When properly planned and maintained, woodlands have a unique capacity to transform the landscape and deliver a wide range of benefits for current and future generations.
Introduced just over a year ago, the Forestry Grant Scheme (FGS) offers some excellent funding opportunities and is proving to be a versatile foundation for the creation of both commercial and native woods. Depending on the size, location and woodland creation type, most schemes generate a positive financial outcome and planted farm land also remains eligible for annual Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments over the 20-year duration of an FGS contract.
Historically, woodlands were planted with one purpose in mind - to produce timber in the shortest possible time. Solid geometrical blocks of Sitka spruce became commonplace and little consideration was given to how woodlands fitted into the wider landscape or influenced the natural environment.
The expansion of forestry in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties increased woodland cover in the UK to about 12% of land area and currently allows us to produce just under half of the timber that we consume as a nation.
Taxation incentivised afforestation on a huge scale and intensive methods often imposed tree crops on the landscape rather than working with natural processes, sometimes leading to the planting of ecologically sensitive sites. Over the past 30 years, the concept of sustainability has become well established within forestry management and the multiple benefits of forestry are now much better understood.
When designing new woodland, careful consideration must be given to location and how the size and shape complement the local landform. Potential conflicts with other land uses should be identified early and minimised as far as possible.
The species chosen must suit the climatic and soil conditions and consideration should also be given to the resilience of different species to the predicted efforts of climate change. Archaeological features and the presence of notable or protected species and habitats must also be taken into account at an early stage.
The many potential benefits of well-designed sustainable woodland, include:
The prospect of growing good quality softwood on a rotation of 40 to 50 years is an attractive one on the right site with suitable access to public roads.
The rising popularity of biomass heating systems has also transformed the market for lower grade categories of timber, significantly improving average prices achieved at clear fell.
As a long-term investment, forestry has stood up well compared to other types of UK investments with an annualised total return of 8.5% over the past 21 years (IPD Forestry Index, 2013).
Benefits on livestock farms
Woodland and shelter belts on livestock farms have numerous potential benefits. These include overall increases in crop and pasture yield, particularly during periods of drought, reduced water run-off and consequently reduced risk of flooding and, in dry areas, reduced risk soil erosion. Additionally, shelter from woodland can potentially improve forage conversion rates and livestock productivity. Riparian woodland can also help to stabilise river banks and prevent further erosion.
Game, wildlife and habitats
The creation of new woodland provides the opportunity to create and enhance habitats for many woodland plants and animals. Iconic and threatened species such as red squirrel and black grouse can benefit greatly from the establishment of diverse, well-structured woodland and the expansion of existing woods.
Game shooting, of course, also benefits greatly from the creation of woodland habitat, and relatively small areas of woodland can be an important asset to a rural business just by its presence in the landscape.
Establishing formal footpaths can provide greater control by helping to draw activity away from more sensitive areas. Local authorities increasingly look for evidence of public engagement in support of planning applications and woodlands can provide an expedient way of achieving this.