Apr 02 2019

How can we create forests fit for the future?

The latest issue of Wood Wise, our tree and woodland conservation magazine, reflects on what woodland ecologists have learned about natural processes and woodland management. We must build on and apply this learning to how we manage our woods and nurture healthy, resilient wooded landscapes of the future.

Download the latest edition of Woodwise here


What wildlife do we want in our woods?


Many British woodland wildlife populations are experiencing declines. Some are even facing local extinction. This has largely been attributed to changes in the intensity and type of woodland management. For example, during the 20th century, species needing open space or young-growth in woods have tended to decline. Many butterflies and birds have been affected. Our expert contributors discuss our biodiversity baseline and ask: what wildlife do we want in our woods?

The Great Storm: nature inspiring forest management


The Great Storm reminded us that disturbance is an important part of nature. Overnight on 15 October 1987, trees were blown flat, letting light into previously dark, dense woodlands. A burst of regeneration followed. Flowers flourished and shrubs and trees grew up in the gaps. A range of different wildlife benefitted as a result.

Windstorms are just one form of natural disturbance. Others include flooding, erosion and fire. Grazing and browsing by herbivores is another. But many natural processes and agents of disturbance have been lost because of past human mismanagement. For example, large grazing animals like wild aurochs are now extinct. So are the large predators that would have moved grazers on, preventing overgrazing. The canopy gaps created by the Great Storm have now disappeared, highlighting that one big storm every few hundred years is not enough.

Human management can, however, mimic natural processes. For example, with traditional forest management an area is cleared, light gets in and a burst of regeneration follows. We can also copy nature by using domestic animals to put back the natural process of grazing. By moving domestic grazers around, land managers can imitate the predators of the past. This avoids over-grazing and creates patches of different vegetation.

The Great Storm of 1987 gave us a great understanding of natural disturbance. Using the lessons learned, contributor Dr Tony Whitbread discusses approaches to woodland management. He explains that proactive intervention and rewilding (working with natural processes) are not opposites. There is a time and a place for both.


‘Old-growth’ thinking on ancient woodland restoration


Old growth is a case in point, where loss of disturbance dynamics and poor management have compromised ecological integrity. Old trees and associated deadwood, also known as ‘old-growth characteristics’, contribute immensely to overall species diversity and ecosystem function. But they are absent from many woods. Our adviser for ancient woodlands, Alastair Hotchkiss, discusses:

  • how we could ensure our future landscapes have more old trees
  • some model examples of what proactive ancient woodland restoration can achieve.


The future of forestry


Priorities in forestry – the way we manage woods and trees – have changed. And in recent times, emphasis on environmental and conservation outcomes has increased. Despite this, the majority of forest expansion and management over the last 100 years has focused on non-native conifer woodland. The conversion of ancient woodland sites to plantations of non-native trees has been disastrous for native woodland wildlife.

Creating resilient treescapes in which wildlife can recover and thrive is more important than ever. We face many new challenges, including climate change, tree diseases, invasive species and pests. Forestry must address these new and emerging challenges. In this issue of Wood Wise, our conservation experts propose how we might re-imagine forestry as a sector and how it might evolve over the next 100 years.

As conservation scientists and practitioners, we must learn from the past. We need to make positive steps towards safeguarding our woods and wildlife.


We all have a part to play


Importantly though, it’s not only up to land managers. Unless we all make some major changes to how we conduct and manage our lives, loss of habitats and species will continue. Think about what sort of lifestyle you choose to lead, how you can reduce your consumption and live a greener life. We can all play our part in achieving forests fit for the future. 


Download the latest edition of Woodwise here

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