Category Archives: Natural Heritage

The Marching Coppice Woodlands of Flat French Farmland.

In rural France, particularly on the plateau landscapes, there are many field woodlands which are predominantly long retention coppice, Sweet Chestnut in the main, with standards, nurse trees or Mother Trees of Oak, Ash or mature Chestnuts (I will adopt the term ‘Mother Trees’ which for me best describes the increasingly realised significance of these large dominant trees helping to protect and nurture surrounding younger generations). These woods are as important to the local hunting syndicate as they are for local timber supply; hunting is a pastime generating significant income. Whilst privately owned the timber is usually sold in lots to firewood suppliers and as all French woodland owners have to submit a management plan by law, the trade is regulated to the benefit of the woodland’s biodiversity and the wider landscape.

These woods do not seem accessible to the public and you will find no way-marked trials, picnic benches or often even a gate to enter. But so long as the hunt is not in progress, which is impossible to miss with as much fluorescent material on show to rival the Rio carnival, these woodlands are usually open to the public at all times.

As with most forestscapes their size belies the fact that upon entering the wood, your horizon changes and you are welcomed into a new landscape, although one very much man made, it is clear this is not at any cost to biodiversity. Coppiced woodland is seen in the UK as a museum exhibit, it is something TV celebrities or journalists feel the need to explain as though they have just discovered the technique deep in a dusty library cellar, despite the fact it survives as a very much alive woodland management technique in the UK. Coppice is an amazing feat of tree physiology – to survive a fell to re grow and then double, triple, quadruple etc., Their stems providing an endless resource of sustainable timber. It is the most ancient form of silviculture and modern horticultural or arboricultural students understand the manipulation of epicormic growth (which coppice is a basic form of) early on in their studies.

The French government want to see these woodlands enter much more intensive management to satisfy increasing demand for wood biomass for energy. These woodlands (as defined plantations) should, according to research, cope well with this change into short rotation coppice, which will apparently not harm biodiversity dependent on these habitats either. But there could well be one major loss – the succession of the mother trees and this loss could have dramatic consequences for the health of these woodlands long term as we now know that much of their importance lies underground, but are also a vital resource of nutrients above ground for secies of fauna and flora.

Many of the Mother Trees are outgrown coppice remnants of a relatively even age. Linking this to the historically regular weather patterns of the plateau when great storms often flatten many of these Mother Trees at one time, the trees fall in an easterly direction due to the prevailing wind direction, creating a crescent, from above similar to a segment of spokes of a bicycle wheel. As traditional French silviculture tends to leave such trees lying in situ, (asides removing easy to reach timber for firewood), stems spout along along the length of the fallen Mother.

Due to the difficulty of felling naturally layered new growth, the mother tree continues. And as the fallen trees rot away these new shoots continue to grow and the Mother Tree moves eastwards, leaving a rich deposit of nutrients from which she can feed from (and feed the regularly coppiced youngsters in her charge also).

If we had access to satellite imagery from the last two centuries would we be able to create time lapse aerial photos of a woodland canopy showing the Mother trees as a front, semi circular waves marching eastwards similar to the pattern seen at the front of lapping waves on a shallow beach?

This would explain the widespread traditional knowledge that eastern boundaries to woodland in France require considerably more maintenance than western boundaries. If the leeward boundary was unmaintained these woodlands would start to march eastwards.

The movement of trees is usually confined to science fiction, but trees do walk in more ways than one with the assistance of climatic influence on the tree itself or more often the soil it is interacting with. Therefore as climate changes, (once in a lifetime storms becoming annual events) and woodlands, that many misconceive to be ancient but which are actually the result of historic human influence, behave increasingly erratically will it alter public perception of woodland and trees in general for good or ill?

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21st Century Woodlander

Defining a specific job title in land management is a common thread on professional forums. How much does the confusion surrounding our job titles add to the disenfranchisement of land management practitioners? Or are we, as I think we risk, getting far too pompous over the issue and it would suit us best to get back to Hardyesque titles that avoid wasting a client’s time and money in explaining exactly what we are and what we do.

