Category Archives: Trees and Woodlands

Flailing an Orchard!! Whose fault is it really?

2 days ago, my son and I travelled to some nearby woods to catch a glimpse of the wild boar there. En route we passed a field with many new born lambs, their mothers and a herd of deer also. Close to where we stopped there was an unusual bird of prey, easily identifiable later in the guidebook as a Booted Eagle. Another to add to our now extensive list of wildlife spotted.

One of the factors in moving to France was to allow my son the opportunity I had when growing up, to not only catch glimpses of special wildlife but to live in an area where water meadows, ancient woodland and clear life brimming rivers and streams were within walking distance.

It was clear, very quickly after moving here, that these now rare habitats in the UK are kept alive in perpetuity here in France by the same people many blame for their disappearance in the UK: Farmers.

The myths (downright lies in many cases) which now float around the ether in regards the problems facing landscapes have become one of the greatest problems by themselves. Having had the time to talk to a cross section of those with an interest in their rural landscape it was apparent that media; both social and general, had strayed so far from reality that it would have been good to hear that it was irrelevant – unfortunately its not! And it is what now feeds policy making, compounding the problems continually.

For example; on one quango website there is a statement that the economy of the South Hams is dependent on Agriculture, Fishing and Tourism. This is simply not true. The agricultural industry of the area (and fishing) is almost negligible. Therefore the base economics are simply being brushed aside and any all national solutions offered up, championed on social media and paid for by charitable grants cannot work. The only real solutions are those born within a landscape itself specifically for that landscape, which by default will consider the real economics at play from the start – which requires strong involvement from the farming community.

The farming community have been shouting the need for good technical advice for years now. Their industry is changing so rapidly having been undressed in the arena of global economics and the need for a strong innovative push has been usurped, easily, by the large multinational pesticide and GM companies – who have grown so powerful that they are able to manipulate the chasms they used to gain power.

But as farmers are increasingly demonised, without any consideration of the real economics we see an increasingly belligerent stand by them, which results in real damage in the landscape. Monbiot et al, are forcing farmers into a corner where they are then forced to commit the malfeasant practice they stand accused of, and readily accept the spiel offered to them by multinationals pesticide corporations as a defence barrier.

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This image of a flailed orchard acutely highlights this problem. This orchard should be profitable – a valuable local asset and a source of secondary funding. Rather than accusing the landowner of malpractice should we not be considering why it was sanctioned? I bet it is due to economic realities, with the fact that there was little choice when there isn’t the money to pay for the technical guidance and workforce to do the work properly. However there always seems to be plenty of money towards discussing this problems!

If we are to provide wildlife and access for all to it, then we need to provide the money to those who own and manage the land, rather than siphoning this away to continue paying for discussion that only further pushes the farmer into a corner. If this means paying more for their products then so be it. If you want to be a patriot then don’t vote UKIP – buy British and help restore its beautiful landscape.

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Timber Terroir – Just how good can wood be?

It is heartening to watch the strong push towards re-establishing a ‘woodland culture’ in Britain. The disconnection between people and the forest industry has been a problem for a considerable time, which is at the heart of many of the very worst threats facing our forests, trees and the wider landscape. UK Forestry is sustainable and UK arboriculture could be also.

It is nothing short of appalling that the Forestry and Arb industry was effectively usurped, tree planting for the sake of tree planting carried out in the name of nature conservation allowed for a flood of trees, grown in foreign nurseries, to take root across the British landscape. This is not a UKIP thing – it is a simple axiom that the best tree for any particular place is one grown to site specifics, ideally from seed sourced from that location also. The lack of local nurseries and basic forestry knowledge has been lethal to Britain – all for the sake of saving some ‘charity’ money. And the forest industry gets to pick up the pieces and even the blame!

Is it possible to establish an even stronger, localised ‘woodland culture’? One that can directly link communities to the trees and forests in their landscape and at the same time raise the value of timber and non-timber products from their trees?

