Forest Management in the Face of a Changing Climate

by Forest Manager Colin Corkhill

The direct effects of climate change can no longer be considered as something restricted to the confines of a faraway frozen tundra or the basin of a tropical rainforest.  It is right outside your window – and in some cases even lapping at your door!

Environmentalists have been issuing warnings on the negative influence of human activity since the 1800’s, and their message hasn’t changed much it has just got louder and louder.  The present thinking however appears to be that we have now traversed the knife edge that we had been poised upon and are now past the point of redemption.  If this is the case; what is the point of changing our habits now?  The scientists don’t get things wrong – do they?  Personally, I think it is the duty of each inhabitant of our planet to give it a shot.  We can all do our share to reverse the long-term effects and perhaps save this little spinning ball of dust we call earth.

Recycling of household waste has increased dramatically in the past decade, and discussions on the reduction in plastics is trending.  But is this enough?  Tree planting is probably the most talked about method to aid the sequestration of carbon and reduce global warming, and a good aid it is too. Governments across the world are actively promoting the planting of billions of trees.  Nevertheless, this is not happening at a sufficient enough rate to combat the rapid expansion of the world’s economies and the resultant emissions being produced.  And what if you do not have huge swathes of land available to plant?  Maybe there is also a way to enhance existing woodlands to help reduce the impacts of climate change where planting new ones is not an option.

The forestry industry called for a more resilient approach to woodland management with the commissioning of the Climate Change Accord in Paris in July 2015.  It was here that over 35 of the UK’s leading organisations signed up as a demonstration of their commitment to act and adapt in the short-term for the benefit of the long progress.  Tilhill Forestry eagerly signed the accord and has been working with their managed clients, investment portfolios, and other organisations to do just this.  We believe that resilience is the key and this can only be achieved through diversification of the UK’s tree stock.  At present 80% of the UK’s woodlands are comprised of just 10 different tree species!  This is mainly due to the commercial Spruce, Larch, and Pine plantations of Scotland and Wales which are coming under threat from international diseases as well as changes in climatic conditions.  Large scale trials are well underway to find alternative species which may be more suited to the type of climate we might well be experiencing in 50-100 years’ time.

The southern coast of England knows all too well how conditions have already changed over recent years.  This is demonstrated through the vast number of vineyards having been established in the last decade as the warmer, sunnier weather associated with the grape growing regions of France such as the Champagne region have already migrated north.  These prolonged drier episodes are stressing our trees and causing pathogens such as those associated with Ash Dieback to take hold quicker and spread faster.  All this leaves the humble forester with the question of what to plant.  Decades of regulations and grant funding programmes have continued a trend of planting native trees.  But surely this is a good thing, right?  Well of course; native trees after all provide habitat for local wildlife and many of the UK’s endangered invertebrates.  But what happens when the climate changes and those trees are no longer able to survive?  What happens to our woodlands and everything that lives in and around them?  Diversification of trees species is clearly the key.  This doesn’t mean we need to be planting monocultural blocks of exotic species, but rather look at similar species to our own from other more southerly provenances such as trees that can provide comparable conditions for wildlife and mix these in and around species which can provide the nation’s timber needs.  This will help reduce not only our reliance on foreign timber, but also eliminate the carbon produced during the import process, as well as the likelihood of introducing more pests and pathogens.  All whilst providing our wildlife with a safe and stable place to live.