Rewilding and Malthus

In September I was fortunate to attend the excellent Future of Wild Europe conference at Leeds University. Over three days, keynote speakers and early-career researchers in the environmental humanities gave presentations on rewilding, ethnography and many other fascinating topics related to political ecology.

Pretty much my first academic conference, I found it hugely stimulating, and a great opportunity to accost authors of papers I was citing in my dissertation at coffee break. It was also not without a share of controversy and a range of different and at times conflicting visions were presented as to what a “wild Europe” might mean and how to get there.

Irma Allen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm also attended the conference and has written about her impressions in a thought-provoking blog, The Trouble with RewildingHere, she poses some challenging questions about what she felt was revealed concerning  the ideological underpinnings of the rewilding movement. Three main issues  concern her: the racialized Malthussian origins of rewilding; concerns about land abandonment and passive rewilding in Europe being facilitated by importing “virtual” agricultural land; and rewilding initiatives being concentrated in the historically marginalized regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

  1. Malthus and the discourse of over-population

Environmentalism has a dark history of Malthussian “Limits to Growth” thinking and misanthropy. A focus on and at times pre-occupation with over-population as the primary driver of environmental destruction, frequently accompanied by the reification of a sublime Nature above human well-being, has lead to an assumption that the only truly healthy Nature is one devoid of humans.

As Allen says, this issue was most famously addressed by William Cronon in his 1996 essay The Trouble with Wilderness (pdf)(Cronon 1996):

Perhaps partly because our own conflicts over such places and organisms have become so messy, the convergence of wilderness values with concerns about biological diversity and endangered species has helped produce a deep fascination for remote ecosystems, where it is easier to imagine that nature might somehow be “left alone” to flourish by its own pristine devices. The classic example is the tropical rain forest, which since the 1970s has become the most powerful modern icon of unfallen, sacred land—a veritable Garden of Eden—for many Americans and Europeans. And yet protecting the rain forest in the eyes of First World environmnetalists all too often means protecting it from people who live there.

Those who seek to preserve such “wilderness” from the activities of native peoples run the risk of reproducing the same tragedy—being forceably removed from an ancient home—that befell American Indians. Third World countries face massive environmental problems and deep social conflicts, but these are not likely to be solved by a cultural myth that encourages us to “preserve” peopleless landscapes that have not existed in such places for millennia…

…exporting American notions of wilderness in this way can become an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism

Cronon goes onto argue that the dichotomy that the concept of wilderness creates- that of a separation of anything touched by humans from pristine Nature- leads us to de-value the more prosaic world that we inhabit, and thus disregard the nature and the natural that is all around us, in our backyards, or even in the heart of the city. If we hold an essentially illusory image of “the wilderness”- since nature untouched by humans hardly exists anymore, and arguably has not for a long time- as the only true nature worth preserving or paying attention to, we will neglect to look after the less exciting but equally important diversity than can often be found all around us.

In her post, Allen goes onto trace these Malthussian strains from one of the originators of rewilding, deep ecologist Dave Foreman, to the founder of Rewilding Europe, Toby Aykroyd, who also gave a presentation at the Leeds conference. Allen found that Aykroyd is also the founder of the Population and Sustainability Network, which focusses on the links between reproductive health, population and the environment, and provides free family planning services in developing countries- all well and good she says, but “when motivated by concern over natural resources and carrying capacities, and linked to power-laden development agendas, this shades into murkier territories and rationales that I find deeply uncomfortable.”

In my dissertation on rewilding (available here) I also referenced some of these associations:

The darker side of misanthropic environmentalism still pervades more extreme rewilding discourses and can readily be found on online forums and blogs (see for example The Happy Anachronism blog, 2012; The Rewild West n.d.). Drastic reductions in human population, either forced or through some kind of ecological collapse, are seen by these writers as a necessary and even desirable pre-requisite to any genuine rewilding (Foreman 2015). At times, these views can seem uncomfortably close to certain strands of Nazi ideology, which was itself strongly informed by belief in the purity of pristine Nature, underpinned by their mythology of the urwald (primeval forest) which they associated with the Fatherland and Aryan supremacy (Biehl and Staudenmaier 1995; Schama 1996).

While some find thinking about this uncomfortable and would rather not have it discussed, or claim that it is no longer relevant, the conservation movement needs to own openly to its origins in a history of forced evictions of native peoples in order to create protected wilderness areas (Dowie 2011), a practice that is still going on today.

In this way, “wilderness” can be seen a cultural artifact, literally created by the forced removal of people (Ginn and Demeritt 2008). This is what Monbiot (1994) calls forced rewilding  (it is a curious aspect of his work that he gives scant mention of these issues in his more recent influential rewilding book Feral [2013]).

Perhaps oddly, neither Allen in her post, nor as far as I could see from a quick search on the PSN website, make any mention of the demographic transition- the well researched process of development, by which birth rates decline, sometimes dramatically, with economic development, as infant mortality declines and people move away from subsistence farming, and no longer require large numbers of children to ensure enough survived to work the land (Galor and Weil 2000).

Given that the data has been in on this process for decades and just keeps getting stronger, psychological explanations are being employed, as referenced by Allen,  to explain why overpopulation is still routinely referred to as “the elephant on the room”, a kind of “public secret” when in fact it has always been a core underpinning of the environmental movement, championed most prominently by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich (1968). A challenge for rewilding then will be to make a clean break with such Malthussian ideology.

Dolly Jørgensen, who also spoke at the conference, comes to the same conclusion in her review of rewilding:

Taken as a whole, rewilding discourse seeks to erase human history and involvement with the land and flora and fauna

(Jørgensen, D. 2014)

In response, Prior and Ward (2016) make the case that many rewilding “experiments” are indeed well integrated with human activity and presence, citing two examples of beaver re-introductions in Scotland, and the Oostvaardersplassen reserve in the Netherlands. However, my own research last summer suggests that people are likely to continue to use “rewilding” in many different ways, and even if efforts are made to shake off the idea of rewilding being about the reconstruction of an imagined “pristine” nature, there is bound to be some considerable slippage in public discourse. Rewilding will remain strongly associated with wilderness discourse and continue to draw from a broad church, including Malthussian deep-ecology.

Rather than focus on over-population, Allen sees over-consumption as being a more significant issue, bringing her to her second issue: exporting productive land overseas to allow increased conservation at home.

2. Virtual land trade in Europe

Citing the 2010 OPERA report (von Witzke and Noleppa 2010) on land-sparing, Allen points to data suggesting that Europe’s dramatic increase in productive land abandonment- hailed by some as an opportunity for passive rewilding ( Navarro and Pereira 2012) and regreening (the topic of my last post)   has come only at the expense of a “virtual land grab” outside the EU, mainly in developing countries, who have seen a consummate loss of forest cover. If so, this would provide a challenge to those, like myself, who have argued for intensification of agriculture as a way of freeing up farmland for nature.

However more recent data show that post-2008, the trend within the EU of increasing its virtual land imports has reversed, declining more than a third from the peak of 2007/8:


Source: Noleppa, S., & Cartsburg, M. (2014). Another look at agricultural trade of the European Union: Virtual land trade and self-sufficiency. Hffa Research.

While Europe still imports a large amount of “virtual farmlandland”, mainly in the form of oilseed crops, primarily soya from South America, the trend for other crops is in the other direction as Europe increases efficiency and raises yields. Moreover, a proportion of this virtual acreage is for the production of crops to meet the EU biofuel mandates. Under scenarios explored in the earlier study, this could already account for some 3-4m ha, rising by another 10% if biofuel mandates are increased.

Allen also points to the issue of land-grabbing in Europe, fingering EU-backed neo-liberal policies. While this may be a serious problem, dislocating traditional farming communities, this cannot be the same land that is being abandoned, but is rather for intensive production- which itself could lead to more abandonment of marginal land and subsequent re-greening. Implicit in her post is also a degree of “anti-capitalist” rhetoric, which ignores the considerable data for overall long-term improvement of living conditions under capitalism.

Allen argues that rather than welcoming the process of depopulating rural areas and land abandonment, rewilding should align itself with High Nature Value farming (HNV) and the benefits known to be provided to wildlife by by small farms- in other words, a land-sharing approach:

The key point here is that there is nothing neutral about processes of rural depopulation. Rather than passively celebrate their demise, should rewilding advocates not align themselves with small-scale farmers, whose practices, at least in Europe, can often encourage far greater biodiversity, and are themselves perhaps part of the very notion of ‘wild’ we might want to cultivate – non-homogenous, diverse, non-standardised, and self-willed?

This does seem to obviate the whole point of what rewilding seeks to achieve: If rewilding means anything at all distinctive, it is as a challenge to conventional conservation policies, which are deeply meshed within agri-environment schemes coming out of Europe the past 40 years. In contrast to rewilding, whereby natural processes are given priority to lead where they may (not unproblematic in itself), HNV farming has more in common with what we already have, which seeks to maintain specific habitats, generally those found in pre-WW2 pre-industrially farmed landscapes.

Agri-environment policies are already geared to promote land-sharing. But with world food demand set to rise dramatically over the coming decades, we will also need land-sparing, including new technologies to increase yields. A stalling in  innovation is cited as one of the major reasons for the slow-down in agricultural yield increases globally, and in Europe especially, where GMOs for example are strongly opposed and largely restricted. The OPERA report concludes that excessive regulations and bureaucracy have stifled agricultural innovation in the EU, while an increase in lower-yielding Organic agriculture across the EU would only lead to in an increase in virtual land imports.

