Posts Tagged ‘coppicing’

Fertility – Less or More?

June 22, 2012

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:

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I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.

Forests Revisited

April 22, 2011

I’ve been reading Marion Shoard’s excellent 1987 offering, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for Britain’s Countryside, and thought I would share a few passages that particularly struck me as part of a broader effort to find out where I stand on the issue of preserving and/or expanding woodland cover on the British Isles and, presuming the desirability of this outcome, how best to go about this. I’m not sure how much of the information she provides applies directly to the present situation (for example, I get the impression the Forestry Commission isn’t as keen on pine plantations now as she makes out they were back then) but the analysis still seems largely relevant and, for me, it provided a useful and interesting historical perspective on how these issues have developed over the decades.

After criticising 38 Degrees for their lack of ‘nuance’, it seems my plea of basically indiscriminate expansion of forest cover (as I put it to the local MP: ‘It seems insane to allow +any+ possibility of renewed impoverishment in this regard’ – ibid.) failed to take longstanding politics of land ownership into account. I was surprised and chastened to read Shoard’s description of afforestation as a disaster for both human and non-human communities, at least the way it has been carried out over the past century. It didn’t occur to me that my entirely reasonable desire to reverse the drastic deforestation of this land over the centuries and millennia might play further into the hands of those primarily responsible for the damage:

[I]f agriculture does at some stage in the future prove less profitable than it is now, landowners can be expected to switch their effort deftly into another sphere which will allow them to secure their age-old goals. One such sphere already suggests itself. This is forestry. Minister of Agriculture Michael Jopling prophesied in 1986, ‘If surplus agricultural production throughout the European Community is to be reduced – as it must – then I see forestry as offering perhaps the most promising alternative use for land which may no longer be required for agricultural production.’69 The NFU proposed in 1986 that one and a quarter million acres of farmland in England and Wales – 4.6 per cent of the total – should be turned over to forestry during a twenty-five year period through annual income supplements from the taxpayer of £50 million.70 At the same time, the organisations that lobby on behalf of forestry have been energetically considering the various forms which lowland forestry might take and calling for an array of new government grants to support it. For instance, farmers might sell some of their land to forestry companies. Or, they might retain ownership and shift production from crops to trees concentrated in plantations. Or, they could combine forestry with cash-cropping of cereals and livestock on the same establishment. If forestry does come to play a bigger role in the lowlands it will bring with it an array of implications for the rest of the community which upland Britain already knows all too well. (p.205)

[…]

Altogether, 90 square miles of the land of Great Britain, much of it bare moor and glen like Glen Ample, were afforested in the year ending 31 March 1986.71 Four per cent of this new planting consisted of broad-leafed trees; the remaining 96 per cent conifers. While the government agency for forestry, the Forestry Commission, carried out one fifth of the new planting, the private sector was responsible for the remaining eighty-one square miles of new planting. During the sixty years up to 1986, the planting of new forests in Britain proceeded at the average rate of about 41,000 acres a year; the result is new planting of around 2.7 million acres, the vast amount of it coniferous.72 And there is much, much more to come.

Imagine an area the size of Kent, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire combined: 3 million acres in all. This is the area that will be covered in new plantations by the middle of the next century if the plans of the Government and the Forestry Commission are fulfilled. In 1980, the Government gave an essentially open-ended commitment to the expansion of forestry. The then Secretary of State for Scotland and Forestry Minister, George Younger MP, told the House of Commons that new planting (as opposed to the restocking of existing forests) should continue at broadly the rate of the past quarter century, but with the private sector playing a greater part than hitherto.73 On this basis an extra 3 million acres of Britain’s land will be under forest by the year 2031. As no absolute limit has been set on the ultimate target area for planting, and as applications for grants from the private sector for new planting have essentially been given on demand, the figure could rise higher still. If past trends are anything to go by, the vast forest that will blanket most of Britain’s uplands by the middle of the next century will not have room for many broad-leafed trees. Britain’s foresters prefer to plant conifers because they grow quicker and provide faster returns than the traditional broad-leafed species of Britain like oak, beech, birch, hornbeam, ash, maple and lime. The species most often planted over the past half-century have been Norway and Sitka spruce, larch, Scots, Corsican and Lodgepole pine. Eighty-five per cent of the Commission’s own forests are conifer; and in 1986, more than 95 per cent of the area of private planting in Great Britain consisted of conifers. An appealing prospect for our grandchildren? Certainly an appealing financial prospect for the men, women and companies engaged in a mad scramble to afforest what remains of Britain’s wild country outside the food factories. (pp.207-9)