I often blog about ‘terroir’, it is in my opinion the answer to so much. Official terroir in France is regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), You will have seen this stamp on wine, cheese and other products in your local supermarket. It is a stamp that officialises terroir, the linkage of a place to a product and recognises the higher value due to the fact that this place is the very best for this particular product, indeed the only place for this product. Many other countries have similar systems, with the notable exception of the UK – which is daft for a country with such an extraordinary range of factors with influence on the natural elements in the landscape.

One very important aspect of terroir is the strong linkage it installs between place and product – community and industry. You need only drive along a French motorway where huge brown signs declaring the terroir of a landscape dwarf the political boundary signs to realise this.

In a few places in France something very exciting is happening: Forests are seeking an AOC stamp. After research into the soils and other natural factors influencing a particular landscape, tests on the trees are now being carried out to confirm their unique attributes and how these attributes will gain higher value in the supply chain.

Although not a great translation here is a link to some of this work in La Chartreuse.

Many have told me that it would be impossible to transfer ‘Terroir’ as a word, let alone a concept into the UK. I find this tenuous, considering 45% of English words are of French origin anyway but also due to the simple fact that many foresters (and other land management practitioners) are completely au fait with the skills and knowledge required to achieve terroir produce, it is known that the same tree species, both commercially grown or otherwise, have very different attributes when grown in different landscapes. It is just that there is no connection between community and industry and this is widened still further from the NGO crowd, who see such a connection as a threat to themselves as well as they wishing to only push forward their own ‘brand’.

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Coastal Trees & Woodland

During the stormy winter of 2013/14 the UK’s coasts were battered, infrastructure was destroyed and geological features disappeared. Storm upon storm dumped huge quantities of salt water unto the land. On average the western coastal counties get up to 80kg of salt per hectare per annum. Last year this figure was closer to 200kg. So how did our coastal trees fare? Surprisingly well it seems, although the respite this winter is clearly welcome.

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There were some victims, particularly conifers where the salty winds resulted in discolouration, which proved too ugly for some and thus were felled for ‘aesthetic’ reasons.

The resilience of our coastal trees, both native and non-native, is quite extraordinary and as a Devon based forester stated to me ‘We are missing a trick in not studying these trees more closely’. These trees put up with more than we should expect of them – hugely fluctuating soil microbe populations, extreme climate conditions, unstable soils etc,. And the greatest problem with studying coastal trees is ‘which tree or woodland type do you choose from?’. The choices are as eclectic as the multitude of factors which affect coastal trees.

And there is an image problem also – what tree do we have in our heads when we think of coastal trees?

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There is no ‘common’ tree, no one type for the British to expect when they flock in millions to the coast. Unlike other countries, for example in France where Pine trees are the habitual both on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

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Throughout the period that the coast has attracted all classes of British, attempt after attempt has been made to try and establish a standard surrounding our coastal towns and cities. From mimicking the Greek olive groves with Ilex aquifolium, or the French scattered Pines, through to that most emblematic tree of the perceived modern beach landscape; Palms.

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The vast range of site specific factors conspire against nationwide ‘advice’ on suggested amenity coastal species, and it is wonderful that this matches the rich variety of native coastal trees and woodland.

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Human intervention, for whatever purpose, largely fails as the costs for management are so high. Whatever anyone wishes to achieve, be it a specific habitat for selected wildlife conservation or to create the ‘golf course’ landscape, some feel is best appropriate for this unique in every mile stretch of land that frames Britain, nature will make things difficult.

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So instead of continuing this costly to all ‘King Canute’ stance, can we not instead accept these coastal trees and woodland at face value and as extraordinary assets in understanding our trees and woodland everywhere. An exemplar of the in-between trees and woodland that many malign so much yet hold many secrets towards the use of trees in sustaining the places that we choose to live in.

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Soil Valuation – Ecosystem Services Vs Terroir.

