I tend to run into people fairly frequently who’s perception of forest management (i.e. cutting down trees) is entirely negative. It’s not hard to see why this might be: deforestation across the world (often in tropical rainforests) is running dangerously high, and removal of trees is undoubtedly a major cause of environmental degradation. However, it isn’t really fair to apply a blanket assumption to forestry worldwide, all forests are not created equal, and the UK forestry industry in particular is extremely tightly regulated. Essentially all operations must be in compliance with the UK Forestry Standard, which sets out the best practice for a UK context. If you’re not following this standard, then the chances are you won’t get your legally required felling licence.
Humans have been interacting with the natural environment in the UK for a verylong time. The Domesday Book shows woodland cover in England at only around 15%. After this woodland area was in gradual decline until the 19th Century, when woodland cover dipped below 5% (we’re now at around 12%). There is virtually no woodland in the UK which has not been managed by humans at some point in its history. These interactions have resulted in a fragmentation of habitat and a fundamental change in how many species have adapted to their environment. Prior to human involvement, species tended to mix on a large scale and formed a “mosaic” of different habitats caused by large scale interactions between environmental factors such as floods, storms, fires, and droughts. This mosaic would include trees at a variety of ages and species, and areas with standing dead trees as well as open areas of heath, bogs, marshes etc. (There’s a really good book on the subject by Oliver Rackham).
Unfortunately, most of the woodlands in the UK are the result either of deliberate planting (or regeneration after felling), or simple neglect of a previously open space; this means that the variation in age and species tends to be pretty small. This lack of variation tends to result in a homogeneous block of high forest with little diversity in terms of habitat, and limited opportunities for regeneration. To thrive and become resilient to external shocks and threats (pests & diseases, climate change, and extreme weather for example) these essentially man-made habitats need careful human intervention to break out of the rigid structures imposed on them by previous management. Managing a woodland well mimics the mosaic structures of the ancient landscape providing a wider range of habitats for wildlife species. By carefully selecting, felling, and supporting re-growth of trees we can provide a wide range of benefits for the environment as well as useful economic and social benefits.
The way we manage our woodlands is evolving and will continue to change as the range of things we need from them, and the environment they exist within changes; but, perhaps surprisingly, the need to manage them has not.
Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here