It might also lead to more ecological destruction and loss of biodiversity:

Apart from sharing a common reliance on photosynthesis, modern forestry has little to do with the ancient practice of harvesting naturally growing trees as they reach maturity. Like modern agriculture, modern forestry takes little more account of the natural environment than does an engineering factory on an industrial estate.

In the past, woodland was not cleared and replanted wholesale every few decades. Nature’s bounty was literally plucked from the forest. Foresters took advantage of the ability of trees to live for ever. Normally, they coppiced or pollarded trees, only occasionally felling them whole. This meant that the ground vegetation of the woods was never radically disturbed. The coppicing and pollarding actually increased the diversity of the wild plants and minibeasts of the woodland floor by letting in more light. What is more, since traditional woodland management relied on nature, it revolved around naturally-occurring tree species. In one area maple would dominate, in another lime, in others elm, hazel, oak, beech or ash, or, in the highest mountains of Scotland and Wales, Scots pine.

Modern forestry, by contrast, imposes its own environment. First, the trees of any existing deciduous wood are felled and the stumps bulldozed out or poisoned to prevent regeneration. The ground is then usually ploughed to a depth of eighteen to twenty-nine inches and the new crop, which is almost always a conifer species, planted. Herbicides suppress any plants that might compete with the saplings while fertilizers force the speed of tree growth to the maximum possible rate. The impact of all this on the ecosystem not only of what was once an upland hillside but also of what was once a deciduous wood is almost as devastating as if the land had been cleared to make way for a barley field or a motorway. (p.216)

To my credit, I did make the point in my original analysis that ‘we still have to ask what kind of woodland’ gets introduced through the process of afforestation. Be careful what you ask for… Shoard continues on the subject of ancient woodland:

Many of the woods that have been the subject of post-war coniferization have been not simply old-established deciduous woods but woods whose origins go back thousands of years to the time before Man himself appeared in Britain. They are the remnants of the post-Ice-Age forest cover – the ancient woodlands. One result of the gradual evolution of these woods over thousands of years is that the mixture of tree species varies even from one part of the wood to another. An expert on ancient woodlands Dr Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University explained the unique value of ancient woodlands to a Commons Committee in 1980:

Ancient woods are of value not only for their tree assemblages but also for their communities of herbaceous plants … In Eastern England more than fifty such species have been listed, including Primula elatior (the oxlip), Anemone nemorosa (the wood anemone), Euphorbia amygdaloides (wood spurge) and Carex pallescens (pale sedge), besides trees and shrubs such as Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime) and Crataegus laevigata (two-styled hawthorn). These are a characteristic and irreplaceable part of ancient woodland. Woods are part of our cultural history as well as of our native vegetation. A medieval wood, with its boundary bank and other earthworks, ancient coppice stools, and soil profiles and landforms undisturbed by cultivation, is a record of our environment and civilization as complex and as irreplaceable as a medieval church.79

Leicestershire and Pembrokeshire, Lincolnshire and Gwynedd, Somerset, Clywd and Cornwall – all these counties share the tragic distinction of having lost around half their ancient woodland over the last fifty years according to Nature Conservancy Council figures.80 Cropland or conifer plantation has been the most common fate of the land involved. While Surrey, north Cumbria, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire have lost slightly less of their ancient woodland – around 40 per cent each – in several counties, notably Gwent, Shropshire and Northamptonshire, landowners have seen fit to clear away well over 60 per cent of the county’s ancient woodland during the last fifty years.