I am a silviculturalist, my main speciality is in ensuring soils are fit for tree planting and, unfortunately much more common now, in helping identify problems with existing trees planted in the wrong place. The rather grandiose title bestowed on me by French colleagues and peers is ‘arboricultural edaphologist’ which is nice, but wrong in so far as I am not a scientist, an ologist, but a practitioner.

I straddle the border of forestry and arboriculture with landscaping. I work predominantly with landscaping teams and I am always impressed by the sheer range of knowledge that landscapers need to know and use on a daily basis. This knowledge base is forever expanding and good landscaping practitioners can truly state that they are at the forefront of sustainable development in its purest sense. But there are many not so good landscapers, in fact they are not landscapers at all but have stolen this title to enter a badly regulated industry. But ‘Landscaper’ should be a safe all encompassing term. The French differentiate between an ‘Open Landscaper’ and a ‘Landscape Engineer,’ this is maybe something worth considering in the UK to protect this vitally important industry.

In the UK a forester is a well defined title that cannot be stolen, whilst ‘Arborist’ or particularly ‘Tree Surgeon’ can be. In France, what in English we consider a Forester is in fact ‘Sylviculteur’, a ‘Forestier’ is a much more encompassing term for what in translation can only really be a ‘Woodlander’. This is a name we have almost vilified in the 20th century to its near extinction alongside the cull of traditional forest skills and knowledge.  Arboriculturalists according to most spell checking software simply do not exist, which needs to be corrected.

The French rely on the baccalauréat system, which in simple terms allows someone to place a number after your name to register your years of training specifically in the field you have chosen to work in. On top of this there is a distinct difference, (and found within all the multiple choice ‘profession’ sections of websites for official or business online applications), between an arboriste, sylviculteur, arboriculturaliste etc., this subtle introduction of the correct terminology does a lot to empower those who hold such titles.

What is a modern Woodlander? It could surely range from the increasingly popular ‘bushcraft’ industry, modern craftsmen and women keeping old skills alive and introducing the traditional methods to create modern designs, through to and perhaps most importantly your local firewood supplier.

The financial angle is very important also. A ‘forestier’ is self financing. I did some basic research searching through several accounts of local communes in the Sud Vienne in relation to community owned woodlands. The average annual income per hectare of a commune owned woodland is€2800.00. The average expenditure is €0.60. All expenditure is the result of having to call in a Sylviculteur, the income is from the Forestier.

Just as a Landscaper could save money to businesses and domestic clients by enhancing and maintaining ecosystem services values, CO2 offsetting etc., a Woodlander could actually help pay into community, private and public sector woodland budgets. But the NGOs, Quangos, Carbon Consultants et al., won’t like that, they won’t like that at all – because where will be their cut? And anyway they helped ensure such values existed in the first place, which can be doubled through using volunteers to do work which in reality can only and should only be done by professionally qualified personnel.

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Talking About Trees

Festival of The Trees - October 2011

It is Autumn, a time to literally take stock, an emotional season where us as human beings realise the importance of the natural world to our own existence. Harvest time for us, where our trees provide us with food and more and in watching the trees shed their leaves in preparation for the winter realise that it is a season of importance in feeding much smaller organisms than ourselves.

It is Autumn in the Northern hemisphere in the International Year of the Forests, designated to make us aware of the importance of forests, lest we forget. Regrettably it is also a year which has seen the passing away of two great tree heros, Merv Wilkinson and Wanagri Maathai who had both continued to champion trees and their importance to us in realising a sustainable life, throughout a period of time when much of the worlds population were starting to forget the inherited wealth the forests and trees provided for them.

I am a Forester, I am relatively new to the realm of the internet and its power to communicate beyond all boundaries, my decision to search for tree related material on the internet was due to the threats which our forests and trees are facing, which are greater than they ever have been. Pests, diseases and non native invasive plants threaten forests and trees across the world, a problem exasperated by climate change.

All forestry and arboricultural practitioners are disenfranchised by the lack of communicating what problems there are with our trees as well as what we do and why to the general public, it is the subject matter of much industry discussion. Our own voices have often been replaced by those from other industries.

The discovery of the wealth of tree information in social media and the blogosphere was overwhelming to me. It tied in with the academic thinking, introduced into European law, that landscapes belong to all of us, no matter where we live. The elements contained in a landscape of which trees are arguably the most prominent feature are a vital element of our sense of place and belonging.

