Silviculture in a changing world

Socio-environmental Influences in British Forestry

An essay by Rob Taylor (December 31st, 2019 draft only)

UK Forestry Development

Throughout its history, the UK forestry sector has experienced various developments alongside fluctuating industrial and economic landscapes. Heavily deforested, industrial UK found itself overly reliant in imported timber in the early 20th century and a need to generate a strategic reserve in case of interruptions to overseas supply, largely resulting from war in Europe (Stewart, 1985), initiated the Forestry Act in 1919. Particularly through the latter half of the century, intensively managed stands of exotic coniferous species, often modelled on European silvicultural systems became a conspicuous addition to (mainly upland) landscapes of the British Isles (Pringle, 1994; Holmes, 1975; Tonbridge, 2007).

Today, even-aged conifer plantations occupy over half of the total forested area of the UK (Brown et al., 2015), the large majority of which are managed by patch clearfelling (removal of all trees within an area >0.25ha) and restocked by planting or natural regeneration (Mason et al., 1999). With optimal timber production the primary aim, such systems became, and still largely remain, an attractive option on exposed upland sites where windthrow risks are mitigated through the opportunity for harvesting prior to ‘terminal’ stand height being reached (Miller, 1985; Davies and Kerr, 2015). Furthermore, the efficiency and simplicity of tending and harvesting, particularly owing to advances in mechanisation favours an economy of scale (Puettmann et al., 2015).

Various coniferous species have proved productive on sites throughout the British Isles. Although growing poorly in wetter regions, Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the only native coniferous species of commercial interest (Davies and Kerr, 2015). Norway spruce (Picea abies), Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), European larch (Larix decidua) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are all demonstrably productive species on certain UK sites (Ramsay and MacDonald, 2013). However, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) remains the most widely utilised of all species within UK forestry, making up 52% of coniferous trees in plantations (Ennos et al., 2019). Owing to climatic similarities of the species’ native range in coastal regions of western North America, Sitka spruce demonstrated high suitability and productivity on British sites (Mason, 2015) and relatively short rotations of 40 to 50 years (Moore, 2012) expediated returns on investments.

In 2018, 11.4 million tonnes of softwood were produced by the UK forestry industry (Forestry Commission, 2019). Although short rotation lengths mean construction grade timber is still largely imported (Moore, 2012), fencing and pallet production remain the main markets for UK grown softwood timber with biofuel, panel boards and pulp as the main non-sawn outputs (CTI, 2016). At present, a workforce of 16,000 people is employed in the forestry sector (Forestry Commission, 2019) which generated sales of £1.3 billion in 2014 (CTI, 2016).

Shifting Policies, Ecosystem Services and Socio-environmental Demands
The post-industrial landscape of the UK saw a gradual shift in rural economies from being primarily production-based to consumption and recreation orientated (Lee, 2005). Rural tourism emerged out of progressive mobility and increased expendable income and leisure time of metropolitan populations and demands for a more multifunctional countryside which facilitated greater public access ensued (Lee and Lee, 2012; MacLellan and Smith, 1998). Today, approximately 250 million visits are believed to be made to UK forests annually for recreational purposes (Forest Commission, 2017), vastly increasing the influence that the general public has as a stakeholder group and bringing themes of aesthetics, accessibility and wildlife to the fore (Edwards et al., 2004; Kardell, 1985).

At a policy level, recent decades have seen the concept of ecosystem services (ES) penetrating discourse surrounding sustainable natural resource management which has grown to incorporate considerations beyond utilitarian, market-based activity in an ever-changing and advancing society (Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2011). Valuation of the non-market benefits of ecosystems is extremely complex but is becoming increasingly pertinent alongside growing awareness and widespread concerns over biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and human wellbeing (Raum, 2018; Quine et al., 2013; Slee, 2012).

With the intention of establishing criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCFPE) was initiated in 1990 with the aim of applying concepts of multi-functionality to European forest management practices (Slee, 2012). The re-sponsibility for formulating and applying UK forest policy fell on DEFRA and the Forestry Commission (Raum, 2018) and today, requirements for ES considera-tions are enshrined in the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS).

As stipulated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, ES encompasses con-cepts of regulating (e.g. climate, flooding, pest and disease regulation, water quality) and cultural benefits (e.g. spiritual, education, aesthetic, recreational) alongside provisioning (e.g. fuel, food, fresh water, wood and fibre) as compo-nents of sustainable, multi-functional natural resource use (Millennium Eco-system Assessment, 2005).