3. Bio-capitalism in Eastern Europe

Allen’s final point is to question how, although rewilding generally has been focussed on the developed world, yet within Europe, most initiatives seem to be in the poorer eastern countries. This is true at least for one of the more prominent rewilding organisations, Rewilding Europe, which has most of its projects located in the poorer European countries of eastern Europe.

I think this is another valid point which is worthy of further discussion and research. This could be focussed for example on how eastern Europe may be at an earlier stage of the demographic transition through which more devloped countries have already passed, and how this relates to forest transitions. From informal discussions and other presentations at the Leeds conference, there were suggestions that RW Europe, and perhaps other organisations, see the depopulation of rural areas much to their advantage, and their assumption that alternative livelihoods in eco- and wildlife tourism can seemlessly make up for the decline in farming in these areas needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed.


Irma Allen has raised some perhaps uncomfortable questions for the rewilding movement. Its Malthussian origins should not be ignored and vigilance is needed to ensure it just does not become just the latest vehicle for misanthropic green fascism. Nevertheless, there are some contradictions in her arguments, and a danger of replicating these very same issues in her own apparent preference for small farms and extensive agriculture, while opposing agricultural technology that is badly needed to feed a still growing world population aswell as freeing up more land for nature. This is not to undersate the social disruptions which are likely to accompany such transitions, and further study should be undertaken to assess the social impacts of both agricultural intensification and any possible “green-grabbing” being carried out in the name of rewilding.


Biehl, J. and Staudenmaier, P. 1995 Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience AK

Cronon, W. (ed) 1996 Uncommon Ground- Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
W.W.Norton & Co. New York/London

Ehrlich, P. 1968 The Population Bomb MacMillan

FAO. 2016. State of the World’s Forests 2016.
Forests and agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. Rome.

Foreman, D. 2015 [online] An Interview with Dave Foreman [last accessed 12-07-2016]

Galor, O. and Weil, D.N. 2000 Population, Technology and Growth: From Malthusian Stagnation to the Demographic Transition and Beyond American Economic Review Vol. 90, No. 4 (Sept 2000), pp 806-828

Ginn, F. and Demeritt, D. 2008 Nature: A Contested Concept Ch.17 in Clifford, N.J. et al 2008 Key Concepts in Geography, Sage Publications Ltd.

Jørgensen, D. 2014 Rethinking Rewilding Geoforum 65 (2015) 482–488

Monbiot 1994 No Man’s Land: an investigative journey Through Kenya and Tanzania
MacMillan, London

Monbiot, G. 2013 Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life Allen Lane

Navarro, L.M. and Pereira, H. M.2012 Rewilding Abandoned landscapes in Europe  Ecosystems (2012) 15: 900–912

Noleppa, S., & Cartsburg, M. (2014). Another look at agricultural trade of the European Union: Virtual land trade and self-sufficiency. Hffa Research.

Prior, J. and Ward, K. 2016 Rethinking rewilding: A response to Jørgensen Geoforum 69
(2016) 132–135

Schama, S. (1996), S. 1996 Landscape and Memory Vintage

Von Witzke, H., & Noleppa, S. (2010). EU agricultural production and trade: Can more efficiency prevent increasing “land-grabbing”outside of Europe? Study Commissioned by OPERA.


Regreening the Earth

A fortuitous but unintended consequence of increased atmospheric CO2 levels has been carbon accumulation and increased fertilisation in plants leading to regreening in some regions. As discussed in the last IPCC report these effects include increased forest cover at the expense of savannah and grasslands, migration of tree-lines to higher latitudes and elevations, and increased crop yields. These  impacts can be seen most clearly in dryland areas, increasing vegetation cover as well as available soil water (Lu et al 2016). The CO2 fertilisation effect has been significant enough to slow the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 since 2002 (Keenan et al 2016).

CO2 fertilisation will only be a net benefit up to a certain point, but changes in land use over the past century have also lead to significant re-greening in much of Europe and North America, as shown by dramatic graphics produced by Ralph Fuchs of the University of Wageningen.  Europe now has a third more forest area compared to 100 years ago, due to vigorous post-war re-afforestation schemes, a shift to much more energy dense fossil fuel sources (Perlin 1989), and agricultural intensification leading to abandonment of  large areas of marginal farmland as they become unprofitable (Macdonald et al 2000; Renwick 2012).  This pattern of change has been accompanied and reinforced by urbanisation and other broad socio-economic changes as people leave the land (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010).

In the UK, land abandonment  has been largely stemmed so far by CAP farming subsidies (Chesterton 2009; Ceaușu et al 2015), and the apparent profitability of grouse moors across much of Scotland, meaning that practically the entire countryside is managed. Post-BREXIT, this may change if farming subsidies are dropped. In Europe however, the process is well-advanced and covers significant areas of land. Some 20 million ha. of land is expected to have fallen out of production from 2000 and 2030 (Navarro and Pereira 2015). Much of this will regenerate to scrub and forest- a kind of “passive rewilding”.

This process has been observed worldwide and is understood to follow both “economic development paths” and “forest scarcity” paths towards a forest transition (Rudel et al 2016).

In her 2012 book Nature Next Door: Cities and trees in the American North East Ellen Stroud gives a detailed account of this process happening in New England, which has seen a truly dramatic return of forests since their near-decimation at the hands of the early settlers. New York state went from just 25% forestation in the late 19th century to 61% a hundred years later; Vermont increased from 35 to 76%; New Hampshire from 50% to 86%. “Today,” writes Stroud, “the northeastern United States is almost 75 percent forested.”

This remarkable come-back was not a purely passive process that just happened as farmers left the land. Rather, it depended on a number of factors that contributed to reforestation, not least a conscious and deliberate effort by key individuals and institutions to recreate protected forests by buying land and putting it under protection.

The return of forest to former farmland and other cutover tracts is not merely the result of benign neglect, allowing forests to establish themselves wherever they were no longer beaten back to make space for fields. Trees came back because time and ecology gave them favor, but they were also encouraged and protected by choice.

A major driver was the arrival of railroads from the mid-west where large-scale farming on the prairies had taken off by the middle of the 19th century and was able to out- compete  the hilly and poorer soils in the north east. These began to be bought up by the Forestry Commission, who had been given the charge to protect water supplies form the rapidly growing cities of New York and Pennsylvania. It was the growth of these cities, and the recognition that extensive areas of forests would be needed upstate to ensure clean water supplies- what we would now call “eco-system services” -that provided the impulse for the rapid re-afforestation on much of the upland areas.

At the same time, a new class of wealthy urbanites wanted somewhere cool and tranquil to escape the city, and they preferred a “natural” forested setting for their summer houses over any signs of industrial farming. Some smaller farms were able to survive, particularly in Vermont, by diversifying into providing summer accommodation for those keen to escape the city heat, but many farms that were abandoned were bought up and converted to summer homes- a policy deliberately encouraged in some states by the Board of Agriculture. The tourists and summer visitors in turn helped support the remaining small farm enterprises.

Stroud describes how the railroads were also big consumers of timber themselves in their construction, and also brought timber markets closer to the forests: however, the tourists and summer visitors preferred trees to forestry operations, and in many places this is what tended to win out, with extensive areas of new forest placed under protection from logging- although in some states, perhaps ironically, some restricted judicious logging was permitted to preserve favoured views. People like trees, but not always dense dark closed forest.

So the return of the north eastern forests was not an accident, but intimately tied up with wider social changes, growing up alongside the growth of the cities:

Drinking water, industry, and even electric lights owed their security to the trees of New Hampshire. The city and the mountains, Ayres understood, were part of a single, interdependent landscape. The state’s seemingly pristine environment is a metropolitan nature, the result of new urban and rural interactions.


The story of the forest in the NE US is highly relevant to current debates about land sparing and the prospect of “peak farmland”. FAO data suggests the total area worldwide used for farmland may have been declining since 1998, even as production has increased along with calories-per-capita. Stroud warns however that land-sparing through agricultural intensification comes at the price of dependency on foreign or distant farmland:

Such extensive woods are only possible because of the region’s connections with and dependence on agricultural and industrial landscapes in distant places. If it were not for grain from the Midwest, fruit from the West and the South, meat from around the world, and lumber from distant woods, these trees would long ago have been felled for timber, cleared for other uses of land, or both.

However, as Phalan et al (2016) show, access to fertilisers, machinery and improved seeds can dramatically increase yields and secure farmer livelihoods, obviating the need for them to clear more forest for farming. This needs to be coupled with appropriate conservation policies and programs to ensure inclusion for all farmers in the locality.

Significant re-greening of the earth is possible given the right conditions and regulatory regimes, and the history of the past century in the US and Europe shows that this can happen rapidly on significant areas of land. As agricultural intensification, along with expanding conservation movements continue apace, watching the continued reforestation of areas cleared in the recent past for agriculture and fuel as developing nations go onto experience their own forest transitions will be an exciting prospect.

Source: World bank; cited in


Ceaușu et al 2015 Mapping opportunities and challenges for rewilding in Europe Conservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 4, 1017–1027

Chesterton, C. 2009 Environmental impacts of land management Natural England Research Report NERR030

Keenan, T. F., Prentice, I. C., Canadell, J. G., Williams, C. A., Wang, H., Raupach, M., & Collatz, G. J. (2016). Recent pause in the growth rate of atmospheric CO 2 due to enhanced terrestrial carbon uptake. Nature Publishing Group, 7, 1–9.

