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Getting Closer To Nature

Willie Beattie looks at the pros and cons of continuous cover forestry. 

Continuous cover forestry (CCF) is based on the principle of using ‘close to nature’ methods of forestry.

Ideally, this means thinning woodlands and/or very small felling sites and encouraging natural regeneration to secure the next generation of trees. These methods are commonly used on the continent and we are witnessing it becoming increasingly popular here in Scotland.

The silvicultural benefits of CCF are well documented. It naturally encourages diversification of species and ages within a woodland which increases its resilience to climate change, pests and diseases. The small scale of the interventions also protects the soils and reduces the impact of operations on local communities and wildlife. CCF management can also produce very high quality timber as it is usually grown on a longer rotation than standard commercial rotations.

The economic benefits of CCF management are less clearly understood however. The increase in the quality of timber is hard to quantify and is offset to some extent by the increase in the rotation length. There are clear cost savings in terms of not having to carry out restocking but there are also higher costs in terms of increased deer control; possible cleaning or noncommercial thinnings of young crops; and increased road infrastructure requirements. In practice, adopting CCF is a completely different management strategy which results in a totally different pattern of income and expenditure.

As more estates have been applying CCF principles over a good number of years, we are starting to build a better understanding of the long term financial model of CCF management. The traditional clear fell and restock methods produce high peaks of income when clear felling is carried out followed within five years followed by high peaks of expenditure as restocking is carried out. In contrast CCF management tends to produce a more continual flow of income. The income from interventions is generally smaller but more frequent and the expenditure is also more consistent.

We have found that CCF management can be a very good fit for estates looking to create a longer term low-level income stream from their woodlands.

There are a number of barriers to making CCF a realistic option for management:

  1. There needs to be sufficient scale of woodland to ensure that thinning can be carried out regularly without overcutting the woodland i.e. it needs to be sustainable.
  2. There needs to be sufficient access, or initial capital to improve access, such that timber lorries can frequently access all parts of the woodland.
  3. Ideally there should at least be some woodland which has the potential to produce high quality timber so that good prices can be achieved for mature crops.
  4. Woodlands must be stable enough so that thinning is not going to cause significant wind blow – generally this means slightly sheltered woodlands and avoiding woodlands on waterlogged soils.
  5. The sites should not be too fertile. Highly fertile sites are more difficult to manage for natural regeneration as the weed completion is more intense.
  6. The deer pressure also needs to be low enough so that seedlings can mature to pole stage trees without significant damage. Advanced regeneration (i.e. the young trees already regenerating on a site) are the best indication that this is feasible.

CCF management continues to grow in popularity in Scotland. Although it is not suitable everywhere, as more and more foresters have experimented with it, it seems to be appropriate in more situations than initially thought. Estate owners in particular might be attracted to the idea of a long term income from forestry rather than the highs and lows of clear felling.

CCF management is certainly an option that should be considered by all woodland owners.