The Future of Restocking Grants – a debate or a way forward?

The cost of restocking after clearfells is a long term financial burden for all growers, especially if forced clearfelling has taken place as a result of Ash Die Back (chalara/hymenoscyphus fraxineus) and/or Larch disease (Phytophthora ramorum).

There is some financial help by way of grant aid via the Forestry Commission but the burdens and possible trip-ups could be huge from the RPA and Defra.  The other negative financial impact is that often Larch was planted on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) in the 1950s (as an honorary deciduous broadleaf), when the nation was still trying to replenish wartime fellings – these sites must now be restocked with native broadleaves if grant aid is to be paid.  On some state owned sites, restocking of these productive sites has taken the form of natural regeneration with silver birch, hazel and willow scrub. 

This objective has noble aims but is now a ticking time bomb because of the failed policies on grey squirrel control over the past decades. 

It is madness in my view to establish a softwood sawmilling industry, with established markets, and then not grow the raw material.  The demand for the raw material will remain but we will not have grown the material and our customers will have to rely upon more imports, rather than less.  This in turn will only add to Global warming, not reduce it.

Therefore, alternatives will need to be found that will, firstly, not break the bank for the grower and secondly, will provide a sustainable supply of useable conifers to the established home grown timber trade and thirdly (if a broadleaf is required), not be destroyed by grey squirrels.

Nothofagus procera plus Western Hemlock due for thinning in 2021. The ground is a carpet of small Seedlings. Private estate near Tiverton in Devon

The same plantation in Devon as the photo above.

In the first instance we need to look more carefully at which conifers will naturally regenerate, some will regenerate more readily than others according to soils, climate, light and topography.   The late Peter Savill and others have written some wonderful essays on alternative species in this journal.  Four conifers spring to my mind – Douglas Fir (DF), Sitka Spruce (SS), Western Red Cedar (WRC) and Western Hemlock (WH).   Douglas and Sitka will regenerate in some parts of the country, almost like weeds and on some sites, but not all.  As foresters we have to learn new skills about ‘light management to the forest floor’ and how we might harvest around these crops, and how to protect small clumps of naturally regenerated young trees if the aim is to be achieved.  On the other hand, Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock will naturally regenerate in most areas of the country and – in some parts – profusely.  I am aware of the issues around the stringy bark of Western Red Cedar but the timber quality and value should outweigh any sawmilling issues.   Western Hemlock on the other hand produces suitable bark for peeling and the timber is white, merchantable and strong.  Its downside is that trees are often fluted and sometimes spiral grained which leaded to a lower sawmilling recovery yield. Both Hemlock and Red cedar can be susceptible to butt rot.  These defects are, I suspect, due to poor provenance of seed origin.  Western Hemlock has a similar growing range to Sitka Spruce in North America, but it is increasingly difficult to obtain any seedlings in the UK, let alone seedling from different provenances.

With regard to broadleaves, there are a number species that will not be attacked by grey squirrels according to recent, as yet unpublished, research.  It is believed that European Walnut, Wild Cherry, Small Leaf Lime, Poplar ‘Robusta’, Italian Alder, pure Sessile Oak, Nothofagus (small leaf) and Ash are far less likely to succumb to grey squirrel damage than other broadleaves.  Out of those listed above, I would personally single out Nothofagus ( see Peter Savill’s article) – it has modest timber quality, but it has three redeeming features, namely that it is fast growing, is deciduous, and above all, has excellent natural regeneration qualities, even through bramble as seen at Lowton Manor Estate near Wellington in Somerset and Great Fulford Estate in Devon.  It is true that it can be susceptible to hard frosts, but if we are to believe that our climate is getting warmer then this should not be a problem and if grown as a mixture with a conifer, I suggest Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock. 

Therefore, if you are considering a ‘hedge’ against future restocking costs and or the lack of grants and wish to have a profitable, fast-growing crop, then do consider a mixture of either Western Red Cedar & Nothofagus,  Nothofagus, & Western Hemlock or  even Western Red Cedar  and Nothofagus & Western Hemlock.

Charles Dutton  FICFor. 

Charles Dutton & Co Ltd. Jan 2021

Natural regeneration of some young Nothofagus obliqua growing under Japanese larch through bracken and bramble near Wellington in Somerset.

A maturing stand of Nothofagus obilqua , at Great Fulford, Devon with natural regeneration growing through dense bramble.

Woodland management

From traditional sweet chestnut coppice grown on a 14 year rotation (also home to the white admiral butterfly) to undamaged English oak, we have experience of managing all types of silvicultural systems, rotations and objectives to suit a range of management and wildlife aims.

grey squirrel management

Grey squirrel management

Grey Squirrels destroy more young broadleaf trees in lowland Britain & Ireland than almost any other woodland pest.  The damage they do costs the UK forestry industry upwards of £45m/yr.  At last, some innovative research is under way into a long term solution.  Whilst we wait for that, we can do much to limit their damage and even grow trees which will not be damaged.  The key to grey squirrel management is to understand exactly why they damage trees in the first place.

forest design and new planting

New woodland design

 Establishing a new wood can be a life-changing experience, regardless of whether you are a farmer or private estate. You will be creating the landscape of the future and doing your bit for the environment and biodiversity. The Government and the EU have set ambitious targets to combat climate change of net zero CO2 by 2050. The UK has around 13% tree cover against Europe’s 37%, and with thousands of hectares available across the country, there has never been a better time to take advantage of the excellent grants for planting trees. Now is the time to get planting!

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