This essay focuses in the cultural components of ES but also argues that con-siderations for biodiversity are to be factored into this service as natural and cultural heritage are closely linked. ‘Providing a place for wildlife to live’ was found to be the most popular benefit of forests and woodland for local communi-ties in a 2005 study by the Forestry Commission in Wales (Forestry Commis-sion, 2005). Certainly, experiencing and observing wildlife is often a recreational pursuit and sentimental connections to particular species can be intrinsic ele-ments of national identity; evidenced by the Canadian maple leaf, the Scottish thistle, the New Zealand silver fern, the cedar tree emblazed on the Lebanese flag or native birds adorning the pages of UK passports. Widespread public con-cern over wildlife decline is clearly amplified by the popular media heralding a collapse of UK biodiversity (see Howard, 2015 and Beaumont, 2019) and recent public unrest and environmental movements have centred on human-induced environmental degradation, displaying a collective sense of guilt and protesta-tion over a lack of ecological safeguards in neoliberal agendas, albeit sometimes incoherently articulated.

Perceptions of Silvicultural Systems

Forestry operations have become more vulnerable to criticism from both the public and conservation/environmental professionals not only due to perceptions of negative aesthetic impacts but also for negligent attitudes towards nature conservation (Bliss, 2000; Kardell, 1985; Nolet et al., 2018). Being one of the least forested countries in Europe, the UK has been particularly susceptible to such criticism and public authorities and forest managers have experienced growing pressures to incorporate wider ES considerations such as wildlife habitat and social needs for outdoor recreation into policy and practice (Mann et al., 2010).

Silvicultural practices that involve clear-cutting have been particularly decried as disregarding many ES, being overly utilitarian in focus and aesthetically offensive (Bliss, 2000; Pommerening, 2006). Arguably exacerbated by recent news reports of Amazonian clearances and other concerns over global deforestation, it is clearly apparent that the image of a clearfell may evoke perceptions of environmental destruction and unsustainability synonymous with exploitative logging, particularly in the minds of those outside the forestry industry (Kaiser, 2016).

Criticism due to negative ecological impacts of even-aged silviculture largely centre on commonly held views that such systems lack species diversity and are overly disruptive to ecological processes (Nolet et al., 2018). Whether such views can be backed up by empirical evidence is the motivation for much contemporary research and discussion and conclusions remain somewhat unresolved and conflicted. For example, lichen and bryophyte assemblages (Pailet et al., 2010) and mycorrhizal diversity (Kropp and Albee, 1996) have been shown to be negatively affected by even aged/clear-cut systems whilst tree and plant diversity has been observed increasing during some studies (Nolet et al., 2018).

Alongside clearfelling, one of the most widely disparaged systems in modern forestry is that of single species plantations, or monocultures. Pure stands conflict with many people’s notion of an attractive forest and may be perceived as ecologically sterile, devoid of diversity and balance. Of course, the validity of such judgements rests on context specific elements, namely the biodiversity harboured in the land use that a plantation replaced (Pawson et al., 2013). It would be difficult to argue that a pure Sitka spruce stand supports greater species diversity than a native, mixed deciduous woodland and arguably such unfair comparisons are what drive negative perceptions of the practice. Nevertheless, as the focus of numerous recent research efforts, comparisons of mixed-species plantations to pure stands largely favours the former in terms of providing ecological niches and increasing the diversity of associated species (Coll et al., 2018; Liu et al., 2018; Humphrey et al., 2003) and intensively managed Sitka spruce plantations have been shown to support greatly reduced species diversity and habitats when compared to more complex systems (Deal et al., 2012; Mason and Mencuccini, 2014).

Implications for Silvicultural Practice in the UK

The main policy development in UK forestry as a response to socio-environmental shifts has been aspirations and pledges to convert forest man-agement practices and sylvicultural systems to align with the concepts of Con-tinuous Cover Forestry (CCF) (MacDonald and Gardiner, 2005; Helliwell and Wilson, 2012; Hemström et al., 2014; Pommerening, 2006). In 2001, the Welsh Assembly took the lead in formulating policy to convert forests managed under even-aged, clear-cut silvicultural systems to CCF management by pledging to ‘convert at least half of the National Assembly woodlands to continuous cover over the next 20 years’ (Forestry Commission, 2001) and recent updates have proclaimed a need to ‘start again’ and ‘avoid clearfelling’ (Forest Commission, 2018). Although limited in technical guidance, the use of ‘low-impact silvicul-ture systems’ that diversify age, species and forest structure is advocated by the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme (UKWAS) as a general requirement for forest product certification schemes.

