Forestry & Arboriculture – Knowledge Transfer across the Channel.

Following academic suggestion UK industrial and peripheral eyes are turning to France for case study with regards forestry and arboriculture. Unlike the poor cited case studies referred to in the cancelled ‘Public Consultation on Public Forests Estate’ document, the basic scientific parallels allow for an analysis of strategy and implemented policies which share so much across the spectrum of land management.

Whether the recently announced ‘Independent Panel’ choose to broaden their horizon by a quick jolly across the channel remains to be seen; but it would be appropriate given the common threats to trees and woodland to investigate the ONF together with the French attitude to trees and woodlands prior to announcing suggestions for UK policy that could be ‘insular’ as well as possibly ignoring the strong existing presence of the UK and its research that has been so acclaimed within Europe and has seen actual implementation of measures based on British recommendations across the continent but bizarrely not in the UK. One strong geographical factor, which is relevant in terms of studying English rather than British forestry is that the majority of English woodland is significantly closer geographically to France than the majority of Scottish woodland, (particularly native woodland). This fact allows for parity in terms of species, climate and biodiversity. As Scotland drifts further away from English policy with regards forestry, which is no bad thing, the significance of Scottish forestry in socio economic terms and a species mix, climate & biodiversity more similar to Scandinavian countries becomes increasingly prevalent.

There are significant differences between France and the UK which need to be considered when using France as a case study and which in doing so may highlight factors that have to be tackled in the UK before adopting any policy decisions based on the French model, (asides from one interesting fact within French Forest Strategy, includes the Dom Toms which contain the only tropical rainforest found in the EU, thus leading to some confusing facts within French strategy documents and research):

1)      France is large, its population is similar to the UK but is in a landscape 2.7 times larger. Add to this the fact that the French population is much more urban and it is easy to understand why land is so cheap in France. Huge areas support a small population despite the massive agricultural industry. As such sustainable forest management is simply the continuation of a traditional lifestyle and all rural commercial activity is based around this. Sustainable development is easy to achieve because the source materials exist in abundance and consequently ‘wood fuel’ heating is commonplace and cheap.

2)      The Sylviculteur and Arboriste practitioners, (Foresters & Arborists), enjoy respect as professionals, in a way that would stun their UK counterparts. In much of rural France the Vet and Forester are placed on a pedestal as the GP and Solicitor would be in an English village. This is a clear illustration of the bottom up approach that has established itself with regards forestry in France, which is very much at odds with the top down UK approach which is so firmly established now in the UK it is difficult to conceive otherwise. But a vital factor in understanding the French system and how it achieves what it does with such little cost, is to realise you can trust completely the practitioner to maintain trees and woodland and also educate the public without an upside down pyramid of middle management, PR and policy makers weighing on his / her shoulders.

3)       The concept of large land owning NGOs is alien to the French, (although envied by ministerial accountants). Whilst NGOs have a place in lobbying and policy decision in national terms, regional identity and less centralised control simply disables any requirement for land owning NGOs. This fact is largely due to the history of France and subsequent principles born out of the revolution and world wars.  There are however many small associations in any given region of France. These associations contain a cross section of the public and private sector as well as a majority of local representatives of the general public, (with annual elections). The result is that local identity is maximised in virtually every aspect of community life and is further used as the most important publicity tool for French tourism. The landscape produces the products that create the local identity, if there is no historic traditional product a new one is created – be it a cheese or a carved wooden spoon, which looks authentic and ancient but is often the result of a local designers scribble two years previously.

There is also the need to realise the French are facing a crisis in landscape terms, which of course has an overwhelming impact on forestry in a country where the landscape is much more integrated between the urban and rural landscape. The last 20 years have seen the ‘classic French landscape’ ideal introduced from Lille to Perpignan in city, town and village landscape design. This is due to a rapid strengthening of national commerce. The ‘Leroy Merlin’ garden landscape is changing the gardens of France from the traditional sustainable ‘potager’ into the gardens the UK saw 30 years ago, [Voice P. 2010]. Paradoxically at the same time the UK is experiencing a trend in the opposite direction.  Traditional skills and knowledge are dying out quickly and the separation of the various strands of land based management is starting to become as obvious in France as it is in the UK now. It could become worse as the power of burgeoning horticultural and design based industry combined with agricultural herbicides and pesticides becoming cheaper and more accessible to all French farmers start to threaten the green matrix of sustainable woodland that is the very backbone of the French landscape.

Thus any investigation into French policy should be reciprocated to avoid the otherwise inevitable position that the French will be facing the same problems as the English currently do at the moment.

Many EU states have looked on UK land management and forestry with considerable envy before 2011 and there was genuine horror, (and to be fair some smugness from certain quarters), when PFE disposal was proffered.

Is now the time to embrace the text of the ELC and look into transcending borders beyond academic and required shared research, and actually implement pure sustainable forestry and tree management into the landscape. France and the UK share the rights to being the birthplace and persistently innovative leaders of land management ideals, (from agriculture, horticulture and forestry) in historic and modern terms, an ‘entente cordiale’ for the environment and multi purpose usage of the landscape, would not only save each other from making mistakes, but as Concorde and the Channel Tunnel proved the combined skills and knowledge between England and France can create the most enviable of results.

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