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A Forestry Commission initiative on means it is now possible to see the birds for the trees; Country Matters
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The Independent Culture
Fifteen years ago, nobody dreamt of managing commercial forests for the benefit of birds. Yet a morning spent in the company of the Forestry Commission's Robin Khan, conservation ranger for the south of England, and Mike Thornley, ranger for the West Midlands forest district, emphasises the enormous advances the Commission has made since the dark days of the Fifties and Sixties, when the aim was to plant every available square metre of ground with conifers and let any wildlife go hang. As we toured a variety of plantations near the Welsh borders, my expert guides demonstrated that birds are now having a strong influence on policy.

It was in the early Eighties that the Commission started making wildlife conservation plans; but these were amateurish, based on random sightings of unusual specimens. If, for instance, a forester with an interest in butterflies reported a rarity, a red sticker would be put on the map, and efforts made to keep that area unchanged. But, as Khan says, "so many people had an input that the maps became minefields for foresters: there were red stickers everywhere, and you couldn't get any work done".

His job in those pioneer days was to go round the districts, check the conservation sites, decide which were important, abolish the rest and start managing the good ones, by for example, opening up rides that would link one good bird or butterfly area with another. In Dorset, for the benefit of nightjars and wood larks, the Commission began clearing trees from areas that had been heathland to link open stretches of country with nature reserves owned by English Nature, the Dorset Wildlife Trust and other bodies.

In Midland forests (Wyre, near Kidderminster; Mortimer, west of Ludlow; and Cannock Chase, north of Birmingham) rides were cut and some areas left clear so that the goshawks, for instance, had open spaces in which to hunt. Today, all forest operations, such as thinning, clear-felling and replanting, are planned with the welfare of the birds in mind. Operational Instruction No 1 lays down that before any major work is done, rangers must check the site to ensure all environmental considerations have been taken into account.

For much of the morning my talk with Robin and Mike centred on goshawks. The trees most favoured as nest sites by these big raptors are mature conifers, and the birds prefer those with soft needles, such as larch and Douglas fir, through which they can fly without damaging their wings. Sitka spruce is hard and bristly, but may be used if other species are not available.

Nobody yet knows how goshawks choose a nest site; but in hilly terrain, from the knowledge they have gained, foresters can now design new plantations which they believe will have a definite appeal for raptors. Another important factor is the texture of the crop as it grows to maturity; for nesting purposes, the trees must be far enough apart to give easy passage through the canopy, yet close enough together to produce a feeling of security. Careful thinning is essential.

As we moved from one site to another, Khan kept assessing the trees by his own proven method: "If you have to move your head from side to side before you can see the nest, you know you've got the thinning right. If you can't see anything, you know the wood's too damn thick: no goshawks are going to use it, because they can't fly through it."

Instead of clearing large blocks of trees all at once, the foresters now fell and replant relatively small areas in succession, to ensure that if one nesting site is removed, another is available not far off. Seen from a distance, the result is an attractive mosaic made up of trees of different species and ages.

Khan looks on his work as "a vast coppicing job. Once you've got the right trees, of the right ages, in the right places, you can manipulate the birds of prey. With luck, they'll go where you want them to, rather than keep moving all over the place so you can't work the forest properly."

Human beings have to be controlled as well. Egg thieves are always a potential menace in spring, and so are a minority of twitchers, among whom the latest fad is to tick off Schedule One species at their nest sites. If they approach close enough to disturb the birds, they can be prosecuted, but so can the foresters: officious watchers are often lurking, ready to report any intrusion. This means that during the nesting season no felling, thinning or planting can take place within 250 metres of a nest site.

It is hardly surprising that under such a favourable, enlightened regime, the goshawks are doing better than ever in living memory.