Lu, X., Wang, L., McCabe, M. F., D’Odorico, P., Bhattachan, A., Davis, K., … Poulter, B. (2016). Elevated CO2 as a driver of global dryland greening. Scientific Reports, 6(February), 20716.

Macdonald, al 2000 Agricultural abandonment in mountain areas of Europe: environmental consequences and policy response Journal of Environmental Management, 47–69.

Navarro, L.M. and Pereira, H. M.2012 Rewilding Abandoned landscapes in Europe  Ecosystems (2012) 15: 900–912

Phalan, B., Green, R. E., Dicks, L. V., Dotta, G., Feniuk, C., Lamb, A., Balmford, A. (2016). How can higher-yield farming help to spare nature? Science, 351(6272), 450–451.

Perlin, J. 2005 A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization
Countryman Press

Renwick, A. et al 2012 Policy reform and agricultural land abandonment in the EU Land Use Policy 30 (2013) 446– 457

Rudel, T.K. et al 2016 The drivers of tree cover expansion: Global, temperate, and tropical zone analyses Land Use Policy 58 (2016) 502-513

Stroud, E. 2012 Nature Next Door: Cities and trees in the American North East Washington University Press

Rewilding Discourses

Here is my dissertation submitted for the MSc in Agroforestry, Bangor University, September 2016.

Rewilding Discourses:

Evaluating different discourses of rewilding amongst land-use           stakeholders in the UK


Rewilding- the restoration of natural processes, sometimes including animal reintroductions – is drawing increasing popular and academic interest as a radical approach to conservation and land management, but is a plastic term with contested and sometimes conflicting definitions. Popular polemical presentations of rewilding have contributed to raising awareness of issues in current conservation policy, which focusses on maintaining specific habitats in a steady-state. At the same time, conflict and controversy has been created as existing land users perceive themselves to be under threat from a new movement to rewild the landscape.

A series of 18 semi-structured interviews were conducted with a range of stakeholders from Wales and Scotland including members of rewilding NGOs, the farming community, and professional ecologists, to answer the question:

“What are the discourses of nature and the environment that both inform and challenge rewilding projects in the UK?” and the subsidiary question:

“Why do people associate with and reproduce these different discourses?”

Significant differences, as well as agreements, were discovered between respondents. Reintroduction of carnivores such as wolves and lynx to Britain was generally deemed unrealistic in the short term. There was also broad support for the role farmers are playing to increase biodiversity and habitat under existing agri-environment schemes, and general agreement that such schemes need revising to facilitate greater integration of food production and conservation.

Divergent perceptions of current land management were expressed, a key difference lying between the value ascribed to culturally and naturally produced landscapes. Amongst rewilding advocates there was a lack of distinction made between romantic desires to return to a pristine “wilderness” and the move towards “wildness” as a process.

To move forward, the rewilding movement needs to clarify its goals of restoring natural processes rather than attempting to return to a historical baseline. Greater mediation and bridge-building is required between all stakeholders.

Carrifran Wildwood, Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway
Carrifran Wildwood, Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway


Rewilding has been defined as a process

“to restore self-regulating ecosystems, with a strong emphasis on the role of top-down control of ecosystems by large predators.”

(Soule and Noss 1998).

A discourse has been defined as “groups of statements that structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking” (Rose 2001 p.136).

Public and academic interest in rewilding has increased rapidly in recent years, with multiple discourses emerging around the term in both academic and public forums (Lorimer et al 2015; Svenning et al 2015). In the US, public interest has been galvanized by the relatively high-profile reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone national park (Ripple and Beschta 2004). In Europe, the NGO Rewilding Europe, initiated in 2011, now has 43 member projects from 18 countries, covering 3.7million hectares of land at some stage of the process of rewilding (Rewilding Europe 2015). The charity Rewilding Britain, inspired by George Monbiot’s book Feral (Monbiot 2014), was established in 2015, with the stated aim of establishing three core areas of rewilded land of 100,000ha each by 2030 (Rewilding Britain 2015).

Romantic ideals and the appeal of a novel form of radical conservation has so far left collation of a strong scientific evidence base lagging behind (Corlett 2016). This has lead to diverse definitions of rewilding which has become a plastic term, with multiple interpretations (Jørgensen 2014).

Rewilding has been as a holistic process for ecological restoration and resilience (Monbiot, 2013, Jepson and Shepers 2016) and a tool for delivering ecosystem services as part of a suite of technologies for land management (Navarro and Pereira 2015). Other researchers have cautioned about unintended consequences and over-reach from expectations about what rewilding can achieve (Nogués-Bravo et al 2016), while more traditional land users may see their more conservative values threatened by land-use changes demanded by rewilding (Schnitzler 2014, Rebanks 2015).

Beyond its role in conservation, rewilding is also proposed as a remedy for social and psychological problems considered to be part of a “modern malaise” brought on through industrialization, consumerism and loss of contact with the natural world (Taylor 2004). By contrast, ecomodernists, while acknowledging the therapeutic benefits of contact with nature, see rewilding as something that is facilitated by more modernization, with increasingly intensive and efficient energy and food-production technologies potentially freeing up more land for wild nature (Lewis 2015).

There is an increasing recognition by ecologists and conservationists that habitat and biodiversity protection are as much social issues as ecological ones, which is reflected in the rise in popularity of inter-disciplinary research (Moon and Blackman 2014). Different groups such as farmers, hillwalkers and conservationists may hold very different values concerning how they feel the countryside should be used. Within rewilding itself, differing interpretations could lead to widely differing policy outcomes. Following this understanding, this dissertation sets out to address the research question:

“What are the discourses of nature and the environment that both inform and challenge rewilding projects in the UK?”

and the subsidiary question:

“Why do people associate with and reproduce these different discourses?”

Related concepts such as “nature” (Proctor 1998), and “wilderness” (Oelschlaeger, M. 1991, Cronon 1996), as well as environmental issues such as climate change (Nisbet 2014) and wind farm development (Woods 2003) have been subjected to similar analysis to reveal the sometimes hidden or unconscious meanings underpinning such terms, including deep-rooted historical and cultural associations. To apply a similar analysis for “rewilding”, the method of semi-structured interviews was chosen to attempt to uncover and understand meanings which otherwise may not be directly observable or identifiable through more quantitative methods such as formal surveys (Moon and Blackman 2014).

Rewilding strategies have implications for a whole range of public policy issues, in particular the future of farming and conservation policy post-Brexit, and with debates becoming potentially more fractious between competing interests, it is becoming increasingly important to find forums in which different perspectives are voiced and listened to.

The complete dissertation can be downloaded here:

Wolves in the backyard

In a Youtube video that has been viewed more than 25 million times,  George Monbiot explains with masterful clarity How Wolves Change Rivers. The short film tells the story of Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after an absence of 70 years. Heralded as a successful example of “trophic rewilding” (Svenning et al 2015) – whereby missing “trophic levels” in the food pyramid are re-installed to exert top-down control- the returning wolves are credited with controlling numbers and behaviour of herbivores (elk), thereby allowing vegetation to return. This then has multiple cascading benefits throughout the  eco-system, providing food and habitat for many other species including bears and beavers, and ultimately stabilizing river systems and raising the water table. With stunning photography, the film paints an irresistible picture of holistic ecological restoration through a whole landscape, successfully brought about by the return of one of the most iconic and charismatic carnivores.

How realistic is it? Certainly, there is evidence for many of the beneficial effects of trophic rewilding claimed in the video, including restoration of willow and aspen along riparian zones, and an increase in beaver and bison (Ripple and Beschta 2004), but it is not clear just how uniform these effects are. A 2010 study found that aspen was not recovering in many areas by that time after wolf reintroduction (Kauffman et al 2010). Another study suggested that willow communities did not readily return with the wolves either, since hydrological conditions had changed so much in the intervening 70 years since the wolves were banished (Marshall 2013). In other words, removing a trophic level and then replacing it decades later is unlikely to create a symmetrical effect- too much else will have changed in the meantime.

Moreover, such behaviorally mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs) are highly complex and can have unintended consequences far beyond the immediate aim of reducing foraging. Mesopredator release in the form of dramatic increase in the new top-dog, coyotes, was observed when the wolves left, but when they returned and preyed on the coyotes, this resulted in an increase in longhorn and rodent populations, with consequent impacts on vegetation…(Berger et al 2008). It is a tangled web we weave. She swallowed a spider to catch a fly…

Emma Marris has a nice summary of the literature, concluding that while the powerful image of the role of charismatic carnivores play trophic cascades may be beneficial in resurrecting interest in the conservation movement, the potential downside is unrealistic expectations and possibly the sidelining of complex realities in favour of a good story (Marris 2014).

The appeal of Monbiot’s lyrical storytelling in the video perhaps comes from the strong influence on ecology and environmentalism since their early days of the myth of the “balance of nature” and simplistic interpretations of how the “web of life” works. Our ecological thinking is still strongly influenced by quasi-religious myths about pristine nature and the Fall from Eden caused by humans and their meddling technology (Botkin 2012).

