Planting Woods as a Crop or as an Ecosystem

For many years new woodlands in Britain have been planted as a crop. An assessment is made to determine the most suitable species of tree to plant with regard to the soil type, climate and likely return from the mature timber.  Usually just one species was planted to simplify management of the crop. Although lately a mixture has been recommended to improve the crop's resilience. Choice of which tree to plant was based on the saying, "right tree in the right place".

Planting a new woodland as a crop suffers two major economic disadvantages. Firstly, there is the long time between planting and harvesting, with all the costs of planting and establishing the trees to be paid many years before the revenue from harvesting. While the timber crop is growing it is continually at risk from pests and diseases, many of which may not have been apparent when the choice of species was made. The market for which the woodland was originally planted may have disappeared completely by the time the crop is ready to be harvested.

Foresters have tried to counteract this by plant breeding and fast growing conifers, but this only shows the second major disadvantage. There are vast areas around the world in Canada, Russia and northern Europe covered with coniferous forest. These forests produce softwood timber at a fraction of the price that British forests can.

A 60 year old woodland of Scots Pine in Lincolnshire was recently clear- felled for timber. After 60 years of costly management the revenue from the felled trees was equalled by the cost of building roads into the woodland to extract it!

Planting woodlands simply as a crop in lowland Britain makes little economic sense nowadays, but there is still a great deal of interest in planting trees as the first step towards establishing a woodland and the associated woodland ecosystem for wildlife, recreational and landscape reasons. With a bit of careful management these same woodlands can also produce quality hardwood timber.

It is time to start designing new woodlands with these objectives in mind from the start. New woods should be planted with a much wider variety of native and near native species, intimately mixed together. If a particular species fails it doesn't matter because its place will soon be taken by another species better adapted to that site. Pests and diseases which threaten a timber crop are just part of the biodiversity which is encouraged in a natural woodland. Dead and dying trees are an integral part of the woodland ecosystem, supporting many species of insects and fungi, recycling nutrients and sequestrating carbon in the forest soils.

Woodland management will ensure a variety of habitats within the woodland. Coppicing and pollarding will promote a thriving understorey. Management of the dead wood will help develop further habitats. Most importantly, the prime timber trees of the wood could be encouraged by thinning and pruning to produce top quality hardwood timber for our descendants to enjoy.