Can our trees be saved from big timber, rampant disease and global warming?

If they’re not being blown over, our ancient woodlands are being felled by disease, politics and climate change. But the answer to this nationwide problem might be more local than we think…

Robert Penn
Sunday 09 March 2014 01:00 GMT
A copper beech tree - part of Jean-Luc Brouard's series of night-time tree portraits, 'Nocturnal Arboreal'
A copper beech tree - part of Jean-Luc Brouard's series of night-time tree portraits, 'Nocturnal Arboreal'

We have finally finished tidying up all the trees and branches thrown down by the furious winter winds in Court Wood. It's an 11-acre, mixed broad-leaf woodland near my home in the Black Mountains, south Wales. As part of a not-for-profit, community woodland group, I started managing the wood a few months ago.

Before our small team of volunteers arrived with billhooks and chainsaws, Court Wood hadn't been touched for 60 years. Like thousands of similarly anonymous British woodlands, it had silently endured decades of neglect. Climate change and the increase in pests and pathogens currently affecting our native trees mean Court Wood now faces an uncertain future, too.

There is a mix of ash, oak, beech, wild cherry, hazel, hawthorn, sycamore, Scots pine and the odd sweet chestnut. An avenue of 80ft lime trees lines the brook that flows along one edge. The oaks are mast-straight, well-spaced and free of side branches, suggesting that the wood was planted, and once carefully managed for timber.

You won't read about Court Wood in scholarly books on the British countryside. It is neither important nor noteworthy. It's not a Birnam Wood, an Epping Forest or a Wistman's Wood. No fairy tales have emanated from its groves into the public consciousness. No fabled highwaymen hid in it. No laureate has written a poem about it. It's just a regular gathering of trees, "dreaming out their old stories to the wind", as the poet Thomas Gray wrote. It's just a comma in the chronicle of the Welsh landscape. It is a conflicting and harmonious pool of natural life, a compound of growth and decay, the solid and the evanescent, the timeless and the momentary, a marriage of the very ordinary and the very beautiful.

We have an informal arrangement with the landowner. We make barbecue charcoal, cooking the wood in a steel kiln to remove all the moisture and impurities, which we sell locally. It's small beer, but it covers the cost of our tools and fuel. Personally, I enjoy the work: after hours sat at my desk, I love to set "the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark", as Louis MacNeice wrote. We also take home a bit of firewood, but really we put in the volunteer hours because we believe Court Wood is a piece of the landscape that should be cherished.

We have a strange relationship with woodland on this island. We like to think of ourselves as a heavily wooded country, yet the UK is actually one of the least-wooded parts of Europe and it has been for a millennium. Of the 27 million acres surveyed for the Domesday Book, only 15 per cent was wooded. Today, we have 11.7 per cent woodland cover – well below the European average of 44 per cent. We also currently have a poor record of woodland management: it is estimated that 55 per cent of woodland in Britain is either under-managed or not managed at all.

Not all woodland should be managed, of course. Just under a third of ours is classified as "ancient woodland" (sites believed to have been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD): here, the priority should simply be conservation. The majority of our woodlands, however, should be actively managed: to deliver benefits for biodiversity, for leisure, and for the rural economy, by harvesting the self-renewing power of our native trees. In a well-managed woodland, it's possible to create a living resource intertwined with the activities of society and deliver all three. Our woodlands are the result of the relationship between humans and natural processes over millennia. In the modern era, we've reneged on that relationship, and lost a part of the heritage that our ancestors viewed as a birthright.

When the Government attempted to sell off part of the Public Forest Estate in England in 2010, there was widespread public outrage. At first, I found this perplexing: how could the public feel so strongly about a part of the landscape they have systematically neglected to manage. Then I realised that the large majority of woodlands in the UK are in private ownership, with little or no public access.

The Save Our Forests campaign became the standard behind which people with diverse interests in our woodlands rallied. More than half a million people signed the petition – and the campaign and general sense of public outrage led to the appointment of the Independent Panel on Forestry, which reported to the Government in 2012.

