A controversial issue many think not, but it is and is a major issue if we are to realise a ‘woodland culture’ in England.
Volunteers are wonderful and one should never discourage anyone from volunteering to assist in their local woodlands, no matter who the owner may be. However has it reached a point where woodlands are under threat because of a lack of restrictions on the limitations of what a volunteer can do? I would argue yes and is clear to see within much English woodland. Further of concern is the lack of and disenfranchisement of existing forestry and arboriculture professionals with both the traditional and innovative skills and knowledge essential to the longevity of a woodland.
Firstly there are few, very few areas of woodland, if any, which do not require some form of human intervention in England. The reason is simple – the native flora and fauna ecosystems no longer exist and many non native, invasive, alien species are now too well established.
Volunteers can help to redress this imbalance and many have helped to keep things in check in some places where it is crucial and long may they do so.
But many more woodlands are suffering as the sheer weight of the volunteering sector has taken hold to an extent where it is considered a vital asset in woodland management. This is dangerous and the results can be clearly seen: large areas of woodland with the wrong trees removed by ‘thinning’ without proper regard for the balance of age and species needed. Understorey and 2nd generation vegetation cleared, often with tools unfit for purpose by an untrained eye, working to their own personal belief of what a woodland should look like, combined with the all too common ‘native planting’ schemes which lack any decent ground preparation, are badly planted and rarely maintained, much broadleaved woodland is in a bad state.
With some woodlands in ‘conservation’ management the situation is often even worse. In the attempts to create a ‘perfect habitat’ for a particular species whole swaths of trees are cleared. This management for a single purpose is as damaging as replacing the woodland with a single species for plantation purposes only and disregards the immensely complex and diverse nature of a woodland (having allowed such management it is easy to understand why some conservationists have allowed ridiculous ideas such as Biodiversity Offsetting loose in the land management sphere).
The forestry and arboricultural sectors have to start to shout more about its professionalism and particularly the heavy influence that science has over it. It is maybe too late and certainly the possible merger, which has actually been welcomed by some in the conservation sector, of the FC into Natural England is proof that it is too late?
What other profession or industry would allow such an infestation of volunteers to the ludicrous position of having volunteers giving talks with trained professionals in the audience? This situation is the result of having a top heavy presence of those who manage and profit from volunteers claiming ‘stakeholder’ status. Easily done when a significant section of the industry is silenced and many of the rest are out there without the technology and certainly without the time to counterbalance things to how they should be.
The pitiful salaries of many highly qualified forestry personnel in the UK is a direct result of an over reliance on volunteers. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that many high up in the industry and charitable sector profit hugely and selfishly in disenfranchising the industry as a whole by the overuse of volunteers and thus any chance of a real woodland culture is completely thwarted.
For the sake of our forests please accept that there are foresters needed together with local knowledge from the owner or users for those forests to exist and to thrive for the benefit of biodiversity, society and economics (if desired), knowledge which unfortunately cannot be replaced by volunteers.