Though conifers may yield financial dividends, they spell wholesale losses for wildlife. Fir is the food plant for only sixteen different insect species – compared to the 284 that live on the bountiful oak. The range of creatures that prey on insects – and of the creatures that prey on them – is similarly denuded. It is not only the conifers themselves which are less attractive to wildlife. They shelter far fewer secondary plants, like hazel, holly, rowan, elder, willow, spindle, dogwood or guelder rose. There are usually fewer climbers such as ivy, clematis and honeysuckle, and the trunks and branches are home to few mosses and lichens. (pp.216-8)

So in principle I still see the value in protecting & preserving ancient woodlands into perpetuity, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever been in one of these designated woodlands, so have no direct experience of their quality when compared to, say, the wooded areas of a nearby common which was largely treeless grazing/quarry/barren scrub land until midway through the last century. On that note, our friend Mark Fisher wrote the most ‘nuanced’ piece I’ve yet seen on this subject back in February: ‘England’s Public Forest Estate – public ownership now and for future generations‘. Apparently the government line (and mine – oops!) that the Forestry Commission only ‘own’ 18% of UK woodland doesn’t tell the whole story:

While it is reasonably common knowledge that the forest cover in continental Europe is much higher than the 8.7% of England, I think many will be surprised at the high extent of public ownership in Europe compared to the 30.8% in public ownership in England (6). There may even be surprise at that percentage in England, because the figure most bandied about of late is just the 18% that is owned by the Forestry Commission (FC). As I know to my benefit, because they give me great pleasure where I live, 6% of England’s woodlands are owned by local authorities and the balance of the difference is owned by other public bodies.

In contrast to Shoard’s complaints about ‘dark and forbidding timber factor[ies]’ which ‘strike a chill into lowland landscapes’ and, in ‘impenetrable blocks […] continue to march over Britain’s hills and moors, obliterating their wild, open character’ Fisher emphasises the importance that even ‘low-grade’ plantations can have to local people with no other options for woodland access:

Working with Forest Neighbours to defend Gibb Torr from deforestation by the local Wildlife Trust, I came to understand why people liked this conifer plantation woodland awash in a massive sea of moorland in Staffordshire (The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr (10). They could see unambiguously the wildlife value it has, especially birdlife, and which the Wildlife Trust ignores for its own choice of creating even more moorland! I saw the wildlife tracks myself, and stumbled over an astonishing drift of orchids deep in its centre. What would happen to these? It is one of those situations where a conifer plantation is the only woodland that local people have, and thus also the only woodland available for woodland wildlife in the area.

He notes the failure of charities and established environmental groups, including the Woodland Trust, to meaningfully oppose the FC sell-off, suggesting they may be out of touch with the causes of public concern:

Save Our Woods, one of the many national campaign groups that have blossomed, pointed to the lack of integration across the broad spectrum of land based interests by those that were meant to be representative of the public voice (27):
“…the large NGOs were very slow to publish their stance or even realise their stance, thus showing a lack of knowledge and certainly a loss of touch with the public and even their members which was quickly criticised by several within and on the periphery of landscape and natural heritage issues”

I would just highlight a few as they relate to Hurn’s forests, and Chopwell Wood.

Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, wrote in the Guardian (28):
“I can’t honestly get really worked up about who owns the small wood down the road from me whose main function is to grow trees for the timber market”

Many of those “ugly industrial conifer forests” that Avery would sell off (29) are what local people are attached to, because that is what is in many cases the local woodland with open access that they have come to enjoy, and it is often the only woodland in the landscape for woodland species. They don’t want to be patronised by Avery or the RSPB in what they should value about their woodland, especially when the prejudice against them is mostly about their undoubted wildlife not being what is valued by organisations like RSPB or Avery. Moreover, the RSPB/Avery would exert their usual pressure for deforestation to open heathland habitat if there was the slightest chance of just one more Dartford warbler (30). This is not what the people of Hurn want to hear.

It seems clear to me that a local relationship of human communities to the ecology – whether forest, heath, moor or any other landscape type – should be the primary locus of decision-making and the starting point for any discussion of the loaded and potentially dangerous question of how to ‘improve’ the environment.


(Bluebells in Glovers Wood, Charlwood, ‘owned’ by the Woodland Trust – their page of info)


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