Save our forests

When the Romans first set foot in England they found a country that was virtually covered in trees. Apart from marshlands, which were subsequently drained, and grassy chalk down lands, forests were the prime feature of the English countryside. Today if you travel from London to the north along the M1 motorway it can be hard to imagine that great forests covered the countryside that you see today. By the time the Normans landed in 1066 the forest were still the predominant feature of the landscape. They were so large that outlaws could hide in them. The forests of England were deciduous woodlands, mainly oak.

Over the next millennium the forests were cut down for fuel, or to build ships or to clear land for farming. The landscape of England that you see today is a manicured man made landscape, not the natural historic landscape of the country, but familiarity with it makes us comfortable with it and few now yearn for a return to the forests of old.

In 1919, just after the Great War, the Forestry Commission was founded to replant and manage forests. In the main they opted to plant softwoods, mainly confers, which were usually evergreen conifers. They imported spruce fir and larch and planted them as crops to build mine props, fencing and posts, and for pulping.

In about 1984 the Forestry Commission sold off some of its forests and it now owns 18% of the British forests. Most of what it owns is planted with trees that are not native and usually unsympathetically planted in straight rows. A forest of hybrid larch (a deciduous conifer) does not support anything like the natural wildlife that the traditional broad leaf forests supported. Confers make the forest soils acidic and it is difficult to replant them with traditional oak – difficult but not impossible.

Today the government proposes another sale of woodlands, and this is causing some controversy. It is possible that the Forestry Commission may be sold, with safeguards to protect the biodiversity. The sale will raise some money, but not enough to make much of an impact on the country’s deficit. A new owner of the Forestry Commission or new owners would look to produce income from forests, either by applying for development permission or buy cropping the products for the pulp and biomass industries. The government has stated that it hopes the sale will encourage the biomass industry by releasing large amounts of wood pellets from the trees, which could be sold.

Very few forests are managed today. Most owners of woodlands find that the system of licensing for felling trees and the lack of an easy access to market for the wood make the returns modest. New owners would inevitably seek to manage the woodlands in such a way as to provide an income, not necessarily by the wholes cropping and replanting of woods but by the partial cropping and replanting of them.

Forests help the environment and in doing so they help humanity. They act as small air conditioners, cleaning and cooling the air. They sequestrate carbon from the air and if left in their natural state have much of the carbon they sequestrate leach into the soil or preserve in wood of the trees. Many traditional forests have a mulchy floor covered with generations of leaves, quietly turning into peat, and as old trees die some of the carbon they have store is over the decades sent back into the air. New trees grow and new growth preserves the carbon equilibrium.

Forests also help keep watercourses honest; if you drop them you may find that water from heavy rainfall, which always looks for the easiest route downhill, becomes more likely to flood instead of being soaked up by the trees.

I am concerned about the proposed sell off for two reasons. The first reason is that indicated by the Woodlands Trust. The trust is campaigning to preserve ancient woodlands because they believe that

  • Ancient woods should be treated as a special case in the Forestry Commission’s sell-off plans.
  • Restoration of all the Forestry Commission should restore the damaged ancient woods (replanted with conifers)
  • The public should have access to ancient woodlands and the wildlife of ancient woodlands should be preserved.

They have launched an online petition which I have signed which you can sing up to at http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/campaigning/save-ancient-forests/Pages/fc-disposals-act-now.aspx?WT.mc_id=fc

The second reason that causes me great concern is that the forests sold may be used by the biomass boiler industry which will convert trees to pellets for wood burning stoves. This process is sustainable in terms of the crop being renewable, but it will be a dirty renewable source of energy and may well accelerate climate change. Leaving the trees in situ will mean a balanced or a positive sequestration of carbon; wood pelletising the trees will mean that the trees’ store carbon will be rapidly released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate that, when you take into account waste, transportation and the like, that replanting cannot make up for.

While the government can control the preservation of ancient woodlands if the existing conifer woodlands are turned in fuel pellets we shall produce unnecessary emissions and probably affect the air quality, which in turn will damage human health.

Whoever owns the Forestry Commission is not, in my view, significant. What is significant is that we should encourage and reward tree planting and stop using biomass from wood pellets.

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