Everybody’s voice in how they view trees is relevant; in doing so they provide a knowledge base that surpasses even the grandest of expectations, a wealth of discovery and experiences which cannot be lessened or abused by any one person, group or government. Shared discoveries of our indigenous trees as well as those that have adapted into our landscapes are being made by people from across the whole spectrum of society transcending international boundaries.

 From the blogs where individuals have taken the time to discover the attributes of trees, their responses in a shared existence to how they affect emotions and thus add to our creative thinking in turn building up our cultural heritage, locally through to internationally.

Trees are our past, present and future, to understand this more we need to listen to everybody. The voice of the homeless using the shelter of a tree is as relevant as that of a professor.

Governments, us in the industry and anyone else wishing to discuss trees or discover ways of introducing policies which will be palatable to all simply need to join in. It is free and inexhaustive, but is a revolution, that can only serve to ensure that our trees are protected as best they can be as our knowledge of trees grows more rapidly than it ever has done before.

These are our shared trees in our shared landscape, shared with our communities and with the biodiversity so important to maintain our lifecycle.

My many thanks to all contributors and the range of infomartion and art you have shared.

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Places Vs Landscapes & Abusing Definition of Sustainability.

As the campaigns surrounding the recent publication of the draft NPPF in the UK are gearing up and with the ongoing work by the forestry panel to determine the future of UK forestry, one fact has raised its head between all those with a relevant voice, particularly between those pro and anti NPPF. The definitions and meanings of words within the NPPF and in use by those who need to understand it alter dramatically.

This is a massive flaw of the draft NPPF, in the efforts to create simplicity it has in fact created more confusion and thus more complexity, which means it will cost more to the taxpayer.

And despite a period of several years where we have seen publication after publication of material from central and local government, quangos and NGOs, we seem to have no material available to allow us to move forward in enabling diplomacy between all those with a relevant voice.

The government departments have become too distant from one another over issues the rest of us know and assume to be interconnected, the result of them having to deal with the myriad of branches involved in the management of landscapes and environmental issues. Those within the myriad have chosen to use varying definitions and more often use ‘buzzwords’ which can be misunderstood outside the narrow boundaries of a particular profession, which whilst closely related to other branches of the management of landscape or environmental sectors have been isolated for so long that their very language has evolved.

Because of this, we can read the draft NPPF and quickly decipher where the influence in the writing of the document came from and this influence is far removed from those in the landscape / environmental & countryside sector. Subsequent to the publication many including government ministers have quickly assigned that those in opposition to the draft NPPF are to the ‘left’ in political terms, which is sheer nonsense.

 Places Vs Landscapes

When I first heard of ‘Place’ in landscape design terms, it was via a German ‘Urbaniste’ in Paris who asked me ‘what is a place designer?’ after she had heard of a UK practitioner calling themselves as such. The German urbaniste felt they were missing a wonderful new concept for progressive sustainable urban design, she wasn’t. On reading the literature on place and placemaking I initially felt that this was the coming together of landscape and home, but the more I read, it seemed little more than the twisting of words to avoid using ‘landscape’. But why do this? Is it to push aside ‘old school’ professionals and practitioners? Is it to provide a new strand of thinking and thus introduce a new industry in an already crowded sector? Or is it a way of providing a platform, parallel to the ideals held by those in landscape and environmental sectors but more digestible for the increasing amount of people and businesses who wish to jump on the bandwagon without radically changing their ways. Is Placemaking more palatable to those in the mainstream financial sector in the UK? It seems to be, as it removes associated connotations with ‘Landscape’, which is regularly at odds with quick profit development and in all the text I have read so far place making refers to increased house prices and schemes which can create profit by way of enforced charges against those that actually desire to follow a sustainable lifestyle.

It is the ‘place makers’ who have gained the ear of those writing the draft NPPF as they can demonstrate wealth creation through the twisting of sustainable ideals. Place makers are developers.