Since Monbiot’s influential book Feral (Monbiot 2013), the prospect of wolf reintroduction to Britain has come to the fore in discussions of rewilding. Wolves have been absent here for over 300 years, so there is perhaps even more reason to be skeptical that predictable, beneficial effects can be expected by their reintroduction to these islands. However, simulations have found that wolf reintroductions to the Scottish Highlands could help control red deer, and public opinion has been found to be fairly supportive in some surveys. Even farmers have not always been as negative as might be expected (Nilsen 2007).

The big question is of course livestock-wolf conflicts. Wolves have been making a dramatic comeback across most of Europe in recent years, largely as a result of stringent EU conservation policy giving them protected status: hunting is illegal unless special dispensation is granted under license. But they may be becoming a serious and widespread problem for farmers: a long article in the Economist this week gives estimates a wolf population of between 12- and 20,000 are eating anything from 20-80,000 domestic animals each year. In many countries, farmers get compensation for animals killed, although apparently the bodies are often hard to find making this difficult; perhaps partly because of this, and the challenge of getting farmers to accept sharing the landscape with carnivores, the policy seems to be moving towards a flat rate subsidy given to farmers who live in wolf country.

Conservationists argue that farmers can adapt to live with carnivores amicably. This was born out by a presentation I saw at the Future of Wild Europe conference in Leeds last week about perceptions of wolves in Saxony, NE Germany. Surprisingly, there had been no recent reports of livestock-wolf conflicts at all. That is not to say that there have not been problems in the past, but subsidies for preventative measures such as guard dogs and electric fencing appear to have helped broker a truce at least in that region for now. A bigger conflict seems to be with hunters, who find in the wolf unwelcome competition for their game. I couldn’t help but wonder if the real tension, and reason perhaps for the apparent compliance of farmers there, is pressure from the other half of the community who are benefiting from the boom in wolf tourism in the region.

Elsewhere, things are not so quiet. Reports from the Southern French Alps, where wolves have found their own way back (presumably) in recent years, show the extent of the impact on shepherds: individual kills are the least of it, with wolf presence severely stressing the flock causing weight loss, and the continual risk of attack from protected animals leading to a sense of helplessness in shepherds, some of whom have felt compelled to give up altogether. Other side-effects include modification of the landscape and a loss of a sense of “wildness” through proliferation of protective fencing, and the large, non-native Pyrrenean guard dogs that have been brought into the area have themselves been reported to have attacked hikers, making the area feel even less safe and possibly impacting tourism (Buller 2008).

Against the backdrop of the strong return of wolves across Europe, it is perhaps surprising to read recent reports that Norway is about to cull most of its wolves. It only has 68 animals, and licenses will be granted to shoot 47 of them. Paradoxically, controlled experiments lethal control measures may not be the best way forward though:

Although it seems obvious that killing a carnivore
about to take a lamb should ensure the latter’s
short- term survival, most lethal methods are applied
indirectly in wholly different situations. Lethal intervention
is usually implemented after carnivores are observed
near livestock or days after a predation event has
occurred, sometimes far from where the attack occurred

(Treves et al 2016).

Given the potential opposition and difficulties carnivore reintroduction is likely to pose to existing landowners, why do people feel so strongly about bringing back the wolf to these islands?

In my own research over the summer in North Wales and the Scottish borders, apart from controlling foraging, I was given reasons such as: wolves have a right to be here for their own sake. We [humans] take up too much space, it is time to give some back for other species. The sense of wilderness, fear and danger is important- it is something we have lost in our modern, coddled and insulated lives. Walking in a landscape with wolves would make us feel more alive.

None of the rewilding advocates I interviewed seriously felt there was a prospect in the near-term of wolf reintroductions however, much as they would like to see it, not in their lifetimes. There is too much controversy and opposition. They would however like to see education programs to help persuade people that we could live happily alongside wolves. They would not necessarily impose that much on everyday life- people can typically live their entire lives in wolf country without ever actually seeing one.

It is also said that were it not for the geographical accident of being an island, wolves would already have re-colonized Britain, just as they have spread through the continent. To counter that, we could say that, being an island is also a natural state, and maybe we don’t need wolves to be everywhere. There are also islands that never had wolves- should we bring them there aswell? As keeping down the deer population- while we might not currently be doing such a brilliant job of it, why should humans not play the role of top predator- is that not, in fact, what we are?

There is also the minor issue that, as mentioned in the Economist article, wolves do sometimes kill people. Statistically, not very many compared to most other forms of death, but perhaps not something that should be lightly dismissed. We have lived without carnivores in our landscapes for  over 300 years, much longer than they were absent for in Yellowstone, and maybe we would find it harder to adapt.

I do wonder – and worry – though, about the “fear” factor- is that really what people want? I also share a thrill at the thought of big scary wild animals in the landscape, but for me, hearing people say they would actively seek a bit more danger evokes images of Grizzly Man– the logical, terminal conclusion of the wish to “go back to nature”. Anecdotally, research on the West Coast of Scotland has observed that community members often feel nervous about large carnivore reintroduction even in areas where they are not planned. That his was in an area earmarked for some level of “rewilding”, but not where there was any proposals for wolf reintroductions,  suggests how the “rewilding” debate has been so strongly framed as something involving animals with big teeth.

Wolves carry a lot of mythological baggage with them, invoking both unreasonable fear of the darkness of the forest- or perhaps the even darker, animalistic side of our own nature- and also unrealistic expectations of a return to some kind of pristine wilderness. In reality, as wild creatures, they are adapting readily to anthropogenic landscapes and hybridising with dogs and other animals,  challenging our conceptions of what constitutes “wild” (Buller 2008).

If the strongest argument for wolf reintroduction is that, how can we expect other countries to protect wildlife if we cannot do the same here, the counter might be that big animals pose a huge challenge to farmers elsewhere also ,and  how much biodiversity value would they really bring to Britain anyway?

Fractious debates between conservationists and farmers are likely to continue, but in Britain at least, there would seem to be a huge amount of other restoration work to be done in any case before there need be serious consideration of bringing back the wolf.


Berger, K.M., Gese, E.M. and Berger, J. 2008 Indirect Effects and Traditional Trophic Cascades: A Test Involving Wolves, Coyotes and Pronghorn Biological Sciences Faculty Publications. Paper 78

Botkin, D.B. 2012 The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered OUP USA

Buller, H. 2008 Safe from the wolf: biosecurity, biodiversity, and competing philosophies of nature Environment and Planning A 2008, volume 40, pages 1583- 1597

Kauffman, J.M., Brodie, J.F. and Jules, E. S. Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade Ecology, 91(9), 2010, pp. 2742–2755

Marshall, K.N., Hobbs, N.T., Cooper, D.J .2013 Stream hydrology limits recovery of riparian ecosystems after wolf reintroduction Royal Society Publishing 2013

Marris, E. 2014  Rethinking predators: Legend of the wolf Nature Nature 507, 158–160 (13 March 2014)

Monbiot, G. 2013 Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life Allen Lane

Nilsen et al 2007 Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management Proc. R. Soc. B (2007) 274, 995–1002

Ripple, W. J. & Beschta, R. L. 2004 Wolves, elk, willows, and trophic cascades in the upper Gallatin Range of Southwestern Montana, USA Forest Ecol. Management 200, 161–181

Svenning et al. 2015 Science for a wilder Anthropocene – synthesis and directions for rewilding research. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

Treves, A., Krofel, M. and McManus, J. 2016 Predator control should not be a shot in the dark Front Ecol Environ 2016; 14(7): 380–388, doi:10.1002/fee.1312

Tree Pathology in a Changing World

Critical Essay: Silviculture in a changing world–a case study:

Impacts of tree pathology on silviculture in the UK and Ireland

  1. Introduction

Epidemics of tree diseases such as Dutch Elm Disease (DED) in the UK (Lamb 1979) and Chestnut blight in the US may represent the most profound and sudden cases of irreversible environmental change in recent times (Potter et al 2011). Since 2012 the public’s awareness has been drawn to the threat to one of Britain’s principle landscape trees, the ash tree, from Chalara fraxinea (Rackham 2012).

Trees in the landscape provide valuable ecosystem services including erosion control and greater infiltration rates for floodwater, which are lost or impaired due to disease or mortality (Broadmeadow and Nisbet 2010). Disease can also have significant economic impacts for forestry and timber production. Beyond economic issues, loss of trees on such a scale carries great cultural implications. This essay will consider the need for silviculture to adapt to new challenges from current and novel diseases. Continue reading “Tree Pathology in a Changing World”

Bialowiezça: the Myth of the Primeval Forest

Over the past few weeks there have a been a series of reports raising concerns about the felling of old-growth trees in the ancient Bialowiezça forest in eastern Poland. A recent piece in the Guardian begins

Europe’s last primeval forest is facing what campaigners call its last stand as loggers prepare to start clear-cutting trees, following the dismissal of dozens of scientists and conservation experts opposed to the plan.

and goes onto blame Poland’s “far right” government for cashing in from logging operations, and ruthlessly purging the state council for nature conservancy of environmentalists,  replacing them with officials connected to the forestry industry. Greenpeace are considering direct action, and the WWF and others have lodged a complaint with the European commission over the proposed “illegal” logging, and various petitions have been run to oppose the governments’ intervention.

P1010762Photos: Bialowiezça forest, Graham Strouts 2013

Bialowiezça forest covers approximately 143,000ha split between Poland and Belarus, the larger part of some 80,000 ha in Belarus.  About 10,000ha -1/6th- of the Polish side falls under the stricter regulation of National Park status, originally designated in 1932.

