26 Nov

Jez Ralph talks Forestry Futures in the Western Morning News

Director of Timber Strategies Jez Ralph also works for the DR Company as their Forestry Consultant. Writing in the Western Morning News last week he explored the importance of new tree planting for the UK, with a focus on ensuring the right trees are planted in the right place. The full article is below:

The Future of Forestry

Trees seem ubiquitous in our environment. Whether in deeply rural areas or in towns, trees are a key feature in virtually every panorama. It’s hard to believe that 100 years ago less than 5% of land was covered with trees; it’s even harder to believe that today still only 12% of land is tree covered. England is one of the least wooded countries in Europe … and one of the biggest consumers of wood.

Tree planting is once-again high on the agenda in government; in the recent budget an extra £50million was announced for new tree planting. Why is this? Why the fuss when we see trees every which way we turn? Well the lack of woodland in England is a big problem. It’s a big problem now and it’s an even bigger problem for future generations.

Trees provide a multitude of products and services to society, all of which we are increasingly going to rely on. In particular trees are the natural carbon sink. They sit, they photosynthesis, they absorb carbon, take it out of the atmosphere and store it. Whilst science investigates expensive ways to capture and store carbon, trees do it without us investing in much other than planting and nurturing them. And they do it incredibly efficiently.

The stored carbon we then use in the form of timber for buildings or furniture where it locks up the carbon for as long as the building exists or we use it to create renewable energy. Unlike other carbon-based sources of heat and energy we can carry on growing our fuel whilst also using it.

But it isn’t just about using the trees we grow. Trees in the ground provide a rich habitat for important biodiversity; they help provide cleaner water, prevent soil erosion and provide a place for health and leisure activities. Perhaps most importantly, in a mixed land-use system, they contribute to the healthy soils which will allow future generations to have a rural economy as rich as ours.

The problem is there just aren’t enough trees in the ground to achieve all of this. Because of this the DR Company has been working with Timber Strategies to look at how more woodland can be created. The work has shied away from broad policy or pronouncements of how good more trees would be but has concentrated on the nuts and bolts of tree planting. How much does it cost to put trees in the ground, how long to first income, what sort of returns are available per hectare per year are the kinds of questions being asked.

Gone are the days of the simple choice of conifer or broadleaf planting. More complex and resilient systems can now be joined up to create a matrix of planting for landowners. This includes the standard aims of producing high-forest but also faster, shorter systems of forestry that can give returns in 15 years as well as agroforestry systems, once the preserve of a small niche but now becoming a more broadly accepted and respected land use.

These new plantings, most of all, must be resilient in a time of change; changes in climate, changes in economics, changes in rural populations. All modelled, all unknown. With these changes comes increasing risk of disease, of storm damage, of market downturns, a risk of a lack of young entrants to work the future forests. The forests we plant now have to be adaptable to cope with these pressures but also hold the promise of being a rich future source of products and services for landowners.

The future forests that we plant now are likely to be much richer places. More varied species in more age-classes will protect owners from storm damage and give more extensive market options and protect against single-species disease devastating whole areas. This diversity will lead to a richer range of habitats that in turn will lead to a richer soil environment underneath. Forests will become more exciting, more dynamic and more diverse places to visit.

We will need to be open minded about these new plantings. Some will include what we term “native” species; some will be “native” but seed sourced from more southerly areas that replicate what we think our climate will be like in 50 years. But in a new and changing climate, do we even know what “native” means? Perhaps we should consider what species grow well and contribute to a rich biodiverse forest, not whether it was here in a different climate a thousand years ago. Much new planting will be species that are not yet common in the landscape, but that we expect to grow well in future climate models and expect to give a good return in products and services. New species and new models of planting such as agroforestry and short rotation crops will lead to a change in how the landscape looks.

In writing this I see the fear in farmers eyes of a wave of tree planting swallowing up good agricultural land but this is far from the case. Plenty of areas of marginal land exist where trees can grow well in poor conditions, where their planting can be an asset to the land-owner enhancing the productive cycle rather than impeding it. It is this balance of whole-farm and whole-landscape values that we must achieve.

By Jez Ralph
Forestry Consultant for The DR Company,
Director of Timber Strategies