Seeing the wood for the trees

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!

10 thoughts on “Seeing the wood for the trees

  1. It’s a fair cop I planted trees. Two acres for purely selfish reasons, I wanted a source of fuel wood. So I have a coppice woodland in the making. I have criticised you in the past and now extend this to Fairlie, for only thinking of land as a source of food. It is also a source of fuel, clothing, building materials, medicines etc. and soul food. So I am arranging to get all of these from the same ground and food as well (clothing may not work out). How are the number crunchers going to measure my productivity?
    You mentioned fruit and nut harvesting in a forest garden as though it were a chore. This is one of my favourite things to do! Am I weird or are we back to the point that when harvesting for a family it feels good but when harvesting for others as part of a business it becomes horrible?
    I think Rackham may be getting a bit old because he only seems to be able to see large animals. I’m sure trees support greater biodiversity than grassland but a lot of the animals, fungi and plants are quite small and presumably don’t count. Or is it that it takes along time to establish woodland diversity in a former field – we have to start somewhere.

    • Paul, I think perhaps I haven’t explained myself well enough. Let me try to expand.

      I don’t think harvesting fruit & nuts is a chore at all, but I do think that farms need to build more and less intensive forms of land use into their overall structure. I don’t have a problem with the idea of abundance and/or redundancy in the sense of not feeling the need to harvest absolutely everything. At the same time, I see little point in planting 4 acres of apple trees if you’re not going to harvest them at all, so I think there’s a case for designing agroforestry systems at varying levels of use intensity.

      Regarding Rackham, I focused on the large animals but he does analyse the biota as a whole – and it seems to be the case that you just don’t get woodland ground flora on farmed grass plantations even after 1-200 years, because of phosphate levels and possibly other little understood mechanisms such as mycorrhizae and ants, which are common in woodland but rare on farmed grassland. I think it’s quite likely that those of us who’ve planted trees on farmed grassland haven’t added much in the way of biodiversity – we’ve just added low wildlife value trees to low wildlife value grass.

      Regarding the multiple outputs of land – yes I take your point (and Fairlie looks at fibre too), though I’d say that food requires more space than other uses, and I’d also say that it’s debatable whether most small wood owners are going to manage their woods in such a way that they’ll get much in the way of useful building material from it, at least in the sense of structural timber.

      No doubt we’ll continue the interesting debate on the issues of self-provisioning versus commercial production. But I do think that once you start doing things broadscale on agricultural land you begin to have a responsibility to think not only about what you want for yourself but what other people need. And that inevitably draws you into questions of productivity, though there are many ways to understand the term. There are a lot of people on the planet and they have as much right to its resources as you and me. Push the self-provisioning logic too far and you end up saying that whoever buys the land can do what they like with it. And that’s something with which I’d have to disagree.

      • My point on self provisioning is not one of selfishness but one of perspective. I believe that by trying to get a variety of different uses from the same piece of land I will be more productive than any farming system its just that the productivity will not be quantifiable in its totality and is therefore discounted. We have already agreed that a spade is more fuel efficient and productive than a tractor but only possible on a small scale.This is again a matter of perspective.
        Incidentally I expect to save 1,000litres of fuel oil/year (500l/acre) by burning my own wood how does that compare with the fuel oil savings in agro-ecological farming?
        In returning grassland to woodland – how fast does it go if the phosphate rich nettle/grass mix is removed by cropping and woody material is used as a mulch and a certain amount of myccorhizal re-introduction takes place?

    • pasture land provides habitat for wildflowers that can only compete with grazed grass – won’t grow in mown or long grass, some of these wild flowers have rare species of moths and butterflies that feed on them. Grazing can stop the spread of scrub also and maintain important nationally rare habitats such as the welsh mountain goats at Tentsmuir in scotland, which is listed grade 1 habitat, geological and invertebrate site. Ground flora is much more important than trees even in areas that are cleared of trees you can determine the type of forest by the ground flora still existing. In order for woodland to be equal instead of planting trees it would need to be left to scrub over and for trees to then grow naturally – plantations have very little to zero value ecologically.

      • Thanks for commenting. Well, it’s true that grazing is often important to particular kinds of habitat management, but it doesn’t follow that it always is – and in my particular situation I think the tree-planting has brought numerous benefits, mostly to the human ecology but also to various wild species. I’d question your assertions about ecological ‘value’ or the ‘importance’ of ground flora vis-à-vis trees, which to my mind are emblematic of human value judgments rather than some kind of intrinsic value written into the nature of things. My understanding of ecological thinking is that it’s increasingly moving away from such definitive conceptions of ‘value’. Still, I agree that if it fits with all the other management objectives (which it didn’t in our case), there’s a lot to be said for natural regeneration of woodland.

