A Walk in the Woods archive

Thursday 29 November 2012

Simon Frost spends a day with the Forestry Commission, to get down to the roots of this multi-faceted organisation

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Simon Frost spends a day with the Forestry Commission, to get down to the roots of this multi-faceted organisation

Just as a chef might not think day-to-day in terms of cattle and farming, it's easy for woodworkers to forget just where it is that this incredible material comes from, and all that goes into its life beforehand. I took a walk in the New Forest with the Forestry Commission's Richard Burke, to find out about the truly never-ending task of maintaining and managing our native woodland.

What is the Forestry Commission?

A government body and part of DEFRA - The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - the Forestry Commission is a national organisation which, in brief, is responsible for: forest enterprise - i.e the general management of the public forests, from landscaping to conservation and recreation; forest research - leading studies and action against plant pests and diseases, etc.; and forest services - granting felling permission to private owners as well as deciding what is to be felled on Forestry Commission - public - woodland. It is split into regional 'beats'. The beat is the building block for planning and delivery of all aspects of forestry, led by a Beat Manager - Richard Burke fulfilling that role for the southern New Forest. Each beat team comprises staff with a mix of skills, from the Works Supervisor who deals with contract management on the ground, to Wildlife Rangers - 'Keepers' in the New Fores - and Recreation Rangers as well as a team of ground maintenance staff, or Forest Craftsmen. Most of the felling and transportation of timber is generally carried out on long-term contracts.

The New Forest

15,500 hectares of land make up the New Forest, which receives around 13 million day visits per year, as a popular location for rural walks, horse riding and cycling, with over 100 miles of cycle routes. As in the many other woodland regions of the UK, the Forestry Commission in the New Forest are responsible for balancing the interests and communication between conservation, wildlife, timber production, public recreation and even archaeology.

The physical makeup of the Forest is a hugely complex system, which has been governed by everything from political need - for instance; between the wars many conifers were planted due to their relatively short growth time, to create timber supplies in preparation for further war - to climate change, plant pests and diseases, and conservation of endangered species. It may look wild, but in fact every aspect of the landscape is very closely controlled and painstakingly planned. The Forestry Commission sets out a 100-year plan for the Forest, which is reviewed every 10 years and is widely consulted upon by stakeholders, but fundamentally remains constant in principle, like a constitution. This bigger picture frames the day-to-day activities of the Forestry Commission, and so every course of action is subject to scrutiny before being enacted; everything from the most imposing trees to the humble brambles are there for a reason. But what seems inexplicable is that the Forestry Commission is not burned into the public consciousness in the same sort of way organisations like the National Trust are, despite the incredible scale and significance of their work. Richard Burke explains: "I think the link that people had to woodland culture in the UK has been sort of broken - many people see the forests simply as a recreation resource." Part of the Forestry Commission's aim is to get more people taking an interest in their woodland, while trying to keep the inevitable disruption to the public's access down to a minimum. "We protect the public's enjoyment of the forests and disperse foresting over five-year working cycles, which helps conservation but also means that different areas of the Forest will be inaccessible to the public at certain times." The Forest's infrastructure is there principally to facilitate the working of the woods, but for most of the time any given area also serves as a recreation location to the public, with only around six months of inaccessibility in each area every five years. And so with our boots, hard hats and fluorescent jackets donned, we traversed a deep, sloppy track into a part of the Forest that was currently 'out of bounds'.

A working wood

The soil in southern England is suitable for growing many species, and the New Forest includes amongst its trees: larch (Larix decidua), Corsican pine (Pinus negra var. maritima), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and oak (Quercus robur).

There are several different systems of felling depending on the type of trees to be harvested, and where it will be going. Many trees are spray painted to signify the action to be taken.

The short wood system is enacted on the smaller trees, where a harvesting machine fells the tree, before it is de-limbed on site. For conifer species such as hemlock, the machine sprays a solution onto the cut stump, which stops spores of butt rot fungus from being able to enter the open stump and spread down to the roots – broadleaf species do not need spraying, as they are tolerant to butt rot. The tree is then processed at stump, and picked up on site.

The pole length system is for larger trees, where the tree is cut by hand using a chainsaw. Treewood Harvesting of Essex are currently contracted to fell in the New Forest, and we were lucky enough to witness contract feller Kevin Poole in action, from a comfortable two tree lengths' distance! The Forestry Commission will not tolerate unsafe working practice such as working alone when felling, and Kevin was duly accompanied when we got to him. The foot of the tree is cut into from behind the felling direction to create a wedge on which the tree pivots, controlling the direction of the fall. Each tree has to be tackled differently depending on its form, height etc. and these considerations, combined with the precise cutting methods required to fell the tree safely, understandably make it a highly skilled job. Kevin pointed out that as machines now fell the smaller trees, it is harder for young people to attain the skills of felling by working up through trees of a smaller size as he did - a skill gap has been created which the FC hope to rectify with their national apprenticeship scheme. Once the tree is felled - and how dramatically they fall! - it is 'sned out' - i.e. the limbs removed - and then the top is removed at timber height. A tractor comes into the forest and winches the entire pole length,

skidding it out of the forest either straight to a sawmill or to be crosscut and sent to auction. Nothing is wasted, with the rough material used for firewood or chipping.