Ostensibly, the logging is an attempt to slow the spread of the latest bark beetle outbreak, affecting more than a million trees in Bialowiezça. In some respects the conflict can be seen as being between differing management approaches, but on deeper examination cuts to the heart of similar conflicts surrounding environmentalism where Nature is placed above the needs of people.

While the foresters prefer an active approach of sanitation felling, removing whole sections of affected trees to prevent further spread of infection, conservation organisations- and many ecologists- prefer an adaptive strategy of  letting nature take its course, more in keeping with the designation of the Puszcza as one of Europe’s last primeval, untouched wildernesses. The foresters are accused of being concerned only for profit, while the environmentalists are slated for having no concern for the needs of the local community- which has traditionally foraged firewood, fungi and more from the forest- and placing a reified version of “pristine Nature” above the needs of ordinary people.

There is certainly good reason to consider adaptive approaches. Bark beetle outbreaks can be so devastating over such a wide area that anything other than hoping for natural adaptation may be unfeasible.  Genetic resistance will show up in the few surviving trees, and the forest will take on a more clumpy patchwork and diverse structure, leaving it less open to future attacks (Six, 2014). In the medium term however, the transformation of the landscape with over 90% of mature trees dead is likely to be devastating.


Despite Bialowiezça being widely valued as “primeval” forest, nearly all of it has been managed to some extent for centuries, and since the mid-19th century, with the exception of the inner core of the National Park, much of it has in fact been logged on a number of occasions: by the Germans in World War 1, the Polish administration in the years after the war; by the British Century corporation in the late 1920s, the State forestry service and then the Soviets in the early years of WW 2 (Szujecki). Ironically perhaps, it was the Germans in WW2 who made the first serious move for stricter conservation controls, putting an end to the logging and driving thousands of Bellarussian farmers out of their forest villagers in order to keep the forest for their own hunting-  in keeping with the more esoteric and ecological strand of thinking that ran through Nazism and which valued the purity of Nature over the needs of people  (Biehl and Staudenmaier 1995)- and which has left a legacy of misanthropy running through the darker side of the conservation movement today.

Most of the forest- 84% – is outside of the national park and not subject to its strict hands-off regulations- and it is here that the proposed felling will take place. Although the new felling does represent a tripling of the existing quota, this is still less than historic amounts, and will not be in previously unmanaged protected inner core,  representing perhaps just 1-2% of the total forest area.

Polish foresters argue that the current beetle attack is not only far larger than previous ones- perhaps exacerbated by climate change leading to greater water stress on the trees- but that it is also attacking younger trees which would usually be expected to be more resilient, and is spreading to other species including pines and larch. Moreover, the current outbreak is a result of stricter conservation policies that were introduced to much of the greater forest area in 2012, prohibiting the more frequent, smaller judicious sanitation felling that was part of a general beetle control program up until then. As a result, the infestation has spread to a much greater area, threatening the whole forest.

This has parallels with fire management in Yellowstone National Park. In the early days of the park, fires were suppressed, leading to a build-up of litter on the forest floor. Eventually a much greater conflagration would occur with devastating results (Bengtsson et al 2003). Since then, practice has changed to allow non-man-made fires to run their course. In this way, small, periodic disturbances can lead to greater forest resilience.

The Myth of the Primeval Forest


Such disputes over management practices in the Puszcza are by no means new, but in fact seem to recur as periodically as the beetle outbreaks. Franklin (2002) argues that Bialowiezça has suffered for the cause of “crisis environmentalism” whereby policies are promoted under the guise of emergency legislation. The ancient, so-called “primeval” and supposedly pristine forest- an untouchable jewel of natural perfection – is portrayed as being under threat of imminent destruction by greedy foresters, when in fact the forest has always been used by the local communities for meeting their immediate needs and gaining livelihoods (Marris 2013). This practice can be traced to a sensationalised newspaper article of 1992 (Franklin 2002) claiming the forest was dying, leading to demonstrations by Greenpeace and US Deep Ecology groups demanding higher protection status for the forest. Today’s social media outcry, with petitions and threats of direct action, reads very much like a re-run of these earlier events.


As with other ex-Soviet nations (Schwartz 2005), these conservation conflicts in Eastern Poland have also been tied up with a search for national identity and a shifting of attention away from other areas of environmental concern- such as industrial pollution- to appease the sensibilities of Western conservation interests and ideologies. It has been in the Polish States interest to play up the “pristine” image of Bialowiezça, at least when the national park was first established, so much so that carefully crafted propaganda films were made editing out any sign of human influence.

Eventually, moves towards significant enlargement of the protected area met up with local opposition concerned at the removal of their forest rights by outside environmental organisations. A protest in March 2000 by a consortium of foresters, local councilors and Bellorussian groups put and end, for the time being, to the myth of the pristine forest with no people.

Where does the truth now lie? Possibly as is often the case somewhere in the middle: in the past, over-zealous conservation movements, muscling in from outside with lack of consultation with local communities and without fully understanding the politics of the region, created a backlash which may now be being exploited by some interests eager to exploit disaffection with outside interference in order to make a quick buck. It is hard to know more without being much closer to the ground there. The Bialowiezça forest does have unique biodiversity value, but leaving it entirely to nature with no management at all will not guarantee the best outcome for biodiversity; at the same time, local concerns about loss of employment and access to forest resources need to be considered if successful conservation is to be achieved (Blicharska and Angelstam, 2010).

The dispute over management practices will no doubt continue, perhaps for as long as the forest stays standing- and there is no reason it will disappear for many centuries yet, whatever happens. While it could be argued that leaving the trees to the fate of the bark beetle is the best course of action, that would be likely to change the  nature of the forest for a very long time. In place of the giant hundred-year-old spruce trees there would likely emerge instead extensive patches of willow and alder. The dark, mysterious atmosphere and sense of timelessness that a visit to the forest currently evokes may be lost, and while the forest will still be there, its image as one of the last refuges of pristine wilderness be tarnished for good.P1010774

For Martin


Biehl, J. and Staudenmaier, P. 1995 Eco-fascism: Lessons from the German Experience
AK Press

Bengtsson et al 2003 Reserves, Resilience and Dynamic Landscapes Ambio Vol. 32 No. 6, Sept. 2003

Blicharska, M. and Angelstam, P. 2010 Conservation at risk: conflict analysis in the
Białowieża Forest, a European biodiversity hotspot International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management, 6: 1, 68 — 74

Franklin, S. 2002 Bia•owiezça Forest, Poland: representation, myth, and the politics of dispossession Environment and Planning A 2002, volume 34, pages 1459 ^ 1485

Marris, E. 2013 The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
Bloomsbury USA

Schwartz, K.Z.S. 2005 “Masters in Our Native Place”: The politics of Latvian national parks on the road from Communism to “Europe” Political Geography 25 (2006) 42e71

Six, D.L., Biber, E., Long, E. 2014 Management for Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak Suppression: Does Relevant Science Support Current Policy? Forests 2014, 5, 103-133; doi:10.3390/f5010103

Szujecki, A. The Bialowieza Primeval Forest- Conflicts over its Conservation and Managment
Białystok Regional Directorate of the State Forests NFH


What would Eat a Badger? Rewilding at the Hay Festival

I took a trip last week to the Hay Festival with my supervisor Dr. Sophie Wynne-Jones of Bangor University, and trustee of the Cambrian Wildwood group,  who was participating in a panel debate on rewwilding, along with Minette Batters,  deputy president of the NFU, and Julia Aglionby, Executive Director of the Foundation for Common land.


Left to Right: Julia Aglionby, Sophie Wynne-Jones, Minette Batters, Rob Yorke

Chaired by independent rural commentator Rob Yorke, about 100 people turned up to listen and ask questions. In his introduction, Rob showed he has an in-depth understanding of the topic, and began by proposing two variants of rewilding- passive, as in taking a step back and letting nature run its course, and active, including such things as herbivore and carnivore re-introductions, and asked the panelists how important they felt it is to have an agreed definition. Sophie felt it was not so important and the greater issue currently was to build bridges and make connections with all stakeholders; Julia felt that however it was defined, rewilding would need management in some shape or form: farming is a long-term activity and land cannot just be abandoned. One problem already occurring in some areas is the rapid spread of bracken, a result of reduced sheep grazing and milder winters. Minette later argued this is bad for climate change since the build-up and subsequent rotting of such vegetation releases a lot of methane. Is this what we mean- or wish for- when we say “rewilding” ?

Rob suggested that we might conceive of scales or degrees of rewilding- with something akin to Yosemite in its early days- when all the native peoples were forcibly removed in order to make room for “wild nature”- at one end of the spectrum, and something much more managed perhaps at the other, though it was not made clear what this might be, though Juila did make the comment that “wilderness is in the eye of the beholder”.

Rob briskly moved the discussion on, asking whether rewilding had been used at times more as a weapon against existing land use and users than as a tool- at this point, a farmer in the audience piped up to assert that as farmers “we love our farm and we love the countryside”. Rob again pointed out that the fault line in these discussions is often drawn between those for whom the “wild place” is seen for leisure and those for whom it is their place of work and source of livelihood.