The chairman of the panel, the Bishop of Liverpool, expressed the thoughts of many when he wrote: "As a society, we have lost sight of the value of trees and woodlands… To say that our woodlands are vital is not an exaggeration." In turn, the Government announced its "Forestry and Woodlands Policy" statement in early 2013, which suggested they had at least listened to the public. A few weeks ago, the "One Year On" update was published. There is a new sense of quiet optimism that the future of English forestry policy may genuinely be focused on "protecting, improving and expanding our woodland assets", as the latest Government document states.

"The Government's failed attempt at selling the public forest estate definitely struck a nerve in the public consciousness," Dr Gabriel Hemery, chief executive of the Sylva Foundation woodland charity tells me. "Even before this, however, emerging green technologies were beginning to reawaken economic interests in woodland management. This is welcome after a couple of decades of over-emphasis on the social and environmental aspects of woodland management – which were a natural reaction to the industrial forestry practices which came before."

Catching some of the momentum created by the public opposition to the sale of the public forest estate, the Sylva Foundation launched the Good Woods initiative last year in partnership with the retailer B&Q: by providing tools and training in sustainable woodland management direct to owners, the project aims to improve levels of stewardship. The Sylva Foundation also introduced a Woodland Star Rating self-assessment scheme whose aims include promoting a greater understanding among the general public of what good woodland management is.

Another initiative that came out of the Independent Panel on Forestry's report is Grown in Britain, a national campaign to reconnect people with the range of wood-based products that can profitably be harvested from actively managed woodlands. As the rural adage goes: "A woodland that pays is a woodland that stays."

My eyes were opened to the diversity of wood products when I started writing a book this year about man's historic relationship with the ash tree. Though a close second in value to oak as native British timber, ash has always been more versatile and functional. It has been used for wagons, ploughs and, of fundamental importance from the Iron Age until the middle of the 20th century, the rims of wooden wheels. Furniture artisans, millwrights and chair- makers prized it.

The unique combination of vigorous strength, durability and elasticity meant ash planks and poles were used to make tool handles, ladders, hay rakes, hop-poles, hockey sticks, hurley sticks, walking sticks, tennis rackets, looms, croquet mallets, crutches, coracles, cricket stumps, oars, cups, spars, paddles, skis, sledges, cart shafts, the best blocks for pullies, tent pegs, snooker cues, musical k instruments, car bodies and even airplane wings. This list is far from comprehensive, and ash is just one of our native tree species. Yet in merely half a century, we have almost entirely forgotten how to use ash timber. Mention ash today and the majority of people think only of firewood.

For Dougal Driver, chief executive of Grown in Britain, the challenge is "to get Government and businesses to pull up the market by simply using more wood products, and asking, can you supply British wood, please? It's not just about jobs and economic activity, though. Breathing life back into overstocked, dark and unproductive woods will be a boost for nature, too."

If there is a woodland revival, it's not happening within the right wider, legislative framework for the Woodland Trust. Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust is the UK's largest woodland charity, with 400,000 members and supporters, and more than 1,000 woodland sites in its care. The trust believes that ancient woodland needs greater protection from development under more robust planning laws. In autumn 2013, the Government published a green paper with plans for a "biodiversity offsetting" scheme in England that would allow developers to compensate for any loss of habitat. Austin Brady, Woodland Trust's head of conservation, was emphatic in his response: "We would like to make it absolutely clear – biodiversity offsetting does not work for ancient woods. Irreplaceable habitats including ancient woodland can never be replicated."

The threat to our woodlands does not end with new housing developments and HS2, though. Many silviculturalists are concerned about the possible effects of climate change on British woodlands.

"England's woods and forests need to be in good shape, and sufficiently resilient to deal with the unknowns that lie ahead, not least to the pressures of changing climate," John Weir, climate change and resilience adviser for Forestry Commission England tells me. "There is a wealth of knowledge available to help woodland owners create management plans that anticipate the challenges we face.

"Planting offers woodland owners an opportunity to increase the resilience of their woodlands. We recommend using a diverse range of tree species from a wide genetic base. There are many native species that are rarely planted, and many of these can be found across a wide geographic range. The use of seed sourced from between two and five degrees further south than the planting site, but from similar elevations and distance from the coast, is recommended. We suggest considering some of the higher-emissions scenarios to help ensure that our actions today leave our woodlands fit for tomorrow."

