Guest blog – Woodland Musing 2 by Louise Bacon

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.

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13 Replies to “Guest blog – Woodland Musing 2 by Louise Bacon”

  1. I really dislike tubing and staking trees too, plus where it's done they usually put in as many trees as possible so in a few years you have an extremely spindly gloomy and pretty wildlife free thicket now containing loads of hard to get out disintegrating plastic tubes. Fewer trees of a wider range of native species plus native shrubs, climbers (including ivy), plugs/seeds of ground flora and bringing in dead wood would be an infinitely better thing for conservation and environmental education than the uninspired plantings we've had for decades now. I would love to experiment with cut gorse or hawthorn brash placed around young trees to see how good it would be at inhibiting herbivores instead of using plastic tubes.

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    1. Hi Les,

      the spiky stuff is probably worth a shot where the hebrivore pressure isnt TOO high, or too tall! A low-level of small deer or lagomorph and youg trees would probably get away.. butif there are Red, Sika or Fallow then you'd need apile 6 or 7 ft high to prevent them being constantly browsed off at the top of the spiky deterent height.

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      1. Cheers - where I work the issue is largely rabbit or maybe grey squirrels. I think thorny brash pegged down quite tightly around whips could deter rabbits if not voles. With deer incorporating planted trees in a reasonably high, but also wider layer of spiky brash might work too. If we go for a lower density tree planting registered regime then going to this bit of extra trouble and having enough appropriate brash it might be more feasible. I hate having to use plastic tubes, quite often 'weeds' find them a mini greenhouse and out compete the tree from within and if the trees survive I feel they're not quite right. Vandals also home in on them. I've put up deer fencing and it's bloody horrendous, and of course if it gets breached years of tree growth can be lost as happened at one Trees for Life project. We really need to be culling more deer and bringing back the lynx.

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        1. Fences get knocked over in woods, too... both the ones put up around our coppice have been damaged by a piece of fallign tree within the first growing season and have to be fixed....and the only use I have found for the plastic tubes was linnet nest sites in the early years of a newbuild settlement with woodland plantings on some of the newly -built hill (yes we have to build hills in Cambs from the lake spoil). Linnets loved them... until it all scrubbed over. Those tubed trees are somewhere within a large expanse of bramble with trees poking outof it and obviously way better for linnets........

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  2. Louise - what an absolutely brilliant blog, thank you so much. Greatly insightful and well informed by practical experience. You don't fancy having a go at being Prime Minister do you? I mean seriously. The opening line of your second paragraph should be absolutely front and centre of all thinking about he future of trees and woodland, yet shockingly and mysteriously seems all too often to be ignored.

    One other point is that as well as the human effort involved in planting schemes is the energy used to put them there - which is set against planting as a supposed response to the climate emergency. Even bringing locally sourced seedlings in will you imagine involve some burning of fossil fuels. When ash dieback was first reported in 2012 we heard of practices in the nursery trade such as exporting saplings for growing on and then importing them back, thus many seedlings will have a considerable carbon footprint at the point they're put in the ground. Is it worth it? Without sustained intervention many of the planted trees, once the initial investment in time and money has gone, will likely die. As Rackham and others remind us anything planted will always be at a competitive disadvantage to anything already growing on a site - look at the failure of many conifer plantations in the late twentieth century.

    Thank you again for sharing these wise words and starting 2020 on a positive note - happy new year!

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    1. There was actually a sensible 15 miutes on the subject on radio 4 last Friday in the Farming Today slot (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000cnj1)
      Oliver Rackham was an acquantaince of mine, and I think of him every february as I was with him in a local wood only a couple of days before he died, and adjacent to that ancient woodland was a recent planting, a topic on which he had very greatopinion...I try and carry his flame onwards to a more sensible approach to re-woodlanding the countryside.

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  3. Louise, this is another good, thought-provoking post. I have also been thinking about tree-planting (https://ecoworrier133969581.wordpress.com/2019/12/02/dear-john/) and ended up concluding that the first thing we should do is protect and enhance what we already have.

    I wonder if there is an opportunity to encourage people to sponsor woods. We were looking at a scrap of woodland yesterday that is almost impossible to access but looked like it contained a decent range of species.

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  4. Thanks, Louise, for this interesting post – in particular the highlighting of the puzzling slowness of birch regeneration.
    Is alder slow too? Why are so many gullied, relatively inaccessible, upland streams bare of it? Moreover, why aren’t even the steepest of crags supporting, at the very least, a sparse, stunted growth of birch? (By the way, Common Alder is quite capable of growing in well drained ground. It should be included in many planting programmes because of its nitrogen fixing ability and ecological value.)
    Has anyone ever piloted the idea of collecting locally sourced birch, alder seeds (and local seeds from other pioneer trees) and mixing them with, for example, chicken pellet manure and scattering this from the top of a steep bare glen? It’s worth trying and experimenting using different pelleting agents. If successful, imagine the eventual possibility of mass seeding programmes where treeless ravines are bombarded from the air. The resulting woodlands may be good and ready to colonise the rest of the bare valleys by 2030 – by which time surely we will have come to our senses and negated most of the pernicious grazing pressures in the highlands.
    We need to think big and fast and out of the box on this treeless problem.