Should production landscapes be focussed in the fertile lowlands, thus allowing the uplands to be for culture, heritage and nature? It was here that clear differences between the panelists emerged: Minette was adamant that it would be disastrous to take stock off the uplands. Farmers are the custodians of the land and we must not allow their skills to be lost by such drastic changes in land use. There is a danger that all this talk of rewilding will alienate farmers and put them off from improving biodiversity on their own farms. James Rebanks’ 2015 book The Shepherd’s Life was referenced, perhaps to provide balance with the bad press brought upon sheep farmers by Monbiot’s laying the blame on them for what he sees as the current “sheepwrecked” state of Britain’s uplands.

It was when the discussion moved onto animal reintroductions that positions became even more entrenched: I was somewhat taken aback by the stridency with which Minette dismissed the idea of carnivore reintroductions: lynx are a danger to man and our animals, she argued, and there is a very good reason they were got rid of. It would be disastrous to bring them back. She had to back-track a bit and extol the virtues of the fine animal that is a lynx when challenged by a member of the audience who asked if, then, it was a generally good policy to deliberately cause the extinctions of animals we don’t like, but I felt she then contradicted her own position by saying, “look what has happened with the badger- their numbers are out of control because they have no predator.”

Isn’t this one of the main arguments for rewilding, I asked? Badgers are not top predators in the same way a lynx would be, and are generally classed as mesopredators, generalists and omnivores which prey on smaller animals like hedgehogs- and are blamed for drastic impacts on the numbers of the latter and other small animals.

Badgers are the center of a long-standing controversy over culling and TB which I have not really looked into and shall not get into here- but this has nothing to do with the issues of threats to sheep and people by the lynx. However, Minette’s response to me was, “What would eat a badger?” which did give me pause for thought and became something of a joke between myself and Sophie on the way home. Further research later that night suggests that  badgers do not in fact have many natural predators, being well-adapted for their own defense, and probably would not be the first choice of a lynx looking for its lunch, although badger cubs might be taken by various predators including lynx and eagle. Mesopredator release – the rapid increase in numbers of mesopredators as a result of the elimination of higher carnivores- is a real thing (Prugh et al 2009), but it is unclear that there are good documented examples of this happening with badgers, apart from a controlled experiment in Texas when Cayotes were removed. In this case however “the increase in mesopredators did not lead to the decreased rodent numbers that classic trophic cascade theory would predict”  I don’t know why, or if, then, badger populations have increased relative to historical levels.

Much more worrying was Minette’s concern about the danger of lynx to humans or stock: Lynx are a shy animal and pose no real threat to humans, and any increase in sheep take would barely register against the several hundred attacks by domestic dogs each year. These arguments against carnivore re-introductions are common and understandable, and should not be dismissed, but seem to me to be the weakest, and such fears should not be fueled by representatives of the NFU . Far more serious are the concerns raised by Rob about our own duty of care to such animals, which may not survive in any case, or be vulnerable to being hit by traffic.

Another application of rewilding is flood mitigation, through riparian plantings (trees can increase infiltration rates) and re-meandering of rivers as we saw at Pickering on the Study Tour. Minette was also completely opposed to this, arguing that the most fertile land is generally the flood-plains and should be kept for farming; the water should not be “slowed” but sped up through the towns to be got rid of as soon as possible. If only it were so simple…

Sophie was keen to focus on practical examples such as the Pontbren in mid-Wales, which is cited as a a successful case of using trees to help in flood mitigation- however she cautioned against extrapolation from relatively little data and experience which might lead to over-stating the case for what trees in the landscape can achieve, and also made the important point that this was a farmer-lead project not originally connected with flood mitigation at all, but originally driven by using trees and hedgerows to shelter livestock.

An hour was far too short and the conversations continued over drinks afterwards, when I had some interesting discussions with countryside blogger Ben Eagle who also has a nice write-up of the event.  Ben had also pointed to the recent policy briefing by Paul Jepson which disentangles some of these debates and shows the way forward for a possible policy framework for rewilding.

A local farmer who was present, a neighbour of Rob’s in the surrounding Black Mountains,  also emphasised the crucial importance to farmers of maintaining their role of food producers. Why? Going back to Rob’s question earlier, could not the less fertile upland areas be rewilded, and food produced where more intensive methods can be implemented? Earlier Minette had explained to me that lambs do not stay long in the upland areas, being soon sold to lowland farmers, and sheep farming is highly integrated across the landscape; I am not sure if this really makes the case though. The conversation turned to policy- would farmers not simply do what they are paid to do? Would they not be just as happy to be paid for conservation as to produce food? For me it was something of a revelatory moment when the table went quiet as it seemed all parties present agreed on one thing at least: noone was really sure what the current farming payments are actually supposed to be for.

I have a lot to learn about farming and farming policy in the UK, as well as about rewilding in its various ramifications, but the diverse opinions I heard at Hay have provided plenty of fodder for this week at least. I shall  post more findings and insights as I continue my research through the summer.


Prugh, L.R. et al 2009 The Rise of the Mesopredator BioScience 59: 779–791

Feedback on the Forest Garden

My last post dealt with the permaculture edible forest garden, and it received some commentary on a couple of Facebook groups and permaculture forums. A lot of the responses were, predictably, from permaculture advocates who took umbrage at my having deigned to critique their philosophy at all, but there was one very valid criticism concerning yields: while I had compared weights of different crops per acre, a more useful approach would be to compare calorific yield. Doing this for the crops I listed gives a result looking something like this:

Crop                         tonnes/ha                 Cal/100g              m cal/ha

potatoes                           40                                  70                        27

wheat                                 8                                  333                        26.6

hazelnuts                       3.5-4                             646                       25.8

Sweet chestnuts             4.75                             200                        9.5

Corn (US)                          10.5                               360                       37.8

apples                                  44                                50                           22

As you can see, hazelnuts do perform extremely well on this score, having a very high calorific value, but as explained in the article, in a forest garden, the trees would be at wider spacing and the yield per hectare would be lower as a result.

As was pointed out to me by one commentator, apples score very high, comparable to wheat and potatoes and coming in behind only US corn (maize). Can apples substitute for those foods as a staple crop? For a food to be classified a staple it requires not just calories but high levels of macronutrients including proteins and oils; so I do not think we would thrive on a diet of mainly apples, although the person who pointed this out to me was adamant that we could and indeed should, precisely because they are a tree crop. An original argument for sure, and not one I have heard before in any of the forest gardening literature. Once again, though, the yields cited are from conventional apple orchards, not forest gardens.

Most of the other critiques were based on misunderstanding the article (aka not reading it properly!). The whole issue of yields was questioned- why am I comparing yields from tree crop monocultures- we know that forest gardens produce far more than they would, even though there is no data! This is of course the whole point: unless anyone has any better ideas, the use of tree crops as a proxy makes perfect sense, as they will almost certainly be producing the staple crops with the highest yields (and the most calories)- but they will not be achieving such yields in forest gardens, and indeed one of the best known forest gardeners, Martin Crawford, grows his nuts in a separate orchard, with nothing but mown grass beneath the trees.

Not everyone on the permaculture forum took the same defensive line- one commentator asked “So who ever said it was a good idea to grow vegetables under trees anyway?” implying my whole article was a straw man, apparently missing that I had carefully quoted directly from the principle authors in Britain and America who  advocate this kind of system. Again, the question of yields is important since these authors- Jacke, Whitefield, Hart, and the UK Permaculture Magazine, really do position forest gardening- including growing vegetables under the trees in a multi-storey system- as a sustainable and viable alternative to modern industrial agriculture.

Another recent permaculture author who makes similar claims- not specifically for forest gardens but for general systems based on perennial woody agriculture- is Mark Shepard. There is an interesting review of his book here, coming to similar conclusions to myself, and further commentary here on the issues of perennials vs. annual crops.

Another commentator seemed indignant that I was not only critiquing Hart’s invocation of a new “Age of Gaia” but also, apparently, that I completely discredit ecology aswell. They did not say exactly where I do this, but I guess it might be in the section on systems and complexity, where I cite to Gleason’s 1926 paper The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association. Far from  dismissing ecology as a science, I am here quoting one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of this young science, the famous Clements-Gleason debate. The earlier view- originally from Tansley who coined the word “ecosystem”- saw nature as best represented on the community level, with more or less fixed boundaries around ecosystems and communities of plants and animals who had co-evolved over long periods of time. This was promoted by Clements and became the dominant paradigm, but later gave way to  Gleason’s view of nature more as a continuum, in constant flux, with no fixed boundaries around communities.

I suggested by the response above, the permaculture community has not moved on with the new paradigm. It is certainly this old conception of nature being in a state of balance on which the whole philosophy of permaculture rests- which is precisely why forest gardens, based as they are on the adage of “copy nature”, are still considered so important. Hart explicitly takes this further almost into the realms of religion with his Gaia quote, but so do many others in the permaculture community-  as indeed I did once myself. Even Clements probably never saw natural systems in this way. Forest gardens are however largely entirely novel systems, resembling nature only in structure and function and relying on previously untried assemblies, mixing wild, “native”, exotic and domesticated species together, so it is questionable to what degree they could be said to be “mimicing nature” in any case.

The Clements-Gleason debate is still ongoing, and demands an essay in its own right- perhaps I shall return to it as some point.

