If you go down to the woods today….

Dec 14, 2016 | Managing the Forest

It has been rather lively around St George’s Farm of late.  As well as the fantastic volunteers who come to help with various woodyard, orchard or farm work, a forestry contractor has arrived to carry out much needed thinning of woodland known as Shelf Held Coppice which borders on Ruskin Land.

Regular visitors to this part of the Wyre Forest may be surprised at the size of the machinery being used to carry out this work.  A gigantic forest tractor and ‘forwarder’ – for loading large trunks onto a trailer – are being used to move the timber to stacks ready for collection by fire-wood merchants or timber contractors.  When these big beasts are first encountered, particularly at dusk when their headlights project an eerie light into the woods, they can seem a little out of place.   But the work being carried out here, with great skill by Nathan of Home Forestry in line with a management plan agreed with the Forestry Commission, is essential to improve the health and biodiversity of the woodland.

Shelf Held Coppice is an important part of the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, one of our most important wildlife sites.  Yet, lack of management coupled with pressure from deer and squirrels has contributed to a general decline in biodiversity in recent years, primarily of woodland birds and butterflies and the flora they depend on such as violets. The decline of coppicing here – where trees are cut at ground level every 15 years or so to encourage new growth – since the 1930s has played a part in this.  The result is trees all of roughly the same age with a closed canopy which prevents light from reaching the forest floor so that only bracken and bramble can survive as ground cover.  Added to this is concern about the spread of tree diseases such as acute oak decline and oak processionary moth, although the latter is not thought to be present here.  To address these challenges, the aim of the management plan is ‘to increase diversity in both the age structure and species mix to create a woodland that is resilient to disease and the potential effects of climate change.’

There is also an important economic aspect to this activity.  Through generating income and raw material from this kind of sensitive woodland management, the Wyre Community Land Trust intends to help rebuild the local woodland economy which has been lost in so many parts of the country.  Such efforts are being helped by a new Making Local Woods Work programme being run by the Plunkett Foundation which aims to support social enterprises, such as the Wyre CLT, to develop sustainable woodland businesses.

Some may think it unnecessary to manage woodlands in this way, and might oppose the felling of any tree, preferring woodland to be left to look after itself. This was the view taken by many associated with the romantic movement in the nineteenth century.  I am not sure John Ruskin would have taken this position.  His writing reveals a belief in the possibility of a harmonious working relationship between people and the natural world  (even if he felt this was not much in evidence).    In recent years, woodland ecologists like George Peterken have done much to demonstrate the value of intelligent intervention to sustain and enhance the value, and indeed beauty, of our native woodland.

We have a great responsibility to look after beautiful places like this with great care.   I believe the woodland work being carried out here, while it may be a surprise for some, shows how it is possible to pursue economic aims alongside longer term environmental objectives.  I can’t wait until next Spring to see how the woodland flora responds.