Forestry is a long-term business – it needs foresight, with an eye for long-finance awareness and to the long-term health and wellbeing of people and sustainability of the environment. When the Natural History Museum celebrated the bicentenary of Charles Darwin in 2009 it worked with artist Tanya Kovats to create TREE, a work which involved embedding a thin section through the length of a 200-year-old English Oak into a ceiling within the listed Museum building. The age represented the years since Darwin’s birth and the oak itself the resilience of his evolutionary ideas. However there were demanding requirements for this work, and to meet them the tree was procured from a private forest. Why?
The Museum was insistent that the work, though it involved felling a live tree, should be an exemplar of sustainable management practice (and biodiversity conservation). The Museum achieved this by working with the forestry team on the private estate of Lord Bath at Longleat in Wiltshire. The Longleat forest is one of the largest tracts of English broadleaf forest surviving. Historically, post Second World War, government demands via the Forestry Commission were for rapid, low-cost timber provision. This often meant alien, fast-growing conifers planted as monocultures and harvested within just a few decades of growth.
The broadleaf forest on the Longleat Estate is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and the subject of long-term study by several universities because of its high biodiversity. Yet this forest is commercially managed. Each year something like 10,000 tons of standing timber is cut from it, of which 6,000 tons is extracted for commercial use and the remainder – around 4,000 tons of branches and thinnings - left on the forest floor to create habitats for wildlife. This commercial activity is of course important for local livelihoods and to the rural economy.
The Longleat foresters emulate natural succession processes. Trees are not clear-cut but taken as they age, leaving a ‘mosaic’ of spaces in the forest which is always changing over time. As oak is typically at its best for timber between 140-180 year, which means long-established forests (with ancient oaks left in various parts of the woods). Trees such as hazel, ash, birch and beech all come in naturally as seedlings, usually long before oak is re-established. Where the estate was once required by post-war policy to plant alien firs, these are gradually being taken out in a sympathetic way. For example fire breaks are being cut much wider so that they become more like ‘natural forest borders’ with edge species such as birch and elder providing habitats for wider species diverity.
Unusually, procuring the tree for the Museum’s project required excavating the huge 20-ton root stump (stumps are more usually left to rot which is great for invertebrates and animals of the forest floor). It was the Longleat forester’s initiative to take advantage of this opportunity and enhance the large excavated hole to turn it into a pond haven to encourage frogs and newts and other pond life. The Museum project also included planting 200 young trees in public areas around the forest, and this legacy of ‘Darwin Clumps’ has been marked on the maps of the estate.
Looking at the bigger picture, with concerns over climate it is increasingly recommended that for commercial interests forester’s have to edge their bets and create much more diverse tree-planting to optimise the chances of getting good timber crops in spite of the environmental uncertainties around the climate of the future. At the same time the wider importance of forest in securing water supply and mitigating risks such as floods or in helping to lock-up carbon to off-set some of our fossil fuel emissions is also increasingly part of what forest management must address. It is only relatively recently that the Commission began to pay attention to biodiversity and the wider services of nature provided by forests, including their importance as accessible amenities to benefit both the health and wellbeing of the public, and to provide an accessible landscape that encourages regional tourism.
In the debate about ‘who should own public forest’, the key issue is actually what will be the ground rules for their future governance? Whoever takes on the task of managing our forests must do so in line with future long-term environmental and green-economic aims, not those of the post war era. They will need to be sustainably managed and developed to anticipate and offset the risks of environmental change. Their role in accommodating wider ecosystem services (including their importance as an amenity for public health and wellbeing) will need to be part of the specification. The UK Government has just agreed with the United Nations the importance of maintaining biological diversity as it underpins the vital services which nature provides for free, and yet which contribute substantially to our economic wellbeing. To deliver our contribution to the new targets for the UN Decade of Biodiversity 2011-20 we will need to see much more of the practices exemplified in Longleat. Whether ownership is via a governmental appointed Commission or via private or community ownership what will be most important is having a management framework that will ensure that rich, diverse forests are part of our landscape for the future and that they, more than ever before, provide the full variety of services we need for our health, wealth and wellbeing.
Dr Robert Bloomfield
Head of Innovation and Special Projects
Natural History Museum, London