Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.
Tree planting has been higher in my thoughts than usual recently, with all the GB political parties providing numbers of trees they intend to plant.
As a volunteer in practical conservation land management for wildlife trusts etc., I have noticed that, without interference, trees are pretty good at growing themselves. Whether I have been cutting them down in managed ancient coppiced woodland to allow them to regrow, or cutting them down in a grassland setting because they are in the way, a lot of cutting down of trees or scrub has, and has to at present, go on. But that shows just how easily trees can grow themselves without being planted. I do now spend less time scrub-bashing, on grasslands. I do wonder if this is in part because their natural regeneration has been impeded by the rising population of deer such as Muntjac in our landscape and thus there is less need for scrub-removal to keep our small pockets of grassland open. Muntjac, and all deer species, love young tree growth, as do squirrels and Rabbits. And then there are sheep, and whilst sheep grazing is a problem in the uplands – we will return there later – it is possibly helping a little bit on small areas of grassland.
This has always made me a bit averse to tree-planting, why not just take that area of land and see what grows. Of course, the problem in the east of England and in much of the rest of southern England, is keeping deer and Rabbits out whilst this natural regeneration happens. It can be done, but it needs a 4m high fence, which doesn’t look that pretty. But, does it look any better than regiments of sticks and plastic tubes? I’m not sure. Both of these strategies need a significant input of human and physical resource – the fence or the protectors, the manpower to plant and tend trees. The grass around them might need cutting. But in that fenced area, maybe it’s better to just leave everything to grow and see what happens. This has been done in Cambridgeshire adjacent to an ancient woodland, and the results, slow to get going, are starting to show. However, even here, as part of the community involvement, tree-planting is organised. At least the trees are collected in the adjacent wood, so should be native and suited to the conditions, and no protecting tubes are needed for planting young trees if they have been taken off site to start them off.
Of course, tree-planting schemes will be a good thing because it gets people connected, it gets carbon sequestered and there will be jobs for those looking after the trees and the site, right? Well, the people needed might end up being volunteers, and the community will move on to the next thing pretty soon, and as long as they have a not-muddy path to walk the dog on then the wood can just be there…….I don’t want to think how much money and time would go into a project, when, maybe, it is easier to start thinking about the pressures on the natural regeneration of trees and commencing a herbivore cull. I doubt we will get to extermination, but a serious reduction in deer and Grey Squirrel numbers would aid the process of having more trees in the lowland landscape, and provide a regular supply of healthy, lean, red meat from the culled herbivores. The issues around making this acceptable to an increasingly urbanised population is something I will not go into here but is not going to be straightforward, either.
When not in my Cambridgeshire base, I tend to be in the hills, often in Scotland. I also volunteer up there for about a week a year, either with SNH in Argyll or with the RSPB in the Cairngorms, and additionally, a couple of weekends per year in Wales. This has been very insightful, and has increased my understanding of the lack of trees in the hills, and the grazing and land management issues faced there.
I have spent hours pulling up spruce from hillsides or bogs. I have spent hours pulling up Rhododendron, or digging out monster ones, from half way up rain-sodden hillsides, and pulling out Beech, a particularly west coast invasive. I have collected Birch seed, because it seems that in areas where regeneration is underway, Birch seems to lag behind the seeding powers of Pine, invasives and Rowan. But this is only worthwhile because here, there is in parts of the landscape, it’s on a different scale to fencing a small area next to a woodland to start the regeneration process. Large landowners are joining forces to reduce the number of deer, whilst still ensuring income streams, such as in Glen Feshie and the Cairngorms Connect project. The former state that they can reduce the deer numbers on their land by 90% and still keep the same income (quote from Rebirding by Ben McDonald). The number of trees on hillsides is increasing, but it seems that pine is getting in there faster than some of the other important species such as Birch – hence they need a helping hand.
Here, in our uplands, it’s a big investment of time to arrange for (usually) volunteers to walk for miles in a group back and forth over hillsides looking for a few spruce. But its worth it because in part it’s a special place but also, only worth it because the processes of regenerating wooded landscapes are underway with a reduction in the numbers of grazing herbivores, and a commitment at a landscape scale from multiple, adjacent landowners to do something about it. I see this as knowledge-based adjustment to enable a more diverse regeneration of a more wooded landscape.
This is such a sharp contrast to much of the woodland management work I have been involved with in eastern England, a landowner working in isolation on a few hectares to keep something obscure and rare clinging on. Or a community project feeling the need to plant some trees, because of climate change, or because of landscape and green-space aesthetics.
I would love to see a reduction in deer across the landscape, and livelihoods maintained, and it is of course still possible to have grazing livestock – low stocking densities of hardy cattle or pigs do perfectly well in a wooded landscape, and if there are not too many of them, new trees still grow. Maybe the way forward is a great day out walking in a wooded landscape followed by a hearty venison casserole across Britain.