Woodlands – Can’t see the wood for the trees?

Two headlines that I read this week stood out for me.  Apparently, woodland cover is at a record high (although I am not too sure how far back the record goes).  Surely something to celebrate?  Meanwhile, Butterfly Conservation reports that the population of species of butterflies, even the more common ones, is at the lowest level since records began.  Is there a connection, and should we be concerned?

Firstly, why does the population of butterflies affect us?  They are particularly sensitive to changes in the local environment.  They detect changes that we are oblivious to.  They act as canaries for us (canaries were taken down mining shafts.  They detected if the air became foul.  If the canary died and fell off its perch, it was time to get out of the shaft).

Woodlands are more than just a collection of trees.  This may surprise some.  They should be a dynamic range of habitats, with open spaces and sources of water, such as ponds, being as important as the actual trees.  The trees should also be a range of ages, with a good amount of dead wood present.  Conditions below ground are as important (if not more so) than those above ground.  This is the problem with the pure statistic that there is more woodland cover than ever before.  Trees alone are not sufficient.  In fact, too many trees can be worse and more damaging than no trees at all.

The problem is that this delicate balance is often not appreciated.  Trees are good, therefore planting trees is good, is it not?  Those of us who work with trees and woodlands appreciate the dynamics.  I have, however, encountered notable resistance to the felling of trees, even where this would be beneficial for the local landscape, with opposition from by lay observers and fellow professionals.  I was once trying to negotiate some minor works within a woodland subject to a Tree Preservation Order, and the local ecology officer used protection of dormice to limit the scope of works.  (There was no evidence of dormice having been present for several years, and they are protected by other legislation).

Trees have only limited protection, whether as individuals or within larger wooded collections.  There is almost no protection without a Tree Preservation Order, and even with one, the application of best practice in the management of a site can still be frustrated.  The landowner is not obligated to manage the trees.  So many of our woodlands are suffering from poor management.  Even though many woodlands provide important wildlife habitation, which needs to be carefully managed, it seems to me that the wildlife has greater protection and appreciation than the habitat the woodlands provide.

I was recently asked to survey trees on a site being considered for development, where woodland bordered a meadow.  The site was home to some slow worms, which enjoy statutory protection.  They needed to be re-housed if the site was to be developed, and there was a tight timescale to complete this before they hibernated.  This involved clearing the top soil to a depth of about 300mm as this is how deep the slow worm nests for the winter.  It requires mechanical excavators to undertake work on a scale such as this.  This all happened before I was able to survey the trees and provide any assessment or Root Protection calculations.  The soil compaction caused by excavators, especially when close to trees, can be detrimental to them.

It was when I saw a tree within a copse, which had worked around, had been damaged by the site works that I appreciated the conflict of priorities.  Slow worms get protection, trees, without the benefit of a TPO, don’t.  Perhaps when there is greater appreciation of the wider contribution from trees, they will enjoy more of the protection that they, and the environment, need.