Country Matters: The foresters' tree of knowledge

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The Independent Online
LIKE trees, foresters grow to all sizes and shapes. Some are tall and straight as beeches, some short and stout as yews. Some are gnarled and misshapen; some lean at fierce angles to the universe.

So much was quickly apparent when 150 members of the Royal Forestry Society - a charitable organisation founded in 1882 - gathered recently for their annual jamboree in the West Midlands. Most were private owners, with a sprinkling of government officials thrown in, and they had come on a five-day spree of visits to woodlands and timberyards.

On the day I joined them, they were inspecting the Burwarton estate in Shropshire, a magnificent property which extends to more than 10,000 acres and includes the whole of Brown Clee Hill, at 1,772ft the highest in the county. Our host was Viscount Boyne, proprietor of the estate - an obvious oak of a man, big and strong - who in his introductory speech explained that he had inherited it in 1942, at the age of 11.

During the Second World War, in the great national drive for timber, between 500 and 600 acres of mature trees were felled; but luckily various schools held summer camps on the estate, so that there had been 'plenty of boy-power to begin re-planting'. He himself had been caught up in this activity, with the result that he is now one of the few foresters fortunate enough both to have planted trees and to have seen some of them come to maturity.

Production of timber on the estate is a major operation, employing a head forester and six men, with contractors brought in to do extra work as necessary. Yet the aim, Lord Boyne emphasised, is also to enhance the landscape, conserve wildlife and entertain large numbers of hikers, picnickers and other members of the public.

The company then piled into buses for a tour, but our first objective - to view the plantations on Brown Clee Hill from afar - was largely foiled by the weather, for mist had drifted in from the Welsh mountains and almost nothing could be seen. We had to take on trust our host's assurance that the top of the hill consists of open moorland, with a few grouse on it.

Thereafter the buses drove slowly upwards, disgorging their passengers at one stop after another for detailed exegesis of the activities in progress. Two facts soon became clear: first, that the Burwarton woods are managed with a high degree of professionalism; and second, that the skill and knowledge of the home team were matched by a tremendous weight of practical experience among the visitors, who had come from as far afield as Yorkshire, Cumbria, Norfolk and Sussex, partly to enjoy themselves, but also to pick up ideas.

Before we were even on the hill, faintly critical remarks began to circulate in our bus about a stand of poplars Lord Boyne had pointed out. At what spacing had they been planted? Might they not, with advantage, have been thinned more heavily at an early stage? Our host explained that they had been grown for the match trade - as all poplars used to be a generation ago - and that on the advice of Messrs Bryant & May they had been planted at the traditional spacing of 22ft. But now, with raw material for matches coming from abroad, they will go for pallets, packing cases, trailer floors and so on.

Our next stop, the Home Covert, brought out the care taken locally in management and record-keeping. Over a hand-held loudspeaker the estate agent, Robert Tindall, explained to us that this wood had been replanted in 1966 with a mixture of oak and Norway spruce, the aim being that the spruce should nurse the oak for 50 years and then be felled, leaving the hardwood as the final crop in the 21st century. To my amateur eye, the trees looked rather spindly.

In its infancy the plantation had consisted more than 80 per cent of softwood; but the first thinning, done in 1985, had increased its hardwood content to 33 per cent. At the second thinning in 1989 the estate had removed 1,270 stems, which yielded 71.79 cubic metres of timber and left the canopy at 65 per cent oak. From now on, the aim would be to retain it at that level. . . .

This blizzard of information provoked intense debate among the visitors. 'If you were starting again,' asked one, 'would you consider much earlier and more frequent thinning, with rather more girth and faster ring- growth for the hardwood?' Mr Tindall agreed that, 'Yes, in a perfect world, we probably would. In general, we ought to thin our woods more frequently. It's just a question of getting round.'

So it went on at every stop: explanations from the agent and the head forester, Mike Bradbury, often backed up by appeals for advice, and followed by volleys of questions. By the time we were 1,500ft up the hill, heavy rain had set in, emphasising the fact that at higher altitudes climate strongly influences policy: rain, wind, snow and ice are all hazards that have to be taken into account.

'What are we to do with this wood?' asked the owner as we approached a dense spruce plantation. 'It needs thinning hard - but what's going to happen when we let the wind in?' With the rain drumming on umbrellas, a discussion set in about whether it is better to leave wide rides when planting, or to start with narrow rides and open them up later by taking out trees along the sides.

Walking between two stops, Lord Boyne stressed that he had no sentimental feelings about cutting trees down. He sees them as a long- term agricultural crop: 'There's no point in leaving them beyond maturity, especially at this altitude. All that'll happen is that they'll get blown down.'

The Duke of Somerset, the foresters' president, reflected on the benefits which he derives from this kind of outing: 'It's very rare that I don't pick up some useful idea.'

After a picnic lunch in the village hall, the afternoon was enlivened by a visit to a trout farm, where monstrous brood fish thrashed the surface of their pond to foam as they surged up in response to a hail of food pellets.

We then proceeded to a strange plantation in which - experimentally and none too successfully - oak had been combined with alder. Finally we visited the estate's own sawmill, where nothing whatever was being wasted, even bark, shavings and sawdust being carefully collected up for sale.

I came away with the feeling that I had spent the day in the company of exceptionally wise men, with their heads and hearts devoted to the wellbeing of our countryside, and their feet rooted firmly in the soil.