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Forging a future for Wales' ancient forests

Ancient woodland is the UK’s richest land habitat for wildlife but only fragments now remain. But these rare gems are now threatened by the past planting of non-native trees, over grazing and invasive species. However, they still contain important woodland features, which through careful management can be safeguarded.

On 16 October 2019 70 experts came together in Llanwelwedd, in Mid Wales, people who own, manage, give advice about or simply value ancient woodland. Their aim was to share experience and lessons learned, that should allow more of these precious and threatened habitats to be protected and restored to their former glory by using a gradual rather than a clear-fell approach to management.

But why are these habitats so important, and what insights did the speakers have to share with those present? If you weren’t able to make the conference, don’t worry, here are some of the key points the speakers made.

Tom Curtis. Image WTML/R.Francis

An irreplaceable legacy

Setting the scene, Tom Curtis from 3Keel consultancy, is a man who knows his ancient woodland. He said: “I’ve surveyed over 100 stands of ancient woodland over 17 years. I’ve not found a single stand that you could write off in terms of its ecological potential. We found there was a really important ancient woodland legacy within all the Planted Ancient Woodland Sites. It’s an irreplaceable legacy. What’s more, ancient woodlands are not just important for rare species. Now they’re important as habitat for generalist species that are in decline.”

Natural Resources Wales commitment to restore these sites

The organisation that looks after more of Wales’ ancient woodland than any other is Natural Resources Wales. Melanie Meaden explained how they see things. 

Melanie Meaden. Image WTML/R.Francis

She said: “Since the 1980s the value of ancient woodland has been recognised and there is now a commitment to manage and restore these sites. As explained in our recently published report on the Purpose and Role of the Welsh Government Woodland Estate, a prioritised approach to the management and restoration of ancient woodland sites is one of ten priorities for the Welsh Government Woodland Estate over the next 25 years. One example of our commitment to restoration is Wentwood / Coed Gwent in South Wales where we are very proud to have received recognition through the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy initiative. This is a collaborative partnership between NRW and the Woodland Trust and the aim of the project is to gradually restore Wentwood to a more natural state, removing conifers and converting back to native broadleaves, with an additional focus on community engagement and well-being.

Andy Poore. Image WTML/R.Francis

What about the economics?

But what of the economics of using continuous cover forestry (CCF), particularly on ancient woodland sites? Is it something private landowners can afford to do? Andy Poore, who works as a forest manager for large estates in the South West of England. His speciality is Continuous Cover Forestry or Irregular forestry, where forest cover is maintained in a permanent irregular structure, which is created and sustained through the selection and harvesting of individual trees. He said:

“I work for big private estates. Everything works better if you make a profit at the end of every year. I do this! We aim to optimise the value of the best trees in the stand. The idea is to grow more big trees. We are now able to market very big trees to international markets which increases income for owners. For species such as Douglas fir, irregular forest management gives a significant economic improvement compared to clear-felling.

“With an even aged stand, diameter growth of the individual trees falls off a cliff when you get to a certain age. With an irregular forest, diameter growth is maintained for much longer. The aim is to take out the poor performing trees. You can work out when to fell the best trees in your stand. Don’t fell a good tree until it has reached its financially optimal point.

“In clear-felling you make lots of money when you fell, but you spend a lot on replanting. With irregular forestry you don’t need to do that. A £20m investment trust has been established in Ireland to invest in continuous cover forestry, on the basis that it’s financially sustainable, particularly in terms of risk management.

“What does species diversity deliver? If you have more species, you have less risk.”

Shireen Chambers. Image WTML/R.Francis

The National Curriculum

The Conference was chaired by Shireen Chambers, CEO of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. She highlighted the lack of profile that forest environments have in school education. "Maybe we should change the National Curriculum in Wales to include examples of Welsh woodland and forestry," she said, "and tell the kids there are great jobs in managing woodland of all types."

Laura Shewring. Image WTML/R.Francis

All the varied benefits of a functioning ecosystem

The conference was organised by Laura Shewring, Ancient Woodland Restoration Manager for the Woodland Trust in Wales. She said: “With sensitive transformation back to a mix of more native species with a greater diversity in age, woodlands can become more resilient to other threats such as pests, diseases and climate change, ensuring they survive for future generations and also provide all the varied benefits of a well-functioning woodland ecosystem. It’s great to see so many people discussing the way forward for truly sustainable forestry in Wales.”