I’ve recently been having to plough through a plethora of research and other bumf relating to ‘Sustainable Intensive Agriculture’. I started sceptically and ended up completely bewildered, it seems to be little more than the redrafting of good practice guidance honing in on marginal land to justify continued bad practice everywhere else. And as with ‘Ecosystem Services’, ‘Landscape Approach’ and even ‘Sustainable Development’, the actual meaning from the researchers has been twisted beyond recognition once it is fed back to land management practitioners and landowners.

One cannot fault the push towards agricultural enlightenment from academics, but this appears to backfire consistently and I agree wholeheartedly with those that say that this is due to continually ignoring the economics, something the large pesticide companies do not do and it is also true that these companies, which have infiltrated land management at all levels, can easily conquer the division created by an Ecology Vs Farming fight, which the media are keen to perpetuate.

Dave Goulson states;

 “Surprisingly few studies have simultaneously compared profitability and biodiversity benefits across farming systems, yet this is the fundamental trade-off in food production.”

Take the valuations estimated for ecosystem services to most policy makers and they will ask how to tap into these financial values, take them to a farmer and they’ll ask if it is leading to supplementary payments. In the government drive to build Singapore on England’s green and pleasant land, this situation will of course be addressed by ill thought out initiatives such as ‘Biodiversity Offsetting’. When thinking through such initiatives, it doesn’t take long to figure this is a one off, very low payment, which in the long term, if significant interest is taken, will leave a legacy of land dependent on charity, which will upset land values for future generations. There will be pressure from the Nature Conservation lobby to realise something from the work on ‘Natural Capital’ – but there is ultimately only one benefactor; themselves, which would leave only more fragmented islands of higher biodiversity surrounded by intensive agriculture or development and fits in well with the current, rapid, English move towards dividing landscapes; the protected and the ordinary, contrary to the European Landscape Convention.

In France there has been a huge focus on ‘green corridors’, the idea that pockets of isolated rich biodiversity will ensure the survival of home species is rightly dismissed – even in the urban landscape. It works, wildlife is thriving – indeed most ‘conflict’ is now due to wildlife populations that are thriving all too well. It is important to also note that nature conservation has a vastly reduced budget than in the UK. I once heard an LPO man (French equivalent to RSPB) say that with the money the UK Nature conservationists gain from crowd funding, they could buy ‘half the country’.

Also important to note is that having a rich migratory biodiversity is very much in tune with the traditional established concept of terroir. And to avoid anyone ‘googling’ terroir and coming up with endless US based wine snobbery blogs or the somewhat lacking wikipedia definition ‘A Sense of Place’, I offer my own definition: Terroir is the value of soil and all that helps create and maintain the soil in particular location towards a taste, it is a marriage of all the sciences, social and earth, it is all natural and man made elements in a landscape and you and what you taste, smell, hear and see.

It is interesting to see academics extolling ‘ecosystem services products’, thus clearly illustrating that they have ‘ecosystem services’ established in their heads as the French have in regards ‘terroir’. However as much of their work still remains secret and badly disseminated it is not gaining any ground as an English definition for terroir. Nor does it help towards illustrating the economics of a terroir system and how this could be of huge financial benefit for all in the rural cultural landscapes of the UK and elsewhere. Knowledge transfer is key – but this cannot work unless money is discussed.

How much of the annual produce for the whole of a large English county, (Yorkshire, Devon or Norfolk), could sustain in hours the city of London? Not long – certainly much less than a day. And in most of these counties, indeed for all of rural England, the agricultural sector is too small to register in regional GDP statistics. Lets be honest about it – intensive agriculture to compete with abroad just isn’t working, it is as though British farming is still obsessed with the effects of WWII and rationing. Forestry, long ago, moved on from the need to grow timber for wartime resilience – it is high time agriculture did also.

Britain needs to follow the money and this is not with the supermarkets but the super rich. The range of soils in Britain is the richest anywhere in the world, it is capable of producing the highest quality foods – terroir produce. Instead of trying to compete with a French Brie by producing an English Brie – just go with what the soil gives you and celebrate your place in naming that product.

