damage is done by deer, especially during the winter months when other food sources are limited. In the summer months, male deer rub their heads / antlers against the trunks of trees - inflicting damage. Such activity can prevent regeneration in natural woodlands. Tree guards may be needed to allow young trees to establish themselves (or fencing to create a ‘deer free’ zone). Guards also protect against rabbit damage. Grey squirrels can also cause damage to trees as they gnaw stems to reach the ‘sweet’, sap-filled tissues just below the bark, this activity is usually seen in late Spring and early Summer. [caption id="attachment_5312" align="alignleft" width="300"] xylem vessels[/caption] Whilst bark is broadly protective, it can also offer a home to certain pests. Bark beetles lay their eggs below the bark so that when the larvae hatch, they can feed on the nutrient rich tissue of the cambium and phloem. Bark beetles have been responsible for the loss of millions of trees in the United States and Canada. The scale of the loss is much greater than in the past, when cycles of beetle infestation and fire created a mosaic across the countryside of young and old trees. Ageing stands of trees coupled with warmer winters (which have helped the overwintering stage of the insect) have contributed to the spread of bark beetles. The beetles breed and feed beneath the bark, damaging the phloem and cambium tissue. Consequently, the tree's transport systems begin to fail and the beetles may also introduce disease-causing fungi and bacteria. To a certain extent, trees are able to repair damage to their bark but the response is varied according to the nature of the damage and the tree involved. Some trees can produce ‘callus tissue’ that heals over the ‘wound’, leaving a scar. Some trees, such as the pines, produce resins and antimicrobial compounds in response to injury. This sticky resin may trap insect invaders as is witnessed by those trapped in time capsules of amber. Apart from bark beetles, other animals and plants live in or on bark in a variety of associations, some parasitic as is the case with fungi (like the polypores), whilst lichens and mosses are epiphytes. They use the bark as a substrate on which to live, grabbing nutrients and water from rainwater as it trickles down. The many uses of bark tissue can be left for another woodlands post. [caption id="attachment_39940" align="aligncenter" width="620"] Section through bark[/caption]
Changing forests and woodlands.
For millions of years, forests and woodlands have been changing - as a result of natural regeneration, storms, fires and climate change. However, with the expansion of human populations, woodlands and forests have been cut down to make way for towns, cities and the infra-structure of ‘modern’ life. Sadly forests, and woodlands such as those in the path of HS2, are still disappearing. ‘Untouched’ rain / tropical forest is being cut down to make way for cash crops; plus vast wooded areas have been destroyed by fire in Australia, Sweden and on the West Coast of the United States in recent years. Clearfell of any forested area for timber or agriculture involves the removal of all trees / vegetation and is sometimes followed by burning of the remaining debris. Clearfell can also have unintended consequences (beyond the loss of entire animal communities. An Australian study has shown that it lowers soil nutrient levels - notably nitrate and phosphate. Furthermore, the use of heavy machinery in clearfelling can compact the soil and its consequent exposure to the elements can lead to erosion (rain runoff). When an area is subject to intense fire, there is a drop in the organic carbon content of the soil and structural damage to the soil; it can take many years for such fire-damaged soil to ‘recover’. Forests and woodlands support the vast majority of land-based species. However, the species that we see today on a woodland walk may be different to those our ancestors might have seen five hundred or a thousand years ago. Certain species only survive in relatively undisturbed (and ancient) forests / woodlands. There are species that can ‘deal’ with disturbance and are adaptable, indeed opportunitistic, such as red deer and fox. The same can be said for certain plants species, which can become invasive. Changes in species make-up and biodiversity do not always immediately follow loss of forest or woodland. Generally speaking, the longer the life span of a species then the longer for the effects of forest loss to become apparent. It may be that the effects ‘span’ generations, raptors / birds of prey may manage to raise their young in the immediate period following loss of forest or woodland. But their offspring may struggle to survive in a depleted environment. It might be that with limited resources an animal might simply not reproduce for years, if ever again. Consequently, the impact of forest destruction / loss that species depletion might not be apparent for many years. The loss of forests and woodlands has lead to many local, national and inter-national initiatives to offset these losses: for example, New Zealand’s ‘One Billion Trees” project and the Nature Conservancy’s “plant a billion trees’ campaign. Broadly speaking, reforestation involves the planting of native trees in an area, whereas planting with new (non-native) species is afforestation. Recent research suggests that whilst non-native plants often grow faster than native species, they also have less dense tissues (think: oak versus larch) and decompose more readily, which can contribute to more rapid cycling of carbon. This will not help to mitigate climate change. It is also important to consider which trees might prosper and offer resilience in the light of climate change. Our climate is changing and will be different in the future, with summer temperatures being higher. We have already seen more extreme weather events (leading to flooding and wild fires). Forestry England has a number of tools to help plan which tree species will be suited to a site, now and in future. There is ESC4 which offers a means to help forest managers and planners select tree species that are ecologically suited to particular sites; and there is also the climate matching tool. As Forestry England says this is “so that we can see which places in the world currently experience the climate we are projected to have in future. We can compare these different places to help us plan which tree species will be suited to a site, now and in future”. One strategy is to create woodlands that are more diverse, as it thought that diversity helps woods more resilient to climate change. This can be through encouraging a range of different, but carefully selected trees to grow, and being aware of the provenance of seeds or saplings.