In coniferous areas, a sustainable yield is taken around every five years; after the stands are surveyed, around one-third of the volume is cut back, which will make the remaining trees grow fatter and build up the cover again, thinning down on surplus. Young oak trees are planted into the mineral soil, and are favoured when the Commission comes to do more thinning, so the makeup is manipulated towards broadleaf species. Conifers' numerous and shallow roots outcompete other plants for water and nutrients, and their needles may also have a negative effect on the condition of the soil, and this is one reason why the FC is moving towards broadleaf cover; as they are better for the highly important ground flora. Thankfully today there is not the political drive to plant conifers as there was in the build-up to war and during wartime. The Commission are working not only to put balance into the system of broadleaf woodland, but also wetland, ancient woodland, and lowland valley mires.

Threats

The effects of climate change can be seen first hand in the New Forest, and as we pass some Corsican pine Richard points out one manifestation. A healthy Corsican pine should have two or three years' worth of needles visible; however, this one has been affected by red band needle blight, a fungal disease which survives in moist, warm weather, as with the most recent summer. The tree's needles from previous years are lost, and the fungus has taken the green colour from the tree and so reduced photosynthesis, leading to a 30% reduction in growth, and ultimately less timber. In extreme cases the current year's needles will also be lost, and the tree will die off completely.

Another problem is the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, known as 'Sudden Oak Death' for its deadliness to American oak species, although our native oak are in fact unaffected. However, beech (Fagus sylvatica), sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), birch (Betula pendula) and larch are all susceptible. The disease is hosted on rhododendron and causes bleeding

skidding it out of the forest either straight to a sawmill or to be crosscut and sent to auction. Nothing is wasted, with the rough material used for firewood or chipping.

In coniferous areas, a sustainable yield is taken around every five years; after the stands are surveyed, around one-third of the volume is cut back, which will make the remaining trees grow fatter and build up the cover again, thinning down on surplus. Young oak trees are planted into the mineral soil, and are favoured when the Commission comes to do more thinning, so the makeup is manipulated towards broadleaf species. Conifers' numerous and shallow roots outcompete other plants for water and nutrients, and their needles may also have a negative effect on the condition of the soil, and this is one reason why the FC is moving towards broadleaf cover; as they are better for the highly important ground flora. Thankfully today there is not the political drive to plant conifers as there was in the build-up to war and during wartime. The Commission are working not only to put balance into the system of broadleaf woodland, but also wetland, ancient woodland, and lowland valley mires.

Out of the woods

Our final visit was to a local sawmill, though on our journey we were slowed to a halt by the renowned New Forest ponies, who graze freely around the area and by the roadsides. Though they appear to be wild - much like the forest - the ponies are owned by the commoners, and are looked after by them and the Agisters employed by the Verderers of the New Forest - a largely unchanged ancient system of Crown ownership of the Forest, whereby a local open court is held most months for members of the public to address them on matters pertaining to the Forest.

SC Soffe & Sons has been operating at its current site since 1947, and the huge stock of trunks piled at the entrance was all grown in the New Forest, arriving at the sawmill via auction in Cirencester. Every piece of wood is accounted for when it arrives, and everything is used - that really does mean every piece - even down to the sawdust, which is sold for smoking meat! Small pieces are cut into wedges and sold to Southampton docks, in batches of around 3,000 per week, the bark is sold for chipping, and there's also a pile of otherwise useless odds and ends which are sold as slow worm compost. Then of course there's the real meat of the stuff, the wood is not dried here, but as long as it is cut in large enough sections it remains stable. As we watch foreman Michael Soffe operate a relatively new Italian bandsaw machine, which is efficiently slicing the bark from a trunk of about 3ft diameter before rolling it over to make another slice, he explains that for quartersawing the trunk needs to be of about 5ft in diameter to maintain its stability. The heavy duty resaw, Michael tells us, has been with them for longer than they have been at this site: "That's been sawing wood six days a week since 1941 - we'll all be gone before that one stops working!" And we hope that this too can be said for our timber industry as a whole. One thing is for sure; without the day-to-day work of the Forestry Commission, we would be in big, big trouble!


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