I live in a region in the Poitou-Charentes famous for it’s wide range of aperitif’s, different from commune to commune. The high quality local products are often made by hedgerow fruits and are sometimes not just a supplementary income but double, even triple. I have brought back aperitifs from Devon to French friends, who are happy to state these drinks are as good as their own. One only has to look at the Whisky industry to see the benefits in this. Good quality alcohol sells well.

And terroir doesn’t end with food and drink. The ‘local crafts’ industry is strong in France and non timber forest products fetch realistic prices, not the ‘knock down’ price many English craftsmen and women have to suffer because the public compare prices with Poundland imports. Indeed in France, forests are being awarded their own AOC status!

Within terroir areas the French landscape and biodiversity contained within it is protected automatically. Whilst in the UK there is still round table discussion on diversification where ‘tourism’ seems the only solution – are tourists really going to help fund new hedgerows or even pay towards maintaining existing ones? You need to sell the tourists something from that landscape, which in turn pays for work in preserving that landscape and most importantly preserving the soil for future generations.

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Allotments, Soil and Farm Terrace, again.

English politicians, particularly in local politics, have a strong record in blithely ignoring international initiatives towards promoting environmental and landscape issues. And Central Government are happy to ratify many conventions and incorporate the text into national strategies, only to brush it all aside when a political ‘think tank’ suggests otherwise. The Public Forest Estate sell-off during the International Year of the Forests 2011 was a classic example.

2015 is the International Year of the Soil. Do not expect to read much about the concentrated efforts of research and awareness happening across the globe in regards this still relatively unknown, but known to be absolutely vital natural element we are dependent on. Very little has changed since Leonardo Da Vinci claimed “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” in the 16th Century. And as Britain builds her way out of the economic downturn of recent years it is understandable that many politicians will avoid any focus on the importance of soil.

Healthy soils in the urban and peri-urban landscape are of optimum importance. Allotments, (usually bequeathed to a community through philanthropic channels), tick all the boxes in being the best of the best to the extent that in many places researchers studying solutions to aid all of humanity in achieving sustainability are concentrating on these islands of soil and how they have been managed.

Whilst a national argument in regards development rages between green field and brown field, and a burgeoning realisation of the threats posed by the Infrastructure Act (It is quite unbelievable how so many missed the implications of this bill when the details were published on the day of the Queen’s speech – indeed many NGO PR teams actually stated on social media at the time that all was good!!) allotments are excluded. Allotments should be sacrosanct, surely? But it seems that they are first places to be considered by many councils and even the Church of England seeking to profit from the construction boom.

Those fighting for their allotments have exposed the many loopholes and ambiguity of existing legislation in regards allotments. It is clear that there needs to be clearly defined legislation in place and the Save Farm Terrace campaigners headed up by Sara Jane Trebar are about to launch a campaign for this legislation.

Farm Terrace, for the 3rd time following 2 successful legal challenges against a decision ttodevelop on their allotments, have to fight yet again as the Liberal Democrat Mayor of Watford (Nick Clegg, leader of the Libdems once stated “We have a duty to look after our natural habitat for future generations and our manifesto will show that only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to deliver a greener and sustainable society.”) champions a new submission to develop on their plots. It is the most bizarre of situations; highly tenuous PR, a severe lack of consultation, internet trolling by councillors, a war of words which make it fairly obvious that the Mayor simply doesn’t like allotments and an absolute ignorance of all modern and historic research in regards the importance of allotments and the community they serve. The belligerence of the Mayor in her determination to concrete over these plots is baffling considering the costs incurred to local taxpayers – some of whom will be donating towards the Farm Terrace cause also.

When done and dusted the whole affair will at least make a great case study for all. In the meantime good luck to Farm Terrace and others in their campaign to finally get proper legislative protection for all allotments in England and Wales, before there are none left.

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All Tree’s Matter

There is a common drive by many involved with trees and woodland to establish a means to register trees. If a tree is recorded somewhere, indeed anywhere it automatically accrues a value and therefore cannot be ignored as is so often the case.