Woodlands web updates : 13
Wetlands. In the past, many areas of wetlands have been drained and ‘dried out’. Now it is recognised that this is counter-productive in terms of carbon storage / sequestration and biodiversity, so there are now measures to restore wetlands. The hope has been that restoration of wetlands will do much to restore the variety of plants and animals (and help carbon storage). However, research by the University of Copenhagen suggests that such projects might be ‘struggling’. The study examined ten wetlands (near the River Odense) that were restored between 2001 and 2011. The restoration involved the removal of drains and ditches, and allowed streams to meander again instead of flowing in ‘straight channels’. The aim of the project was primarily to reduce the leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus from adjacent farmlands, and hope to see greater diversity of plants (e.g. marsh orchids, globeflower, tussock-sedge and ragged-robin). The ‘restored’ wetlands were botanically poor (whether restored in 2001 or 2011), they had only a quarter of the plant species compared to natural wetlands. This may be due to the continued input of nutrients (from agriculture), which encourages species that are ‘nutrient hungry’ at the expense of others. the ‘difficulty’ of wetland species to disperse from one area to another. It may be that future restoration programs will need to include planting / seeding of additional wetland species. It has been suggested that it could take the best part of a hundred years for the restored wetlands to resemble natural wetlands. Redwoods and relatives. Previous posts have talked about the special features of the giant redwoods (their height, age etc). Over the last 150 years, they have ben subject to the pressures of commercial logging, clear felling and more recently high intensity fires. Indeed, the fires have been of such an intensity that seed banks in the soil have been destroyed. Now they have been subject to genomic analysis, that is their DNA has been analysed and sequenced. The first conifer genome to be sequenced was that of Norway Spruce, then that of loblolly pine. These suggested that conifer genomes are large (3 to 10 times larger than the human genome), with repetitive sequences. Coast Redwoods are hexaploid, that is, they ave six copies of each chromosome (we are diploid, that is, have only two copies of each chromosome). The DNA of a coast redwood has 27 billion base pairs of DNA, the giant sequoia has 8 billion; by contrast we have circa 3 billion. It is hoped that the Redwood Genome project will see the restoration of areas of coast redwood and giant sequoia that have been lost over the years. The genomic analysis will help inform and guide management strategies, ensuring genetic diversity in the newly planted tree seedlings. Such a strategy will (hopefully) enable newly planted areas to survive and thrive — in the Anthropocene. More on chromosomes Just as it has recently been shown that Coast redwoods are polyploids (i.e. have extra sets of chromosomes), so recent research in the Czech Republic has shown that the common nettle [Urtica dioica] has different ecological ‘preferences’ depending on its chromosomal status. Nettles can be diploid (2n = 26) or tetraploid (2n = 52). The tetraploid nettles seemingly have a broader ecological tolerance and a wide geographical distribution, whilst the diploid nettles occur in a narrower range of ecological conditions. Details of this research can be accessed here (note link opens a PDF) and Plants for a future has lots of information on nettles.
Barking up the wrong tree?
In their natural environment, giant sequoias are to be found only in a high and narrow area on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Like, bristlecones, giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are a long lived species - their life span can be 3000 years. However, their most spectacular feature is their sheer size - they can reach heights of 300 feet with a trunk that may be 20 feet or more in diameter. Indeed, the world’s largest tree (by volume) is General Sherman - a sequoia estimated to have a volume in excess of 52000 cubic feet. The trees are not only long lived but ‘tough’. They have protection against fire and rock fall, both of which are hazards in their home habitat. Protection is afforded by their bark, which is very fibrous and can be up to 3 feet thick. Read more...
Leaf fall and litter.
The autumnal fall of leaves in deciduous trees is a well recognised event; their changing colours prior to being shed often make for spectacular displays - the New England Fall. Evergreens (with certain exceptions) do not undergo a similar loss of leaves but that is not to say that their leaves are forever green or permanent. Indeed, each year, evergreens have a seasonal drop of their needle-shaped leaves, it is normal part of the tree’s cycle. The leaves / needles of conifers have varying life spans; they are not a ‘permanent fixture’. Many conifer needles will turn yellow then as they age, falling off the tree after one to several years. This change can be gradual or in some species quite rapid. White Pines (Pinus strobus) typically retain their leaves for 2 to 3 years, whereas Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) usually retain their needles for three years. Larches, which are conifers (Larix sp) are somewhat unusual in that they shed their leaves every autumn. The stress that a tree experiences through drought may result in more rapid browning and greater loss of leaves. Read more...
Earth, wind and fire – now rain and hail.
Australia has experienced some of the most dramatic effects of climate change - with the unprecedented burning of vast areas of its countryside (see previous blogs). Recently, the weather turned to another extreme - thunderstorms, hailstorms and rain. Large hailstones (the size of golf balls or bigger) have bombarded cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, damaging roofs, cars, trees, and infrastructure. Flash flooding has occurred in some places due to heavy rain, plus there have been high winds and dust storms. Whilst rain has been welcomed in that it has helped to ‘damp down’ some of the fires that have been raging, the intensity of the rain is not without problems in places. Heavy rainfall can result in further damage to ecosystems. Read more...
Europe’s threatened trees
Recently, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) carried out a survey of the state of trees through Europe, specifically related to their risk of extinction. There are some four hundred native tree species spread across Europe. Trees are not just essential for life on Earth (generating oxygen through photosynthesis) but they also provide food and habitats for hundreds of species - birds, mammals, insects, spiders etc. The loss of tree species has considerable ‘knock on’ effects in terms of the biodiversity of an area. Trees also provide us with timber and other materials (cork, cellulose, oils). Read more...