  2. My belief is also that polycultures are superior to monocultures, but if we simply believe it to be true and refuse to actually look at productivities we’ll run the risk that under future resource pressure our wood lots, market gardens, forest gardens and so on will be ploughed up in favour of arable systems which are only too happy to broadcast their productivity.

    I could be wrong, but some quick back of the envelope calculations lead me to the conclusion that you’re saving a lot more fossil fuel energy from your wood lot than is possible to do by farming agroecologically rather than conventionally over the same area. But on the other hand, you’re only producing enough wood for yourself from your two acres, whereas if you were growing wheat or potatoes on it you’d be feeding 30-40 people. That’s why I think there are some tricky issues about productivity and land use choice at issue here.

    I don’t know what the effect of cropping the agricultural weeds and introducing mycorrhizae would be. The impression I’ve formed from what I’ve read is that phosphate levels are pretty slow to decline, and that mycorrhizal introduction is not as straightforward as it was once thought to be because there are fairly specific associations which aren’t really understood. But it’s worth trying – and it would perhaps be an example of the kind of low intensity forest gardening I mentioned in my post. Generally I think that a lot of tree-planting, my own included, has been done without devoting enough thought to the herbaceous ground layer, so your suggestion sounds like one way of remedying that.

  3. I don’t understand why we have to compare wood and potatoes. I can’t eat wood but neither can I burn potatoes. I need both. If I only grew potatoes someone else would have to grow the wood or would you have me convert to electricity and hope for fully sustainable supplies sometime soon? Poly-cultures are great but become better as all our needs are considered. They also work better with a level of attention to detail that can not be applied by farmers and by supplying very local demands i.e. me, my family, extended family, friends & neighbours before approaching the market. When Fairlie uses terms such as “woodland is a low value”, “fairly unproductive land use”, “higher value agricultural use” he is demonstrating an economic blindness that together with the need to calculate productivity in advance will hinder the development of really optimal poly-cultural land uses. “Poly-cultures for people not for profit” …. my new strap line, do you like it?

  4. Paul, I compared wood & potatoes because you asked me to in your previous comment! And I think the results are interesting because they show you need vastly more land to keep someone in firewood than you do to keep them in food – which suggests we may have a problem on our hands if we’re facing a severely energy-constrained future, and also underscores the virtues of fuel conservation, insulation etc.

    Yes, let’s develop subtle polycultures to answer our local needs. But I’d maintain that planting forest trees on farmed grassland is not in itself a subtle polyculture and it won’t in itself answer local needs. There is in any case a lot of neglected woodland already around, which we should probably try to start with.

    I don’t recall the exact words Fairlie used in his chapter (which I’d thoroughly recommend anyone to read), so your ire is probably better directed at me than at him. But I totally disagree with you that these words demonstrate an economic blindness – I’d say on the contrary they demonstrate an ecological and energetic awareness.

    Regarding markets, I agree that excessive market orientation often obstructs good landscape design, but given that all of us in the UK are deeply implicated in market relations I’d also say that insufficient market orientation can have the same effect – eg. an allotment gardener driving a mile across town to bring a sack of compost to their council-owned plot. For this reason I don’t entirely like your strap line because all of us have to derive our ‘profit’ from somewhere. The issue of how marketised our food, fuel & fibre production ought to be is really critical – and it strikes to the contradiction at the heart of MY strap line – ‘veg box peasant’. So I guess that’s something I’ll have to post on soon – thanks for the cue!

    • I agree we have a problem. I don’t imagine that I can make a huge difference to my fuel requirements through economy and insulation. I already economise as much as I can (small well insulated house). So 2 acres it is.I don’t think we will ever agree about how to look at this so I’ll stop pestering you.
      Last one just for interest sake. The 1000l of fuel oil cost me well over £500 so even allowing for costs of turning trees into logs I’ll be making £250 per acre. Not bad eh? Better than the average farmer, before handouts of course. Wouldn’t work at any other scale of production though!

  5. Well I don’t mind being pestered whether we end up agreeing or not – I find it always helps to have my thoughts challenged, and there’s a lot more that can be said about the market vs self-provisioning issue! My intention isn’t to criticise you for planting a wood lot. Interesting financial figures, not least as you say because of the scale of production. It could be argued that you ought to include the purchase price of the land in your calculations, or a market opportunity cost. On the other hand, it could also be argued that there ought to be a carbon cost and a depletion cost attributed to the fuel oil!

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