Most trees will have many values, some of which are ambiguous but all are important. If all these values could be registered in a single place, we would have made a major step forward in providing a ‘soft power‘ method of insuring for all trees.

Each and every interest group or specialism, in or outwith the tree and forest industry will have set its own tree values. Most importantly locals living with a tree in their landscape will place a very different valuation (more often the more ambiguous) which should be of equal importance when recording trees. After all if your tree is important to you it has accrued a value which others must accept.

We must always remember a tree is a landscape unto itself for many, certainly the majority of people who live in the urban or peri urban, where the surface area of a tree (which for mature trees can be measured in hectares) means it is by far the greatest natural element in their lives. Therefore we cannot allow trees to fall victim as our landscapes have in being valued and thus managed without our input. The European Landscape Convention states ‘landscape is an important part of the quality of life for people everywhere: in urban areas and in the countryside, in degraded areas as well as in areas of high quality, in areas recognised as being of outstanding beauty as well as everyday areas’ – in so much discussion regarding the landscape do you ever see this statement referred to? Proving also possibly that a European or National Convention on Trees or any other attempt to legislate is unlikely to work.

One major problem is the disjointed approach towards a common register of trees. Before we get bogged down in arguing over which type of tree is more important, we should at least attempt to define all these tree types in the 1st place. Of course Ancient trees must have their own register as should Heritage Trees, very different definitions for which some trees will fall into both registers. But what of the millions of other trees?

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The above crab apple is of significant ecological value, given its position within a housing estate and is a major focal point for 16 homes. Yet this tree is not recorded anywhere (until now), it has no protection at all. The locals who prize this tree have a right to register this and we have to take this into account.

Practitioner based work towards valuation is gaining momentum. For me the idea of incorporating CAVAT £ sterling values with the iTrees system can only be a good thing. Practitioners need values – this isn’t ‘Natural Capital’ stuff – it is for insurance purposes, not just for the tree but the well being & health of the community in which that tree exists, such valuation techniques go a long way in determining the right public have to their trees and preventing costly protest.

Social media has given us a very basic means to record trees by simply taking photos. Several facebook pages exist where hundreds of images are downloaded annually, thus setting a value on all the trees photographed. But this clearly isn’t enough and subject to an imbalance of opinion due to some interests being able to afford better PR.

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The above Beech tree is likely to be removed because it “doesn’t fit in this landscape” – I enjoy the fact that taking a photo of it annoyed the person who stated this, a realisation that the tree does have a value to someone.

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Above ‘wassailing’ an apple tree. We have a duty to recognise the cultural value attributed to this one tree through this celebration otherwise huge costs are incurred to taxpayers when the tree is threatened.

So what list of values should we work to (community value; family; scientific; cultural; production / commercial; personal; ecological; environmental, for starters?) and how do we ensure that people and communities are able to register their own values without moderation or manipulation?

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Enough of this Contempt for Land Management Practitioners

I am proud to be a land management practitioner, for me and many others there is nothing more rewarding than going home to your family after completing a contract. Leaving behind a newly planted area of land, a landscaped garden, dry stone wall or well laid hedge, a neat tree pruning or any other new feature in the landscape adding value to that landscape for all.

A whole host of varying professions; farmers, foresters, arborists, gardeners and of course the landscaper, very different and with their own languages, combine to keep all landscapes alive.

Hardy’s, even Laurie Lee’s, rich cultural rural landscape has disappeared because the vast majority of land management practitioners have shifted from the rural to the urban and particularly suburban landscape. The proof can be found in any social economic statistics gathered for our most treasured rural landscapes, where land management practitioners register as negligible. Development is where it is at – the ‘it’ being money. There are of course some left in our most beautiful rural landscapes, but it is vastly reduced. It seems the more beautiful, the more protected a landscape is, the population of land management practitioners decreases. It is all too easy to assume that the traditional knowledge of land management practitioners is at huge risk and it is an assumption I myself have made. But following some enforced reflection on the matter I have to agree that it has simply shifted. Should you want to see a new well built dry stone wall, or hedgerow, or well pruned tree – even a new orchard or tree planting, then you need to look in the suburban landscape.