The European Landscape Convention, states that each party must undertake:

 a) to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity;

b) to establish and implement landscape policies aimed at landscape protection, management and planning through the adoption of the specific measures (set out in Article 6);

c) to establish procedures for the participation of the general public, local and regional authorities, and other parties with an interest in the definition and implementation of the landscape policies mentioned in paragraph b above;

d) to integrate landscape into its regional and town planning policies and in its cultural, environmental, agricultural, social and economic policies, as well as in any other policies with possible direct or indirect impact on landscape.

Does the NPPF therefore break the law? The omission of text referring to landscape and thus ignoring the European Landscape Convention, (ratified in the UK in 2006 and which could have aided progression of the NPPF and those who have to implement it) is worrying. In a political and media climate where anything ‘European’ is subject to scathing attacks and seen to be a threat to UK sovereignty it is understandable to avoid referral to the ELC but it is also unforgiveable and possibly illegal.

 Sustainability must be defined.

The word sustainable has been liberally dosed within the text of the NPPF. Despite using the Brundtland definition, Greg Clarks’ personal rhetoric and the text within the NPPF using ‘sustainable’ when referring to the continuation of using finite resources, we know that the literal definition provided by Brundtland is irrelevant. Sustainable has been a much abused word. I remember sitting in a conference in Cornwall about sustainable tourism, which is an oxymoron. Perhaps because I come from a forestry background where sustainable management is relatively easy and is certainly well defined, I am too quick to judge other industries that wish to progress with more environmentally, ecologically and socially ethical practice. But had they used a different term, their efforts would be less open to attack and certainly more relevant. ‘Low Impact’ is perhaps what they need to use. Although bizarrely this term is used more by those closer to achieving full sustainability than any others, because they believe that true sustainability can only be gained if absolutely all use of finite goods and energy are is stopped.

Yesterday Si Jakeman, of the ‘Great Big Earth Dig Project’ wrote an article for SOW – ‘What Does Sustainability Mean to Me?’  His interpretation of sustainability probably matches with the majority of people. However he states:

‘’Businesses are slowly coming on board with sustainability, but do they truly understand why they need to? Or are they only using it as green wash? Does a new level of Sustainability need to emerge, one of DEEP SUSTAINABILITY?’’ 

Unfortunately I have to agree with him, there now needs to be a different definitions of sustainability and with regards ‘sustainable development’ (where different levels of sustainable exist via ‘The Code for Sustainable Homes’) will it be allowed presumption in favour of, even if it only gained CSH level 1?

Andrew Lainton goes much further in the examination of the use of sustainable with regards the NPPF and concludes:

‘’This is the single greatest weakness of the NPPF. A presumption in favour of sustainable development badly defined and poorly operationalised, as here, is simply a presumption in favour of development without limits – unsustainable development.’’

It is easy to leave all judgements down to the local authorities and planners and thus it is up to them to further define sustainability, but this will surely result in high costs and a long period of time where development is either halted or made more costly awaiting the establishment of precedents by common law.

In the rush to simplify and publish the NPPF the government have forgotten to supply vital reference. The lack of referral material thus negates any practical usefulness for the NPPF. As well as placing before the electorate a consultation which appears to be in breach of the Governments own ‘Code of Practice on Consultation’:

 ‘1.2 It is important that consultation takes place when the Government is ready to put sufficient information into the public domain to enable an effective and informed dialogue on the issues being consulted on. But equally, there is no point in consulting when everything is already settled. The consultation exercise should be scheduled as early as possible in the project plan as these factors allow.’

The fact is that the NPPFs’ vagueness does not help either the developer or those opposed to it. And if anyone assumes that the NPPF allows for fast tracking development and thus creating economic growth they are sadly neglecting the power of local communities who can and will fight against development proposals due to flimsiness of the NPPF. Any organisation or individual putting their head above the parapet at the moment and praising the need to progress with sustainable development have to clarify what they believe is sustainable development otherwise what they say is useless.

Even sadder is that if the NPPF truly embraced Sustainable development as per Brundtland with presumption in favour of development which absolutely adheres to the non use of finite resources it would have allowed for extraordinary growth and the birth of new industries. Instead as with the oil and chemical industries a continual rise in subsidies will be required to try and stimulate growth in a sector that has already reached maturity.

The only people and sector which could possibly gain from the NPPF as it stands at the moment are property lawyers and chartered surveyors, no wonder RICS are so enthusiastic about it.

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