The right tree in the right place
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By Stephen Coffey, Head Forester, The Heart of England Forest
Tree planting is a widely recognised way of combatting climate change, However, it is not just about the quantity of trees that go in the ground, planting the right tree in the right place is crucial.
The importance of sustainable tree planting
Since 2018 when the government launched its 25 Year Environment Plan to improve the environment within a generation, there has been huge emphasis placed on the importance of tree planting. The Government has quantified this by aspiring to increase woodland cover in the UK to over 12% by 2060. Here at the Heart of England Forest, we are contributing to this with our ambitious vision of planting and protecting a 30,000 acre native broadleaf Forest. In 2018, we planted 13% of all the native trees planted in England.
However, effective conservation action is not just about planting as many trees as possible, but about planting sustainably. Whilst most good conservation charities have always worked with this in mind, it has only recently become a focal point of the national media.
One of the most notable initiatives has been The Queen’s Green Canopy, launched in May 2021, which encourages people to “plant a tree for the jubilee” with a focus on planting the right tree in the right place. We appreciate the importance of planting sustainably to grow the Forest and make an effective, long-term impact. To achieve this, we put a lot of time and effort into planning and managing our sites to ensure the right trees go in the right places.
Considering the landscape
Government guidelines do not define exactly where the right place for a tree is, so we rely on the natural landscape and the expertise of our staff to help us decide where to plant trees in the Forest.
When first deciding where best to plant trees, we consider the landscape and what is already present on site. There are areas where tree planting is not appropriate because of statutory designations such as features of cultural heritage, archaeological sites, managed parkland landscapes, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designated for something other than woodland, or infrastructure wayleaves such as power lines and gas pipelines.
We turn these constraints into opportunities and preserve and work around what is already there. On a local level, we are also considerate of our neighbours and undertake consultation and plan our woodland planting to avoid obstructing important views around their properties.
In deciding what species to plant where, we follow nature’s guidelines. Historically, many of the sites around the Forest were part of the ancient Forest of Arden and the Forest of Feckenham. We do what we can to reforest those areas to mimic what they may have looked like in the past. The Forest of Arden would have been an oak woodland, so we focus on planting species that would be found in this type of woodland.
Often our existing hedgerows give a good indication of the right trees to plant: North of the River Avon the dominant hedgerow tree is oak in many areas, and we like to think of these as the descendants of the ancient forest.
Land and soil quality
The quality of the land is a major influence in which trees are most suitable for each site. It is generally agreed that productive arable land – including Agricultural Land Class grades 1 and 2 where crop production is easiest and most profitable - is probably to be avoided when creating landscape-scale woodland. We therefore focus most of our woodland creation on lower grade agricultural land (grades 3-5), which are less productive for crops.
We are also blessed to have heavy clay soil with some clay loams which is a very versatile soil-type, across most of our sites in the Forest. This means that most of our tree species will thrive wherever we choose to plant them, and so our widely diverse species mix is broadly the same across the Forest. This is great for biodiversity as it means we can plant a large variety of trees within each block of woodland. We do, however, adjust the positioning of species within a field to suit individual sites. For example, willow and alder would be concentrated in naturally wet areas and sessile oak in freer draining areas.
It is not always the right place for a tree
Because we are breaking up areas of woodland with wide grassland rides, wetland habitats, and hedgerows to create a mosaic of habitats, we estimate that up to 40% of our woodland at the Heart of England Forest does not actually have any trees on it. This idea originated with our founder Felix Dennis who wanted to create a light and airy Forest. This is not only visually pleasing but is the best option for biodiversity and the environment.
Not being able to plant a tree somewhere is an opportunity to create or enhance an alternative habitat and do something different with the land. For instance, we have two fields in the Forest that have grade 2 alluvial soil which is perfect for growing crops. We have now dedicated this area to our new social enterprise tree nursery, so that we can grow our own trees and generate income for the charity.
Also, at Oak Wood, we identified an opportunity to develop wetland alongside a tributary to the River Alne, an important habitat type that is increasingly rare in Warwickshire. Other habitats are also under threat and important in their own right. For example, we have lost 97% of our flower-rich meadows since World War 1, so we would look to incorporate these important and botanically-rich habitats into our overall mosaic rather than planting trees on them.
Trees and wildlife
Another factor that influences the position of a tree is the wildlife that inhabits that area. We carry out wildlife surveys across the Forest to help inform our habitat management plans, ensuring that species can thrive.
Different species have different habitat preferences which are important to maintain if we want to encourage them to inhabit our sites. An example of this in the Forest would be the large amounts of naturally regenerated goat willow close to the high canopies of mature woodland. This is an ideal habitat for the rare purple emperor butterfly, which we knew was present around the Forest, and which will significantly increase as we continue developing this aspect of our woodland.
Our Bearley site is another great example of how we monitor and respect the wildlife in different areas of the Forest. A survey found that skylarks, a Red List Species of Conservation Concern, are nesting there, and so to encourage a permanent presence we are keeping fourteen acres of open grassland. The land had previously been intensively managed arable land that probably made no allowance for skylarks, so this should be a hugely beneficial adjustment for biodiversity in the area.
The right tree in the right place
There is a multitude of reasons why it is important to make sure trees are planted in the right places, and we are thrilled to see other initiatives across the nation encouraging this in our fight against climate change.
Find out more about the Heart of England Forest - www.heartofenglandforest.org
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