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There are still many land management practitioners about, they won’t call themselves that, but gardeners and landscapers in particular abound – omnipresent in all our villages and towns. It is tough work for little money. It is work that often requires a breadth of knowledge and aptitude, which is belittled by an increasingly dumped down media. There are many local allies to the land management industry; allotmenteers and amateur gardeners. And it is still an axiom that should you require good localised land management knowledge, corner old Bob leaning on his spade rather than visiting the library to find the latest scientific papers or worse – watching TV gardening / countryside shows – which can never take account of the glorious myriad of issues which combine to create our extraordinarily diverse landscapes, which do not stop at the town sign.
The division between the varying professions involved in the management of our landscapes is probably what has caused the greatest problems for land industry as a whole. We are all too easily divided and conquered. Just as landlubbers struggled to understand the language of our seamen, we struggle to understand each land professions language – let alone their techniques. Tap many practitioner words, even the profession title into a search engine and it is underlined in red. For example, from my branch of land management: Snedding, Brashing, and even Arboriculturalist. Add in the huge range of localised terms for the tools and materials we use and it becomes very difficult indeed. Do we need a common glossary? I have often said we do – but we would lose something precious and I also believe that the sheer quantity of land management practitioners out there will blithely ignore it as is their right too.

Thus any amount of new terminology proffered to us is unlikely to be taken on board. Many recent terms developed by academics then absorbed and twisted by policy makers describe what is little more than common sense – and trying to sell common sense to an industry largely made up of small independent businesses who work long hours for little money and still survive is like selling coals to Newcastle. But surprisingly and scarily often these terms or ideas are simply nonsense having taken little account, indeed ignoring, many localised factors and the reality of the economics involved – Biodiversity Offsetting being a classic example.
Having been invited to help look into methods of bridging the chasms between those with interests in landscapes has been an eye opener in regards just how wide and deep these chasms are – however maybe this is a good thing. A practitioner friend stated ‘Be careful in building bridges as some may use it as a lowered drawbridge’. And this is a very apparent risk, particularly in rural ‘beautiful’ landscapes, where the Quango, NGO, accreditation staff now surely out number the practitioners themselves, certainly they believe they outrank them. And one wonders how many miles of dry stone wall are getting built in comparison with the amount of time, money and effort taken in discussing the ‘value’ of such immensely important landscape features.

It is very important to remember that it is private clients who are paying for the vast majority of good, sustainable land management and an ever increasing range of innovative land management solutions – designed at first for their own personal needs. If they profit, as they can, from ongoing benefits from the landscape they help to create and / or maintain either by way of aesthetics or from high quality produce then everyone wins.
And it is due to the influence of private clients that we practitioners have to have rigid insurance and operate under strict legal constraints. This should enable us to lead from the front in regards sustainable land management goals, so why are we at the rear? The answer is that others with ‘landscape’ interests, who have the time to shout more loudly also, are able to operate without such constraint and recently I was told this these constraints were a ‘problem’ by an academic. Really! – Imagine if such insurance and legal constraints were placed on bankers and estate agents – surely we would not have had the mess we are still all paying for. The ‘problem’ is that those others with an interest in land management do not have the same constraints – asides from the public, where it should always remain as free as it can be.

The land management practitioner base is disenfranchised, very widely ignored – but it is where the solutions lie and still strong enough to create more solutions. And with all this talk of communication it is far past the time to realise this doesn’t just mean asking but listening also, however hard it may be to understand. The result will inevitably highlight just how localised things really are when considering everything that creates a landscape – and where are the practitioners? Slap bang in the middle of each local landscape. And ultimately we need to learn to trust our land management practitioners, which we can do now in the vast majority of our landscapes, who have largely carried on regardless and continue to maintain the landscapes we value so highly.

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