To adhere to international agreements and guidelines regarding ES and sus-tainable forest management, the UK Forestry Standard established require-ments for forestry professionals, with stand diversity and a necessity to adopt ‘low impact silvicultural systems’ being major themes of the document. Lack of diversity in many forests that were established in the last century are directly addressed and the opportunity to transform and convert many forests to more complex systems that promote biodiversity and avoid clearfelling are encouraged (Forestry Commission, 2017).

Attempts to define CCF have fallen short of reaching a clear conclusion. Pom-merening and Murphy (2004) identified 24 semi-synonyms which highlight cer-tain aspects of CCF, however the overriding idea is that of maintaining relative-ly perpetual tree cover by employing selective harvesting, permitting natural re-generation and avoiding large scale clear-cut operations. CCF therefor encom-passes a range of silvicultural systems and stresses a preference for hetero-genous forest structure (Helliwell, 2012; Mason, 2018; Pommerening, 2006; Seedre et al., 2018).

Forestry practices in several European countries have undergone paradigm shifts in recent decades in line with the concepts of CCF and major efforts to adopting uneven-aged and mixed-species silviculture have been made (Helliwell and Wilson, 2012; Vitokova and Dubhain, 2016). Clear-cut practices have been made illegal in Switzerland, Slovenia and some parts of Germany (McMohan et al., 2016) and in 2002 the Danish Nature and Forest Agency declared that all state owned forests shall managed under ‘close to nature’ systems (Larsen and Nielsen, 2007). Further afield, ‘managing for complexity’ has also become a key aspect of sustainable forest management in North America (Puettmann et al., 2008). Experience and knowledge of implementation and benefits of CCF has therefore advanced on an international level, however the UK has been slow to adopt such practices on a large scale. Today, between 10-20% of UK forests are managed using silvicultural practices adhering to CCF and >80% of production forests are still harvested with clear-cut systems (Mason, 2018).

Mason (2018) suggests the delays in adopting CCF are due to ‘prevailing forestry culture’ in the UK that still adheres to the heavily utilitarian teachings of 1960s literature and handbooks. A lack of experience and skills and the economic risks associated with transforming long-established and demonstrably efficient practices have also hindered the development of CCF (MacDonald et al., 2009). Reforming the purposes of forests to include non-market considerations in a way that drastically alters form and content is seen by many in the forestry pro-fession to be contrary to economic logic and lacking in coherent aims and tangi-ble outputs (Davies and Kerr, 2015; Puettmann et al., 2015; Tonbridge, 2003). The impact of widespread transformation and conversion on a well-established timber processing sector is also a concerning factor (MacDonald and Gardiner, 2005).

Nevertheless, numerous UK authors, academics and professionals advocate CCF (Callidine et al., 2015; Helliwell and Wilson, 2012; Mason, 2014, 2018) as having potential to provide sustained timber yields whilst improving biodiversity and landscape aesthetics. Ongoing test projects and trails (such as in Glentress in Scotland since 1952, Clocaenog in Wales since 2002 and Gisburn in England since 1955) are being carried out to address the lack of knowledge and experi-ence surrounding CCF management (Kerr and Macintosh, 2012; Mason and Connolly, 2014). In addition, The Continuous Cover Forestry Group (CCFG) was established in 1991 to promote a transformation of forests from even-aged struc-tures to CCF and work extensively alongside the Forestry Commission to provide workshops, share knowledge and offer guidance to practitioners (Mason and Kerr, 2004).

The aforementioned policy shifts, a growing list of proponents, ongoing research efforts, accessibility of knowledge from overseas and increasing industry experi-ence have made sure that the concept of CCF has firmly penetrated British for-estry and has the potential to profoundly influence future silvicultural practice.


Here you should make informed suggestions for silvicultural practices that could mitigate undesirable impacts or enhance the desired impacts of change, ideally suggesting a number of options and making a specific recommendation. You might want to consider alternative silvicultural systems; species/provenances; species composition; regeneration management; tending; harvesting.

To be continued…

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