MacEwen Essay Competition


Exmoor’s Future Trees: which species should be planted, where, how, & why?

I believe there is great potential to plant many trees on Exmoor without altering the landscape that we all know and love. I think it possible to achieve this by looking backwards to gain inspiration and learn lessons for the future. Quite often I have found, in my career as an arborist and forester, that the old ways of doing things were often the best. They may not have had the science that we do now, but people who worked on the land had a far greater understanding. Many techniques, skills and a lot of knowledge has been lost, especially concerning trees. I also firmly believe that to create a sustainable future for the trees of Exmoor that those trees must not only be environmentally sustainable but also economically sustainable. These are two themes I shall continue throughout.

As we all know life on the Moor is hard, we need only look at the ponies and livestock for that, and it is not a coincidence that the trees that survive are equally as hardy. Hawthorn and Blackthorn are some of the only trees to withstand the harsh winds and weather on many commons across the moor and I would capitalise on this. Thorn could be used as a moorland nursery crop to protect other slower growing species from predation from the deer and offer respite from the wind. Utilising the prickly nature of thorn trees to border a random planting of alternative species a large amount of protection could be achieved to reduce the expected amount of loss in the more desirable trees. Nursery trees, by their nature, are often sacrificial only serving to promote the growth of more favourable trees and this would be the case with thorn by harnessing the mechanical defence with the added benefit of great impacts to nesting birds and a species that naturally does not grow large and overshadowing.

To create a financially sustainable crop the species selected must be appropriate to the area and again we can draw inspiration from existing woodlands. Hawkcombe in Porlock, is a prime example of how a working woodland would have been. Primarily oak the village created a micro-economy around the oak tree ranging from timber to tanning. Therefore, English Oak would be favourable. Perhaps not the finest timber however, compared to the French grown counterpart, a market for smaller grown oak products from a sustainable coppice site would benefit the local community greatly. Coppicing should be more favourable than ever with the pressing concern of carbon sequestration due to the reasonably quick turnaround of favourably sized trees. That is to say that oak fencing material could be achieved within 15-30 years maximising the positive sequestration of carbon in relatively young trees, opposed to the neutral sequestration of carbon in large, mature trees. Sweet chestnut could also be a favourable crop to plant, with the view to coppice and harvest every 15 years. Though not typically Exmoor and more attributed to Hereford and the South East, Exmoor does however yield some good quality chestnut in Yarner Woods, Culbone and Allers Wood, Dulverton.

            Another utility species could be Silver/downy birch to satisfy the growing need for firewood in the more strictly regulated market of the future. A personal favourite of mine, silver birch, may indeed not be native, but it does however form unarguably very attractive individuals and woodlands. Not only does it yield good quality firewood within 40 years, birch provides an alternative woodland aesthetic and enjoys the positive variation in biodiversity that this brings. Again, this species coppices well offering the same positive aspects as the species above adding to the utilitarian theme of my suggested planting, which leads me on to alder.

            I must confess a complete U-turn in my personal feelings towards alder trees. With the devastation we are seeing to our ash trees across Exmoor due to the prolific spreading of Ash Die Back, an overwhelming gap can be seen not only in our hedgerows and skylines but also our watercourses. Large ash trees dominate many watercourses across Exmoor and their senescence may prove damaging to the stability of river banks. Greater erosion can lead to the linearisation of rivers, bringing with it catastrophic repercussions. We need only look at Yellowstone national park as an example of river linearisation due to the removal of wolves. To combat this Alder seems a logical choice. A fast-growing tree requiring little to no formative care, that is prolific near water and fixes nitrogen better than most other trees. Many consider it a weed but with the startling number of diseases, tree related and human, being transmitted globally perhaps a hardy weed is what we need to weather the storm whilst our ash joins the lost elm.

Water courses and valleys are therefore some of my target areas concerning suggestions for areas to plant, and we have plenty of both on Exmoor. Many of the small valleys spreading from The Chains are wet for much of the year, but more importantly for us they are mainly hidden and hidden is what I am suggesting. I do not wish to change the landscape of Exmoor, but capitalise on all the deep valleys that few people see. I would take advantage of this in a utilitarian form but perhaps also emulate one of the most popular valleys on the Moor, Badgeworthy. A valley that has high footfall and offers a stark contrast for walkers that have just dropped down off the moor and really captures the magic of Exmoor, a rugged terrain with splashes of undeniable beauty. Another such beauty is Three Combes Foot, a practical tool, quintessentially Exmoor that could easily be selectively emulated elsewhere on the Moor. Perhaps if recreating these beauties, the sustainable aspect is the aesthetics for tourism rather than a purely timber related economy.

Most importantly, for me however, when talking about the future of trees on Exmoor is the relationship, they have with those of us that live here. A symbiosis that has been lost in recent times, with the vast reduction in a culture of working woodlands. Exmoor is a working place through and through so I suggest creating work for the future generations by planting trees for our children to manage. My suggestions would work to promote jobs in low impact forestry, firewood and woodcraft allowing people to remain on the moor rather than seek employment away from it. Our population is declining to an unsustainable level so let us increase the tree population to encourage the sustainability of the people that live and work here.

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