Finally, some conspiracy theories were spun around my essay, with comments along the lines that my real intention was to make a hatchet job on permaculture in an attempt to justify modern industrial farming. I have no hidden intentions, but simply wanted to explore the origins of the forest gardening idea and consider theoretical reasons why it is unlikely to meet the claims being made for it from within the permaculture community. Certainly, if it really held the promise being made for it, everyone would be doing it, but as I point out at the outset, despite some 30 years of promotion, the concept has failed in any way to capture the interest of more than a handful of farmers. The undeniable fact that there are costs and externalities for industrial agriculture does not mean that forest gardens- or even agroforestry- are necessarily a viable alternative solution.

More interestingly from a sociological point of view is the question as to why they are still so popular (within the permaculture fraternity) as an idea, with so much being claimed for them, when for the most part what are actually planted as forest gardens here are little more than orchards with a few herbs and soft fruit bushes, with even the most enthusiastic advocates getting most of their produce from more conventional annual vegetable beds. It is relatively easy to create wildlife gardens, or low-intensity food gardens that are also great habitat, and require few inputs, but for the time being at least it seems that the low-input high-output garden remains an appealing but unattainable dream.




Permaculture and the Edible Forest Garden: a Critical Analysis

I’ve been interested in the edible forest garden idea for over twenty years and have planted and designed several myself in Ireland in that time, and visited several others. But they have never lived up to my expectations and were largely unproductive, despite sourcing as many perennial vegetables and other interesting edible plants as I could. Here I review the claims made for them and what evidence there is to support the idea- and conclude that, as Permaculture founder Bill Mollison said in the first place, in temperate regions you are far better growing your fruit trees and vegetables separately.

Temperate permaculture– is this a passing fad, an idealist’s hobby or is there a case for wider promotion of the practice?

  • Introduction- Design By Nature: Permaculture and the Forest Garden Concept

 “Permaculture” – derived from permanent agriculture – is a concept of sustainable land use and design coined and developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Mollison defined the concept as:

The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

 (Mollison 1988).

 Since then, permaculture has grown into a worldwide movement of activists and designers applying permaculture principles to the whole of society (Holmgren 2002). Permaculture is more an approach or philosophy than any specific technology, but where it has come under academic scrutiny, many of the kinds of practices frequently advocated have been found lacking in supporting evidence (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In this essay we shall focus on one of the best-known expressions of permaculture design, the edible forest garden or food forest for temperate regions, which are designed with the intention of mimicking the structure and functions of natural woodlands. Successful integration of trees with agriculture for multiple environmental and crop protection functions, nitrogen fixation and fodder is well established in traditional systems in many parts of Europe (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009), and is gaining renewed interest today as an essential part of agricultural sustainability. It is worth examining why, then, while forest gardens continue to be popular amongst the permaculture fraternity and the sustainable food movement, they have attracted little academic research, and very little uptake by farmers, orchardists or market gardeners. As we shall see, evidence to support the claims that forest gardens achieve both low inputs and high yields is lacking, and there are good theoretical reasons why the concept is unlikely to succeed in temperate zones.

  1. Definitions, Origins and extent of current practice

 Edible forest gardensalso known as forest gardens, woodland gardens, food forests or analog forests have been defined as “a perennial polyculture of multi-purpose plants” (Jacke 2005) and are comparable to the multistory agroforestry systems common across the tropics known as homegardens (Kumar and Nairn 2006). Robert de J. Hart is generally credited with being the first to bring the concept to Europe in the 1980s when he started the UK’s first forest garden in Shropshire (Hart 1996). He cites as his influences Smith (1950), Yeoman (1971) and Sholto Douglas (1985), and his work in turn went on to influence Patrick Whitefield (1996) and Martin Crawford (2014) in the UK and Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) in the US.

Based on the definitions used by the authors cited above, for this essay we will define edible forest gardens as:

Gardens which are primarily or entirely perennial polycultures, containing at least three identifiable vertical layers of food-bearing plants including trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous understory.

 This definition differentiates them from both annual vegetable gardens as well as other well-established agroforestry systems such as broad-scale silvoarable systems, which generally include only one or two annual crops in between rows of trees (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009).

Crawford (2014) estimates there are some 800 hectares of forest gardens in the UK and lists approximately 160 forest gardens in his Forest Garden Network, including 9 in Ireland, 30 in Europe and a handful in the US. They range in size from small gardens of as little as 50 square meters to smallholdings of up to about 5 hectares, with the smallest area for a “fully functional” forest garden estimated at around 1000 square meters.

Perhaps ironically given their continued popularity in permaculture, Mollison did not himself advocate perennial edible forest gardens for temperate regions. He was well aware that temperate gardening was characterized by annual or biennial seed crops and tubers and by the need to store root vegetables over the winter, and that tree crops are more likely to be for fruit than for staples (Mollison 1988). The academic literature also indicates that temperate gardens have traditionally tended to be based on annual vegetables, often arranged in relatively formal beds and generally requiring full sunshine (Ninez 1987; Vogl and Vogl-Lukasser 2003).


Despite this, Jacke and Toensmeier (2005) cite the ancient practice of coppicing of woodlots for firewood and poles as an example of traditional forest garden practice. However, coppice woodlands are not primarily food gardens, and generally only involve one or two layers, the coppiced hazel and sometimes a standard timber crop. In the UK, orchard trees were commonly grown with an intercrop of soft fruit—blackcurrants or gooseberries—prior to 1955; less commonly some (mainly annual) vegetable crops were included, and there are examples of intercropping between trees with annual vegetables (Kumar and Nairn 2006). One of the few examples that do meet the definition of a three-layered system included asparagus as a perennial vegetable (Newman 1986, citing Fekete 1958), but apart from these cases it seems unlikely there was any widespread traditional practice of genuine three-story perennial edible homegardens in Europe or the US.

In a recent effort to correct the dearth of research on edible forest gardens, the UK Permaculture Association began a 10-year forest garden trial in 2009, publishing a baseline survey of 117 forest gardens in the Europe and the US in 2013 (Remiarz 2013, 2014). The oldest sites were started in the 1980s, with the majority starting since 2000. Nearly half reported that “food self-reliance” was their main objective, with the majority saying this has been largely achieved, though what proportion of each gardener’s food requirements was met is not quantified. In fact, the species lists suggest that in reality the crops grown in most of these forest gardens differ little from the fruit and green vegetables typically grown in traditional home gardens from the 1950s (Ninez 1987).

This apparent mismatch between aspirations and practice requires some explanation: why are forest gardens still believed in and promoted—at least within the permaculture fraternity—if the practice falls so far short of expectations? To answer this we now consider the philosophy of copying nature underpinning the forest garden concept.

  1. Philosophy: Return to the Garden?

 Along with other more recent influential permaculture writers (Crawford 2005, Jacke 2010), Hart (1996) saw planting forest gardens as not only a practical way of growing food but also about ushering in new ways of living and seeing the world:

My mini-forest is the culmination of many years’ study and practice of the system that has come to be known as Agroforestry or Permaculture, and which many people, including myself, believe has a major role to play in the evolution of an ‘alternative’, holistic world order. A Green World. The World of Gaia.

– Robert Hart (1996)


The belief underpinning permaculture that “nature knows best” and agricultural systems are best shaped in the image of the natural world stems from the “organismal metaphor” proposed in the early 20th Century (Clements 1916), seeing ecosystems as behaving like a “super-organism,” and on Odum’s cybernetics, seeing ecosystems as analogous to machines (Odum 1981, cf. Holmgren 2001). Conservationists such as John Muir then popularized these ideas of an ideal state of “natural balance” for both nature and man (Marris 2011), but while still a dominant idea in both popular culture and much environmental policy (Botkin 2012), most ecologists today see natural systems as being characterized by continual change and adaptation rather than any ideal state of stability, and some suggest that the ecosystem concept itself may have outlived its usefulness (O’Neill 2001).

Permaculture and other alternative approaches to farming are rooted in the post-1960s counter-culture’s beliefs about the need to prepare for an inevitable collapse of industrial society and a consequent return to subsistence farming (Gold and Hanover 1987). Botkin (2012) traces this idea of a “Fall” and “Return to Eden” back to the roots of Judeo-Christianity, a powerful metaphor that also helped shape early ecology and environmentalism. Perhaps these deeply held cultural beliefs help explain the ongoing interest in close-to-nature approaches to farming such as forest gardens, which are seen as a way of restoring a presumed ideal state of natural balance that humans have disrupted by clearing the forests and tilling the land.

  1. Design Principles: Diversity, Complexity and Balance

There is a common-sense appeal to the permaculture concept of mimicking nature. Unlike a conventional annual vegetable garden with its ongoing needs of digging, weeding and applications of fertilisers, forest gardens are intended to be self-maintaining, with minimum inputs or labour, and to function with the diversity, complexity and the perceived “balance” of a natural woodland while conveying the following advantages (Hart, 1996; Jacke 2005; Crawford 2010):

  • the trees make use of vertical space which in principle would allow more food to be grown in the same area;
  • perennial plants don’t require annual tilling of the soil and planting of new seeds;
  • the diversity of polycultures should reduce problems with species-specific pathogens;
  • mulches and nitrogen fixing plants, common to other agroforestry practices obviate or reduce the need for fertilizer applications;
  • diverse systems are more resilient due to greater complexity;
  • forest gardens have multiple functions and yields including therapeutic and environmental benefits.

Taking each in turn we can establish theoretical explanations for why these principles in themselves are insufficient to make forest gardens viable as alternative food production systems.

