Trees Under Threat: Green is the color of nature, signifying growth and renewal. More recently this hue has entered politics with multiple concerns for the environment but those of us in Britain are well aware of one green issue that has recently accelerated itself to the top of the political agenda with the proposed privatisation of half of the 748,000 hectares of woodland currently owned by the government backed Forestry Commission.
For the historical record, Forestry and Common land represents almost the last bastion against legalised land confiscation that began with the various Enclosure Acts, from the the 16th to the 18th Century. This successive dispossession destroyed whole villages and independent agrarian lifestyles as acreage was swallowed up by the claims of the wealthier landowners. A recent survey (2010) by ‘Country Life’ has revealed that more than a third of Britain’s land is still in the hands of a tiny group of aristocrats which should provoke a pause for thought when we visit Stately homes and admire the vastness of the landscaped gardens. 1
Whatever one’s political colour, woodlands are cherished rural spaces and the possibility of “Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations” 2 in their place has mobilised a public backlash that has put a temporary halt on the Government’s proposals. Of course, public forests and woodlands are not just free to roam land and neither are they just trees. Focusing on two of our most common woodland tree species gives insight into the bio mass and diversity which takes succour from them.
Birchwoods: The Silver Birch (Betula Pendula) is a slender and graceful tree often called the Lady of the Wood, although growing to a height of 30 metres and deep rooted, she does have a habit to lean and seemingly topple easily with age. This is a relatively short-lived tree declining after 60 years which supports a host of insects and their life cycles, specifically the caterpillars of the Pebble hook-tip and the Kentish glory moth. Birds including Siskins feed on seedheads whilst Red Deer like to browse on young leaves and seedlings. Because the canopy is relatively high and light, the resulting dappled shade enables Primroses, Violets. Wood sorrell and Anemones to flourish. In May, the Birchwood becomes a quasi aquatic landscape when English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) bloom in profusion.
The tonnage of leaf fall from the deciduous Betula not only returns many nutrients to the soil but is itself a habitat for multitudes of creatures that creep and crawl along the forest floor. An assortment of fungi exist here in a symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship with the trees, most notably the red spotted Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and Chanterelles, whereby the fungi access carbohydrates directly from the root systems and in return increase and enable the tree’s mineral absorption capabilities. Even in death, Birches support other fungi including polypores, such as Piptoporus betulinus. By breaking down the tough cellulose of the decaying trees, these leathery bracket mushrooms make nutrients available for other organisms as well as being a food source themselves for fungus (tineid) moths. Only the witches’ broom fungus (Taphrina betulina) is an unwelcome parasite causing an abnormally dense growth of small twigs.
Scots Pinewoods: One of the few UK coniferous natives, the Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a green giant of a Woodland tree, growing up to 90 feet or more and often living to the ripe old age of 300 years. As a dominant keystone tree, the canopy will support a patchy understory of Juniper and Hazel as well as a few wildflowers including orchids such as Creeping Ladies Tresses (Goodyera repens). Vaccinium Bilberries and Cowberries thrive in the shaded woodland floor.
The fissured, flaky bark and resinous foliage is the specific habitat for several insects and larvae including the eponymous weevil and Looper moth which in turn are a larder for birds like the Crested tit and Treecreeper. Wood ants (Formica aquilonia) build their mountainous, multitudinous colonies from fallen pine needles and forest detritus.
A healthy woodland floor, common under Birch and Scot’s Pine, gives rise to other mosses and liverworts which grow in competition with flowering plants and leaf litter. Thus here they tend to be large and relatively fast-growing, as their names suggest: Big Shaggy-moss; Ostrich-plume Feather-moss. Epiphytic lichens and mosses also live on the bark and branches, taking no nourishment from the tree but fixing nitrogen from the air. Once incorporated, the nitrogen will in turn fertilise the soil as the lichen falls and decays.
Trees as Threat: On the other side of the coin, Woodland that is unmanaged and allowed to spread soon becomes a threat to other habitats, not least our native Heathlands. With poor sandy soil in which gorse, heathers and short grasses thrive, these lowland open heaths are depended upon by lizards and snakes whilst the rare Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Stone Curlew feed and breed here.
As a pioneer species, Silver Birch trees are often the first trees to become established in heathland especially on burnt areas. Scots Pine readily germinate here too as saplings cannot survive under the parental dark canopy and seeds rely on wind dispersal to find new locales. Grazing herds and taking wood for fuel was, until a 100 years ago, how heaths were naturally maintained by the local population but without such management, heathland quickly reverts to woodland, and the flora and fauna that depend on it disappear.
“But greenest of all that is green
An island Earth did make
And they all call it Britain
Natures green estate”
Nature’s Green Estate is one in which we humans have had a significant impact changing the face of the landscape as we settled here but with a burgeoning population in the UK there is a serious threat to rural spaces with piecemeal destruction by urban expansion and profiteering projects.
UK Woodland Trust Campaign Continues: Whilst the government has temporarily backtracked on the sale of Forestry Commission land, there are no changes to the loopholes that have allowed 850 ancient woods to be threatened by built development over the past decade. Sign the Petition
Note: If we do not use our woods there will be little challenge to building on them – You can find all your local Forestry Commission woods, Woodland Trust woods, as well as other publicly accessible woods at Visit Woods
Trees for Life : Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris); Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Plantlife: Key Features for Identifying Mosses and Liverworts