Dr Oliver Rackham, Britain's leading woodland historian, has regularly said that the dangers are even closer: "Globalisation of tree diseases and pests is the greatest threat to the world's trees and forests: greater than climate change or even than proliferation of deer."

The globalisation of tree diseases is not new. When international trade increased exponentially in the 19th century, the spread of tree blights followed. In the early 20th century, rich countries instituted biosecurity regimes and the incidence slowed. Across Europe, the infection rate picked up around 1960, most likely due to the effect of economic integration. Today, the spread of new pests and pathogens around the world is gathering pace again, as the volume and speed of international trade and human movement increases.

In Britain, a pathogen which has killed millions of trees in Germany is infecting our native alders. Horse chestnuts are at risk from a deadly bleeding canker. Massaria disease, caused by a fungus, has reached our shores and is affecting London Plane trees. Thousands of acres of larch have been felled across western Britain because of infection from the fungus-like Phytophthora ramorum pathogen. Our oaks are suffering from the oak processionary moth. Red-band needle blight is a fungus affecting Corsican pines. In 2011, sweet-chestnut blight caused by the fungus Endothia parasitica arrived in Britain, some 80 years after it devastated the trees of southern Europe.

The list goes on. It seems a new blight is identified in Britain's woods almost every year. By the time these pests and pathogens have reached the UK, the battle has largely been lost. What we need to do in the future is prevent yet more plant diseases reaching this country through trade controls, quarantining and clear supply chains.

Westminster is finally working on new plant biosecurity measures: the first ever Chief Plant Health Officer will be appointed shortly and a "Plant Biosecurity Strategy" will be published. The Welsh Government also recently published a "Tree Health Strategy". Networks of volunteer observers are being developed and trained, to establish a sort of tree health early-warning system. These measures cannot come too soon.

Most recently, ash dieback has struck. The disease, which has now been confirmed in more than 620 sites across the UK, has already caused widespread destruction in Europe where, on average, 70 per cent of ash trees are affected. Over the next half-century, it is fair to expect the devastation of at least half, and conceivably 90 per cent, of the 126 million ash trees in Britain today. The loss will threaten a wide array of biodiversity as well. Until recently, ash was considered by many to be the "tree of the future".

In the face of such hazards, our work in Court Wood inevitably feels meaningless. For Dr Gabriel Hemery, though, there is a sense of silvicultural history repeating itself: "The need for more trees in our depauperate landscape and halting the dereliction in our woodlands is nothing new. John Evelyn's book Sylva, published in 1664, was a direct response to many of the same challenges that we face today, although with different motives. Then, there were deep concerns regarding the weakening of Britain's "wooden walls", or navy. It was a strategic imperative, given the constant threat of invasion, that more timber was produced for shipbuilding.

"Today, alongside our effort to conserve ancient woodlands, and deliver ecosystem services, there are unprecedented opportunities for us to realise products from our forests. Beyond timber and biomass energy, innovations such as nanocrystalline cellulose are opening up new horizons where wood fibre could become the fabric, literally, of a green society." Hemery's book, The New Sylva, is to be published in April, on the 350th anniversary of Evelyn's.

Spring felt close in Court Wood this week. The flurry of winter activity, hampered by the atrocious weather, is over. The chainsaws are quiet. There's still plenty to do – the trunks and thicker branches of the wind-blown trees need to be cut to length, split and stacked, and the charcoal kiln has to be filled – but the days are growing longer; time is generous again. There is a moment to lean against a tree, look up and let the sun burn golden palaces on to my closed eyelids.

Sometimes I sense that, following a few days' hard work, we've rewired a broken connection between the land and the human spirit in Court Wood. There are already the first, immemorial stirrings of new life in the canopy and on the woodland floor. Spring is the season of hope and possibility – for us as much as nature.

'Touch Wood: the Story of the Ash Tree', by Robert Penn, will be published by Penguin in 2015. The photographs on these pages are part of Jean-Luc Brouard's ongoing series of night-time tree portraits, 'Nocturnal Arboreal'. Limited-edition prints can be ordered from

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