Keeping A Tidy Wood: Yes or No?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The answer should definitely be yes. It has been so in the past and should be so again.

Debris and such left lying around the forest create nothing but a fire ladder and a hazard, for both fire and biological in that such material is a haven for the bark beetle and other pests that gladly will attack your standing timber as soon as they have finished their first lifecycle in the old dead and decaying timber.

The environmentalists who insist that we, the foresters, woodsmen and woodland owners should leave debris such as the cut tops of tress and branches in place out in the woods “for the wildlife”, in my view, do now know what they are talking about and that is also the same as regards to those that insist that we need to leave out old coppice woodlands unattended so they can revert to proper wildwoods as they were hundreds of years ago, and such baloney, in order not to use a rather harsher word.

The only “wildlife” that will take up residence in old branches, tops, and the like are, in general, with a few exceptions, pests that will destroy standing trees as much as they will eat their way thru dead wood. And allowing ancient and not so ancient coppice woodlands to “revert back to wild woods” does not work because as soon as coppice stools are left unmanaged for too long they will break apart, the trees will fall and that is the end of the woodland as most of those trees will break apart virtually at the same time, seeing they more often than not are of the same age. It would appear, however, as if the environmentalists do not want to listen to that as they keep on about that we are only interested in making money out of the woods. Those who say that have no real knowledge of what actually drives a true forester and woodsman in his work. But I digressed. I shall come back to this, however, at some other occasion.

In the days of old and even in the not so distant past very little if any branches were left littering the forest floor; it was all used for crafts such as walking stick making, bodging, heating, etc. and there was still plenty of wildlife – more than today in actual fact – but very little on forest pests.

Today with our mono-cultures of whatever wood – I am not just talking about the often ugly regiments of conifers where they should never have been planted – despite leaving cutting litter everywhere, often rather higgeldy-piggledy there is less proper wildlife but many more pests set to ravage our trees. Combining that with the lack of bio-security when it comes to imports of stock, for instance, and the rather daft practice of collecting seeds here and then sending the very same seeds abroad to be grown on and reimporting them, the result of which is Chalara dieback of ash caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (and probably other tree diseases) and we have a recipe for absolute disaster.

Many of the pests affecting woods and forests nowadays seem to have been virtually – in their current strengths and numbers – unknown in the past when woodlands and forests were much more intensively managed and kept clean & tidy but which were, also, generally not single species mono-cultures.

In my childhood fallen branches were cleared away rather rapidly and that not by forests staff only who used them for heating their homes but also by people who had permits to collect firewood in the form of fallen branches from the woods and forests.

Might it just be that the so-called management of our woods and forests today is the wrong kind of management? It very much would appear to be the case and much of the blame may have to be, aside from the mono-cultures, laid at the door of the heavy machinery that it used nowadays for felling and timber extraction, especially the so-called timber harvesters.

The weight of those machines and their special wheels seems to churn up the woodland and forest floor to such an extent that it may – and I say may as we do not have proof for that – destroy the mycelium that is the communication network between trees and plants and also all small wildlife, as in invertebrates and other small creatures that live in and on the woodland floor.

It is time to reactivate the old management methods for our woods and forests, with coppicing at the top of the list, to rebuild the woodland communities, the ones of trees and soil, as well as those of people and not try to apply a band-aid on the damage we keep doing by our modern practices of mono-cultures and heavy machinery use.

© 2015

For more on coppicing and why, etc. see “Managing our Woods”, a small book that explains the whys and wherefores of managing our woods in this way and calls for us to return to that way.