It's time we saw both the wood and the trees if we want to save our forests
Trees and woodlands have been much in the news over the past 12-months – here Martin Hesp has been taking a long hard overview of the region’s forests...
Trees are extraordinary life-forms, and the woodlands and forests they grow in are astonishing places. Somehow, though – in the greater scheme of things – we seem to have lost our respect for them.
In the past year I have written all too many times in these pages about the plight of trees and forests – most memorably when this newspaper broke the story that ash-dieback disease was about to hit this country.
But we've reported other tree diseases – and we covered the government's plans and subsequent U-turn during the proposed public forest sell-off.
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Without forests we wouldn't be here. They give us much of the oxygen we breathe – they soak up much of the carbon we emit. And they are our ancient home. Once, not so very long ago, the great majority of mankind lived in forests.
Now we pillage them. We chop and burn vast acreages. We annihilate rainforest so we can grow palm oil. Even our own politicians seem to think so little of forests they'd have sold our publicly owned woodlands if there hadn't been a public revolt. Perhaps the politicians had overlooked a silent but powerful force that lies deep within most people – an inherent love of trees and of the haunting, magical, qualities of forested landscapes.
Forests are good for our mental and physical wellbeing (as has been proved in research projects in countries like Sweden, South Korea and Japan); they might be beneficial in helping raise natural biodiversity; and they might be natural and beautiful carbon sinks that help us fight climate change. But it is difficult to imagine a UK government which was hell-bent on selling forests suddenly deciding to invest in trees and plant more.
So perhaps we must do more to help forests at a local level. The Exmoor National Park Authority, for example, makes all its own footpath and countryside "furniture" from timber harvested in its own woodlands.
And there are other impressive forms of sylvan self-help going on elsewhere in the Westcountry. In Southern Dartmoor and the South Hams you will see the work of Moor Trees – a charity responsible for planting a thoroughly respectable 40,000 more trees in the area.
In East Devon there's another active group of volunteer tree-lovers called the Axewoods Co-operative. I found them working in a National Trust owned woodland high above the seaside town of Sidmouth where the enthusiastic members – who came from all walks of life – pointed out that all forests great and small need managing.
Nature will get around to doing it, but the process takes a very long time – so if mankind can speed things up, the woodlands soon begin to benefit. Healthier, bigger, trees are left to grow amid open spaces where light gets through to the forest floor. Needless to say, the light promotes new growth – and this in turn attracts all manner of invertebrates, which then start attracting large creatures.
The win-win side of the equation for mankind is that we are able to glean valuable timber from the thinning operation. In the case of the Axewoods Co-operative this is the carrot waved on the proverbial stick – or rather it's the stick itself – because members get to take home firewood for their homes in exchange for the work they do. One of the group's stated aims is that the gleaning of this firewood will improve the members' understanding of woodland ecology and help them develop skills, while also promoting a strong connection between them and their local forests
This kind of community involvement is increasingly welcomed by large landowners like the National Trust. The charity's head ranger in East Devon told me: "It's really good to see people from the local community out in the woods, joining in with groups like this and getting so much back, while making a real difference to the habitat and site."
The growing number of hard working woodland volunteers gives us one reason to be optimistic about a future for this region's trees – but here's another. As the WMN recently revealed, our region has nearly a quarter more woodland and forest than previously thought.
A report by the Forestry Commission shows how the South West of England has 22 per cent more forest than previously known, increasing the total area by 45,030 hectares to 251,638 hectares.
It means that more than 11 per cent of our landscapes are covered in woodlands – the assumed figure previously stood at just under nine per cent tree-cover. The increase has come to light thanks to a greater accuracy in research techniques – modern aerial camera and mapping equipment is able to detect many more smaller broadleaf forests than was the case when the last census report was published in 1998.
The latest figures are all part of an ongoing countrywide survey being carried out by the National Forest Inventory which was set up in 2009 and employs the use of high resolution aerial photography and cutting edge satellite technology. The Forestry Commission team also relies on ground-based research and their work is now described as the most robust scientific evidence on forests in British history.
It's part of an initiative to place the forestry industry higher on the national agenda. Why do that? Because although the Westcountry might have more woodlands than previously thought, the UK remains far behind most other northern European countries when it comes to the number of trees we grow.
"Up until now we haven't had facts and figures to put our case as an industry in front of the decision makers or the public in general," said Ben Ditchburn, head of the National Forest Inventory. "We aim to re-profile forestry so people can understand the value of our woodlands and see what they can do for the country."
In extrapolating the Westcountry figures contained in the report, Mr Ditchburn said that just under a third of this region's forested area – some 32 per cent – is made up of 40,647 smaller woodlands and copses, each less than 10 hectares in size.
The largest 363 forests (woodlands covering over 100 hectares) in the South West, including places like Dartmoor's Fernworthy, Devon's Haldon Forest and the big Brendon Hill woodlands, account for 28 per cent of the total forest area. Of the remaining 3,813 Westcountry woodlands, 40 per cent falls into the small to medium 10 to 100 hectare size.
Mr Ditchburn went on: "The results for the South West show that the area has a unique rural heritage, with many smaller broadleaved woods evenly distributed across the landscape, reflecting many centuries of Celtic land management principles.
There is also a definite trend of trees being older in the region than compared to the national average, indicating different approaches to woodland management."
He added: "What this report shows is that the people of the South West are still in touch with nature and many know how to look after their forests, from small local woodlands to large forest landscapes."
That's a heartening state of affairs, given the importance of our forests.