I mentioned in my last post the coppice woodland at Vallis Veg – now officially ‘non-coppice woodland’ courtesy of the Rural Payments Agency, as I explained. That seems to lead naturally into a discussion of woodland at our site – or more specifically into the vexed question of the relationship between woodland, grassland and cropland – which I shall probably have to explore in more detail over time.
To start with, let me outline the different land usages on our site. When we bought the land (around 18 acres altogether) it was 100% permanent pasture. We now have about 2 acres of cropland (though some of this is down to temporary grass leys), 5 acres of permanent pasture and 10 acres of woodland. The woodland in turn breaks down into orchards (2 acres); forest garden (1 acre); ash, hornbeam and willow coppice (3 acres); and amenity woodland (4 acres).
I’ll assume that the orchards and forest garden are fairly uncontroversial forms of land use – I’ll probably post more about them in the future. What’s getting increasingly contentious these days (not that you’ll read about it in The Sun – though maybe one day you will…that’ll be when we know we really have blown it ecologically) is the balance between woodland proper, permanent grassland and cropland.
In his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie writes “There is a fringe of the green movement which has managed to reduce the complexity of nature to the formula ‘trees good, no trees bad’….If such people get hold of an area of grassland, often the first thing they want to do with it is plant trees all over it. The fact that someone, a long time ago, went to a lot of trouble to get the trees out, and that generations of people have spent energy making sure that trees stayed out, is lost on them” (p.239). In contrast to the products of the grassland a tree trunk, says Fairlie, is “a triumph of inedibility” (p.233).
Incidentally, I keep referring to Fairlie’s book on this blog, calling it ‘excellent’, and then disagreeing with it…and I’m now going to do it again. But it is excellent – the most comprehensive and nuanced case for global small-scale agriculture that I’ve come across.
Fairlie’s point is that woodland is a low value, fairly unproductive land use, whereas good agricultural land is best reserved for higher value agricultural use – particularly as we look forward to a time when we may have to make more effective use of every bit of farmland we have. The tree fetishists, on the other hand, have more nebulous – perhaps even spiritual – ends, like creating nice treescapes for human repose. Such dilettantism cuts little ice with Fairlie – “Woodland today,” he says, “is often planted according to the whims of people whose material livelihoods are more or less unrelated to the rural economy, so if these plantations meet the needs of future generations, it will be more by luck than design” (p.242).
Now, we did plant the amenity woodland at Vallis Veg with some of these vaguer aims in mind. Certainly, despite their inedible trunks, people seem to have a spiritual affinity for trees rarely felt for the annual herbaceous plants that actually feed them, with the possible exception of wheat (we had no trouble recruiting people to help us plant trees at Vallis Veg, whereas volunteers for my onion-weeding events are thinner on the ground). We also planted trees for what seemed at the time more practical objectives – future timber, privacy screening, wind protection, biodiversity, carbon sequestration. We didn’t feel able to manage livestock on the whole 18 acres, so woodland instead of grassland seemed like a good idea.
Reading Fairlie’s analysis has given me pause for thought. Support for it comes from woodland expert Oliver Rackham’s formidable (and excellent) book Woodlands. Rackham points out that woodland plantation on farmed grassland doesn’t usually add much biodiversity, mainly benefitting wildlife that’s already thriving like deer, pheasants, rooks and squirrels (oops…) And you don’t ever get a woodland ground flora if you plant on farmed grassland – you just get tussocky, weedy grass (though actually that is quite good for a lot of wildlife, though hardly very productive agriculturally). Rackham also dismisses carbon sequestration as a worthwhile objective for UK woodland plantation. “Exhorting people to plant trees to sequester carbon dioxide is like telling them to drink more water to hold down rising sea level” (p.439), he says, which is probably a fair point, and not a bad analogy inasmuch as tree-planting and water-drinking are essentially both parts of short-term cycles, whereas the real issue with carbon is our exhumation of long-sequestered reserves laid down in coal measures and oilfields.
So can a case still be made for farmed grassland wood plantations? I think so, if it’s done with proper care. For starters, I’d make the following two points:
- because energy is currently so cheap, wood can be economically imported from almost anywhere for almost any use, including low grade ones like firewood. In the future, that’s unlikely to be the case. Demand for local firewood, craft wood and other forms of coppiced wood is likely to be high, so there’s a case for establishing local plantations – certainly not on all farmland, but possibly on some farmland. In this respect, I disagree with Fairlie’s view that people who aren’t tied to the current rural economy will make worse decisions when it comes to woodland than those who are. Rackham says “The landscape is full of trees grown for obsolete reasons, and probably always will be” (p.361). There have been times in history when coppice woodland fetched more per acre than arable land – the tree fetishists may yet prove to be right!
- the main alternative to woodland is usually permanent pasture with grass-fed ruminants, and this is a low productivity system. With a bit of ingenuity, woodland systems may be equally productive. To make ruminant systems more productive would involve ploughing up permanent pasture and adopting grass ley/arable farming – but this has drastically negative environmental consequences, and most of the yield benefit would probably come from a one-time cash-in of the fertility accumulated in the permanent pasture.
The crux comes I think with the ‘ingenuity’ I mention that’s required to make woodland as productive as permanent pasture. Having watched my plantation ecosystem develop for a few years now, and having read Fairlie and Rackham’s thoughts on the matter, I’ve come to think that we probably do need to intervene more actively to balance some of our original goals with a greater emphasis on productivity. Here are my current three favourite ideas:
- wood pasture: both ruminants and woodland are low productivity systems, so hey why not put them both together and graze ruminants on the grass between the trees? There are lots of practical issues to sort out here – the tendency of the animals to eat the trees rather than the grass (which probably indicates that all pasture ought really to be wood pasture), the competition between trees and grass (what Fairlie calls ‘the struggle between light and shade’) and so on. But there is a long and noble history of wood pasture in the UK, now sadly neglected in the face of intensive modern agriculture. Time perhaps to bring it back?
- pigs, chickens and people: all edgeland creatures to a greater or lesser extent, happiest neither in deep forest nor treeless plain. So perhaps we can structure our woodland for our mutual benefit – acorns, crab apples and beech mast for the pigs (in addition to some fodder crops, of which more another time); invertebrates and perches for the chickens; birch wine, rowan jelly, acorn bread and hammocks for the people. Sounds idyllic.
- forest gardening: this is catching on quickly, aided by publications such as Martin Crawford’s recent Creating A Forest Garden – the third and final excellent book that I need to mention in this post. But most forest garden designs are quite intensive, involving lots of fruit and nut harvesting amongst other things. Perhaps there’s also scope for lower input, more foresty forest gardens, involving…what exactly? Ah well, that’s a topic for another time.
In this post I’ve talked mostly about woodland, but really it needs to be looked at in the context of grassland and cropland as well so I’ll try to post some more on that soon. In the mean time, I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on tree plantations, particularly if you’ve created a plantation yourself, so do please post your comments – I know you’re out there reading this, because I have the website stats to prove it!