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    1. I was unaware of the birch problem until I spent a week volunteering with my Cambridge friends at Abernethy RSPB this October.. one of our tasks for an afternoon was to collect birch seed from a small area of the reserve where they do well to take back to their base to rear and to be used for re-populating those parts of the Abernethy area where tree regen was going OK but apparently with no birch. The RSPB staff had noticed this, but I dont think any of us were aware of this before - it may, of course be a localised issue........I have spent ages pulling out birch saplings in other areas where they do seem to develop easily. Maybe there is a case for sort of 'seedball' approach for a variety of native tree seeds fine tuned to regen issues in your specific site, obviously in our new, herbivore-diminished world where getting them to grow has no barrier there.... I guess it could easily be other species not generating well in other parts of our uplands/lowlands, but until we can reduce the grazing and other pressures I guess we cannot start to study how different trees regenerate.

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  5. Louise
    An interesting blog. I would make a few points regarding tree-planting from my perspective at the Woodland Trust.
    Unsurprisingly, as the UKs largest woodland nature conservation charity - we are interested in seeing more trees in the ground - by planting, and by natural regeneration. We work on a protect, restore and create model - which, as Mike mentioned, looks to protect what we have; restore woodlands that have been degraded; and create new. You pick up the issue of tree protection and the challenges any of us wanting to see good establishment at a scale commensurate with what woodland cover in the UK should be (rather than its paltry 13%) face. I was unclear from the blog was whether your view on plastic tubes versus fencing was aesthetic or the plastic? We are actively looking at truly biodegradable versions (namely not simply breaking into smaller, more mobile pieces). Are these more acceptable in the landscape? We are also planting the UK's first Young People's Forest (250,000 trees) without any plastic - we like others are interested to see how successful it will be.
    The comments also mentioned the practice of nurseries sending saplings abroad to be grown on, and then returned. We operate a scheme called UK & Ireland Sourced & Grown - which does exactly what it says on the tag. 25 nurseries from across the UK are growing millions of saplings - and everyone 1 of the 3.5-4 million trees a year we send to schools, local communities, farms etc are from this scheme. We believe public procurement and other organisations 'planting' trees should help the UK nursery sector by insisting on this accreditation. And we as supporters - via our membership fees and our taxes should insist that we don't risk importing biosecurity risks from pests and diseases that threaten our existing woodlands/trees. It is a key element of the 'protect' activity. The cost of clearing rhododendron or tackling ash dieback is huge. We shouldn't increase this even if pursuing the right course of action.
    And finally, often forgotten - though not in your blog - but worthy of amplification. The value of the tree planting to the tree PLANTER and the conservation cause. The very act of doing so can connect a child, an adult, a family with nature for a lifetime or even across generations. Nature needs all the friends it can get, so I would argue that there are few better actions that people can take in a climate and nature crisis - that make that connection and puts in place something whose contribution to society will increase year-on-year, and do so for decades.
    [And as Mark will know - I quite like linnets - so always keen to see them have more nesting opportunities!]

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  6. I only have anissue with tree planting not being in the right place/right time..... and as long as the maintenance and tube removal is factored in, until we get a reduction in herbivores it is something we will have to put up with, degradable plastic or otherwise. I think some of the comentators have stronger opinions than me.
    Personally, my priority wuold be a co-ordinated and useful reduction in deer and squirrel, followed by appropriate community engagement with woodland regeneration appropriately situated.

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  7. " pulling out Beech, a particularly west coast invasive"I was going to ask you to elaborate but googled it instead. and found this study from Stirling uni in 2017
    https://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/beech-trees-are-native-to-scotland-scientists-find-1-4493817

    " “The beech tree has been experiencing an identity crisis in Scotland. Evidence shows that the European beech was mainly confined to the south-east of England after the last Ice Age."
    “The beech tree has been planted in Scotland in the past but the planting was from native British stock and, although humans have speeded its northward spread, it would have naturally spread up the length of the country regardless."
    I don't think the Scotsmans title is quite right but itis an interesting example to consider regarding how we are going to respond in the face the changes coming with climate change. (& how it fits with "rewilding")

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    1. I think its quite a localised problem around the Taynish NNR and Glasdrum NNR in Argyll.... the Oak/Hazel woodlands have a beech issue as well s a Rhododendron one........Keeping it in check, I guess in those 2 specific areas for a while at least.

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