Wednesday, January 23, 2013
The Do-nothing Option
When we went walking (or should I say slithering) in the increasingly slushy snow today the snow surface was littered with these ash keys, torn off by gusty winds yesterday. How many will germinate and how many of those will be resistant to ash die-back is debatable, but since the trees produce these seeds in vast numbers it's likely that some will reach maturity.
During our walk we passed through two quite different new woodlands.
This was the first - a Woodland Trust site where thousands of saplings of several species, including ash, have been planted in tree shelters over the past couple of years. The young trees have a good chance of establishment but it will be a very even-aged woodland when it matures. I can understand why woodlands are planted like this - it looks like an impressive amount of work that will turn grassland into woodland in the shortest possible time - but the next field that we walked through, with a different owner, revealed a different strategy.
This footpath runs through what was, until eight years ago, a pasture. On the right is old woodland. No one has planted anything in the pasture - the wind and the birds have done all the tree planting. The result is already a woodland of five metre-tall birches, three metre tall ash saplings and metre tall oaks. Their seeds have been planted by the wind and jays - no charge, no grant funding required. There's also a fair sprinkling of alder, rowan and holly.
The only management that this site is receiving is the cutting of a few glades where there are some fine patches of marsh orchids and some trimming to keep the footpaths clear. There's already a shrub layer developing of wild roses and bramble.
I suppose it's at the stage that is disparagingly referred to as scrub, but in summer it already hosts several butterfly species, a decent range of flowers and plenty of warblers. The birches, which are presently dominant, are short lived trees and by the time the oaks become substantial trees they'll be moribund and will contribute to the dead wood layer on the woodland floor, which is such a valuable habitat for fungi, beetles and a host of other invertebrates.
I know which method of woodland establishment I prefer - let nature take its course. Of course, this isn't the most desirable option when you are a charity that has spent a lot of money donated by members to buy land, who want to see evidence that a woodland is being created PDQ.
I should say that I'm a supporter of the Woodland Trust's objectives and particularly admire the way in which they encourage the public to participate in woodland creation and encourage everyone to visit the woodlands that they own. But I do also believe that the phase of scrub that naturally regenerating woodlands go through creates an incredibly valuable transitional habitat, and that allowing woodlands to re-establish naturally creates uneven-aged, mixed species stands of trees that are likely to be healthier and more biodiverse woodlands in the long run.
Sometimes, in some circumstances, the do-nothing option is best.