Preserving forests for the long term.

I was recently reading “The secret life of trees” by Peter Wohlleben, an excellent read, which I would recommend to anyone interested in developing or maintaining woodland. However as the book went on I started to get a sinking feeling, a feeling of almost hopelessness. The problem is not about identifying sites and planting trees, nor is it about managing the trees. No the problem is the long term protection.

You see when you first plant out a new area with trees, or set aside an area for rewilding, you will not have an instant woodland, in fact after 100 years you will still only have a collection of first growth trees that will not be as strong and interlinked as they need to be. It will only be as these trees die and their descendants rise up around them that things will start to be as they should be. In fact it will take more like 500 years to achieve something like the diverse forest most of us dream of re- establishing here in the UK. So you and I won’t be there to see it, well that’s a pity, but we are generous enough not to let that stop us doing what we think is right aren’t we?

So here’s the rub: we need to protect these trees for 500 years. During that time the trees we plant will go through some varying stages of development. We will watch the trees grow and be pleased with our work, and possibly our children will, but then as the initial planting that has grown too fast due to too little shade, burns itself out, people will look at the forest and think it is dying, or planted in the wrong place, or no longer attractive, or even dangerous. They may view it as a failed experiment, flog the timber and destroy it.

Ok I hear you say, we will protect it legally, we will make laws or establish organisations to protect the forest. Well of course we will…..but think…..500 years! That’s approximately 100 re-elections of parliament, it’s a potential 200-300 changes of the balance of power within a district council. Assuming a man cares for a forest for 20 years, that is 25 generations needed to care for that forest. Take a look at our great institutions: most were started in Victorian times at best and are only a couple of 100 years old. Look at how their outlooks have changed in that time! Our government has only been established in its current form since the English civil war. Trees starting their growth then should still be standing and be productive. Some of our Universities (who incidentally may hold quite a lot of land) are a bit older and could have presided over a forests development in the time they’ve been in existence, but of course forestry is not exactly their prime concern. Most of our laws are less than 500 years old and those that are more than 200-300 years old are generally seen as outdated and irrelevant (think of witchcraft for instance).

So how do we go about creating an institution or law to protect our new forests, to nurture them to maturity and in the process not cause unintended consequences? In the 1st and 2nd World Wars huge amounts of forestry was cut down for the war effort, can we imagine the British public giving in to the Nazis because they wanted to protect the trees? Of course we can’t and in the future there will be other emergencies, other imperatives in the next 500 years. When gifting Glencoe to the National Trust for Scotland in 1937, Percy Unna stipulated rules which bound their hands. It would be easy to argue that some of those rules now work against each other and make it harder to achieve the primitive landscape he envisaged.

Looking at two more institutions we love, National Parks and the NHS, both about 70 years old. I doubt you would find anyone who would want to end the NHS and most people want us to continue our National Park authorities, but looking at their history one can see that they are continuously beleaguered. Interference from politicians who have little understanding of how things work, underfunding, inappropriate funding, or unreliable funding with strings attached, and perhaps most damaging of all, too narrow a remit.

So what do we learn from this? Well if you ask people if they would pay more to fund the NHS they say “Yes”, but they fear their money just disappearing into the Government pot. I think the NHS contribution from tax should be ring fenced, and I believe that this approach might work for some other services. A National Forestry scheme might be one? Certainly there are some things that have such long time lines, that they are unsuited to the short term thinking of a 5 year political cycle (seen in this light the planting of millions of trees after WW2 was an astounding leap of faith). We need our new forests and wild places to be placed outside political control, and their management “lead by the science” as politicians love to say just now.


  1. Brilliant article….lots of food for thought! I like the idea of taking long-term issues out of the hands of politics. It’s all to easy to destroy what’s taken hundreds of years to develop. A National Nature or Forestry service could certainly be a good way of increasing protection among much of our precious forests.

  2. So glad you enjoyed it!

Leave a Reply