Creating and connecting woodlands

The importance of woodlands

Trees have umpteen benefits; biodiversity, climate change, flooding, air pollution, soil and human health (see this blog for more details).  Woodlands are home to more wildlife species than any other habitat.

The state of woodlands today

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Woodlands are essential landscapes but have been diminished and fractured worldwide through human-based activities, such as agriculture and urbanisation.  It has resulted in a 50% reduction in woodland cover.  The remaining woodlands across Europe are often small, isolated, and consist of non-native plantations (native forests are preferable as they enhance species biodiversity).  This loss in wildlife habitats is one of the principal causes of the ecological crisis, hindering species survival.  The risk to species is further exacerbated by climate change as habitats may become less amenable for certain species.  In the UK, woodland cover dropped to its lowest at 5% at the beginning of the 20th century.  Tree planting schemes have helped to improve coverage to 13%.

Woodland creation and connection

We need to create more space for our wildlife to halt the losses and strengthen species numbers.  Connecting habitats too will allow mobility should habitats become less hospitable through instances such as wildfires or changing habitat conditions. 

Tree planting and woodland creation are not quick fixes to the biodiversity crisis, as woodland creation sites are estimated to take between 80 and 160 years to develop similar attributes to those of ancient woodlands (see link for this study by the WrEN project).  The natural colonisation of trees results in more varied and complex habitats, with a greater ability to adapt to climate change.  However, time is not on our side, so tree planting needs to bridge this gap.

Tree planting needs to be well-planned to ensure the planting of native species in locations where they will thrive.  To optimise outcomes, managing new woodlands is necessary.  For example, young trees need protection from heavy grazing from sheep or deer.  Also, concurrent planting of trees with similar growth rates will lead to dense, slow growth if left unmanaged.

The Derwent Connections project

Derwent Connections is a pioneering project initiated by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (you can listen to Ady Cox and George Jones talk about the project on the podcast). The trust is facilitating woodland creation and natural flood management across the Derwent Valley, offering guidance and support to landowners and community organisations.  

Despite the name of the Derwent Valley referencing a forest of oak trees, the Derwent area has been seriously depleted of woodlands and thus many plants and animals. Currently, National Forest woodlands sit to the south, and Northern Forest woodlands are being established in the north. Connecting these woodlands through woodland creation along the River Derwent will provide a transit route for wildlife.  

Woodland creation not only supports wildlife resilience but helps reduce flood risk by intercepting rainfall and extending the time it takes for water to reach rivers. Alongside the trees, constructing leaky dams is another natural flood management strategy, also slowing the water flow.

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The team offers advice on funding tree planting, what species to plant, where to plant them, and how to look after them.  One of the concerns for farmers is ensuring their land remains economically viable.  There is possible funding through the Woodland Carbon Code, a quality assurance standard for woodland creation projects in the UK.  Independent verifiers calculate carbon units which can be sold to organisations wishing to offset their ‘difficult to remove’ carbon emissions.

Community organisations

A key role of the project is networking with the many community organisations involved in nature-related activities to gain their input into the mission.  Parish councils have been instrumental in highlighting these groups and have local knowledge regarding flood risk hot spots.

2050 Vision

It is hoped the legacy of this project will be a thriving Derwent Forest by 2050, consisting of native woodlands and hedgerows, community orchards, agroforestry and garden trees.  There will be additional wetlands, grasslands and ecotones (found on the edges of habitats) too, and wildlife (pine marten, red squirrel, nightingale, turtle dove, beaver and pearl-bordered fritillary) will return.  The rich landscape will be a place where people will thrive and a means of capturing much carbon.  I look forward to that!

A greener landscape

With the many advantages that woodlands bring to people, places and the planet, creating and connecting them seems to be a worthy commitment of time and energy.

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