Vertical space

 Yields from tree crops are limited by a trade-off between yield produced and the energy used by the tree itself in maintaining its woody structure. In addition, while yields increase over time as the trees grow larger, they will also produce more shade and roots (which will extend at least as far as the leaves), both of which are likely to reduce the yield of understory plants via competition for light, water, and nutrients. Crawford recommends up to 50% wider spacing than in conventional orchards to allow enough light through to the lower layers, and so most of the advantages of the vertical space are lost. We will compare figures for yields of tree crops and arable crops below.

 Annuals vs Perennials

 Perennials have the advantage of not requiring annual cultivation and planting, and often emerge earlier in the spring than their annual counterparts, but have the disadvantage of being static and not easily changed in response to changing conditions. By contrast, annual crops can reach optimal yields within just one or two seasons, and an annual system is much more flexible in that a different variety or crop can easily be switched to in the event of disease, climate change or even nutrient depletion. Annual grains were the first plants to be domesticated for the very reason that, in setting seed each year, they have lent themselves to dramatic improvements for yield and other traits through plant breeding (Kingsbury 2009).

Monocultures vs polycultures: Diversity and Intercropping

 Diversity is one of the “principles of permaculture” (Holmgren 2002) providing the notional underpinning for forest gardens, yet this diversity may compromise yields. The competition between species has already been noted. Also, polycultures lend themselves less to mechanization of cultivation and harvest, and nuts that fall from trees are likely to be lost in any groundcover vegetation. However, some researchers have pointed to the work already done on intercropping—traditionally practiced around the world—as a basis for promoting more complex polycultures such as forest gardens (Gowland 1996; Watson 1998). Resource partitioning (soil and light), the ability of combinations of crops to access more soil nutrients than monocrops, and modification of the microclimate, have been shown to increase yields compared to the individual crops grown alone. (Vandermeer 1989, Innis 1996).

While intercropping has also been shown to increase yields in relatively simple silvoarable systems such as vegetables between fruit trees (Newman 1986), Vandemeer also found cases where yields were lower if inappropriate crops were chosen. Whitefield (2013) was also aware of this, pointing out that the largest gain from intercropping is gained from the first crop addition and is likely to decline with the addition of each subsequent crop. In a review, Denison (2012) found that achieving optimum spacing in intercropped systems was difficult, and that while intercropping increased yields compared to the average of the two crops, they were often still less than the best crop grown as a monocrop. Thus, for many farmers the pragmatic choice was to grow the single best yielding crop alone.

The apparent lack of variety in the crops we eat is also cited as a reason to prefer forest gardens over conventional agriculture, but there are good reasons why only some crops have been adopted apart from ease of improvement breeding mentioned above. Being readily storable and transportable, corn, rice and wheat alone account for nearly half of humankind’s calorific intake. Another reason is pollination- a crop suitable for agriculture requires reliable methods of pollination to produce good yields, and so these grains tend to be either self-fertile, pollinated by many different insects, or wind pollinated, in contrast to many other plants that have co-evolved with specialist pollinators (Warren 2015).

Efficiency: inputs and outputs

Along with Jacke, Crawford (2014) argues that it is the efficiency of the system that acts of a measure of sustainability, not the total yield. He claims that modern agriculture often achieves an energy return of 5:1, and sometimes less than 1, with more energy going into the system than coming out, while forest gardens can achieve as much as 40:1. Even if this were true in terms of absolute physical energy- it is not explained how these figures are arrived at- fertilizer accounts for only about 2% of global energy consumption and farming without it would be far more labour-intensive and require up to four times the land to grow the same amount of food (Smil 2011). Thus, while low-input systems may be less dependent on fossil fuels overall, this advantage is vastly outweighed by the land-sparing benefits of continued increases in production from modern agriculture.

Systems, resilience and complexity

 Permaculture advocates the importance of the number of connections between elements in a design, arguing that such diversity of interactions leads to greater resilience: if one synergistic relationship breaks down, plenty of others are there to pick up the slack and prevent system failure. Natural systems are presumed to be in a natural “balance” which can easily be disrupted, with a change to one part unbalancing the whole system

Yet according to Denison (2012), an evolutionary perspective applied to agriculture reveals that natural systems have evolved more by chance than by any design (Gleason 1926) and that the defining unit in terms of function, adaptability and resilience is the individual species and not the system as a whole. Plant assemblies in nature may be as malleable as in a designed garden, readily incorporating newcomers in the form of aliens, invasive or naturalized plants and often continuing to function well even after the loss of many native species (Wilkinson 2004).

Multiple functions- habitat and therapy

Other kinds of “yields”, such as the aesthetic and therapeutic value of gardening and working close to nature, are often cited as highly valued reasons for promoting forest gardens (Hart 1996; Jacke 2005). There is no question that these are important aspects of gardening, but may be served as well if not better in other ways. Urban gardens, though not primarily for food, already provide habitat for a wealth of biodiversity (Goddard et al 2010). Equally, there is good evidence that gardening and gardens have great therapeutic value (Haith 2015) but again, there is no reason to suppose edible forest gardens will significantly add value to this.

  1. Yields- Land Sharing or Land Sparing?


 Despite absence of data, claims for high yields produced in such temperate permaculture systems can be extravagant (Sustainability Centre 2015). Hart (1996) for example states that “the forest garden is the most productive of all forms of land use”, supporting some of the most densely populated countries on earth. This might be plausible in tropical climates, at least in terms of total biomass production if not food yields, but the limitations of light and the relatively narrow range of productive tree crops available in temperate zones make this an unlikely scenario for the UK.

Comparative yields of staple crops

In the UK, most food produced in forest gardens is fruit or leafy green vegetables. Yet for forest gardens to prove their worth in production terms, they need to compete with other staple crops with high value of protein and carbohydrates. The main option for tree crops here is nuts.

Cobnuts (hazelnuts) can achieve yields of 3.5-4 tonnes/hectare 8-10 years after planting (CALU 2006), walnuts potentially 1tonne/hectare and sweet chestnuts up to 4.75 t/ha (Crawford and Newman 2006). This is still a long way from typical UK yields for barley and oats of 5-6 t/ha or wheat over 8 t/ha (DEFRA 2014). Potatoes can yield over 40 t/ha  (FAOSTAT 2013) -assuming 80% water content, this would equate to 8 t/ha in dry weight.  These best-case values for nut trees in the UK are not found in forest gardens with a complex understory, but generally in monocultures. Additionally, nut yields in the UK vary from year to year and are vulnerable to poor weather during pollination or early wind-fall (Crossland 2013) and hence are unlikely to grow much beyond their current niche market.

Discussion of yields is important because the driving rationale of the forest garden is that modern agriculture is unsustainable, laying the blame at the feet of monocultural systems based on annual grains and pulses. However, despite often well-founded fears of soil erosion and nutrient depletion, global yields of these crops continue to increase through improved varieties and technology (Ausubel et al 2012; Grau et al 2013). Indeed, total land used for agriculture may have already peaked (Our World in Data 2015) as a result of ongoing improvements in efficiency, and substantial area of land has been “spared” for nature as a result (Stevenson et al 2010). This dramatic and sustained increase in agricultural productivity over the past century has resulted in only 2% of the population in the U.S. being required to farm (AFBF 2015). In these respects then, modern farming is arguably more resilient because of its continual innovation and adaptability.

 6. Conclusions

 The three—or more—layered perennial edible food forest we have examined here is an attempt to improve agriculture and food production by mimicking nature. What works well in the tropics however does not seem to work well in cooler climes. While interest and research into sourcing promising novel crops and new cultivars from around the world continues, most temperate forest gardens seem little different from the fruit gardens and orchards commonly found in Britain prior to the 1950s.

Temperate forest gardens do offer great potential for further research on plant interactions within multi-strata perennial systems, and there is great scope for improvements in cultivars of many tree crops. A warming climate may offer a greater range of possibilities for novel crops to be grown in the UK, as is being tried, for example, by Otter Farm in Devon where they are now growing olives and almonds, but it is as yet unclear whether multi-tiered systems will provide any significant advantage.

Despite the lack of promise forest gardens show in becoming a viable alternative to industrial farming, the ongoing interest in permaculture philosophy together with public concern about sustainability will ensure that they continue to be experimented with by enthusiasts. The myth of the need to return to a “balance with nature” remains a powerful influence in many areas of public policy well beyond the permaculture movement and will continue to shape ideas about food, farming and conservation for a long time to come.


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Forestry Study Tour

Last week was the study tour for some 40 Bangor MSc Forestry students who traveled by coach to the Lake District, the Scottish borders and North Yorkshire to see a range of sites demonstrating Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF), rewilding and flood mitigation. The theme for the week (and subsequent essays we will have to write): the Resilient Landscape. Here is a brief review of the week with some photos and descriptions of the sites. Apologies for any mistakes or ommissions, this is largely a quick write-up of notes taken during the visits.

Day 1 Wythop Forest Continuous Cover Forestry, Lake District.

Gareth Browning of FC England was our host for the day, and explained the management of 156 ha of mixed forests under CCF.
CCF has been practiced in much of the forest here since 1980, with douglas fir as the main species, and there are some impressive specimens (for the UK!!) of up to 52m tall. These areas are now under transition to broadleaf as they fall under the Plantation on Ancient Woodland Site designation (PAWS).


The markets for the Douglas fir are mainly in Germany where it is used in port infrastructure; some also goes for ships masts. The Workington paper mill 

has provided a new market for wood chip, used to power the mill, making thinnings and better forest management more viable. Douglas fir is worth 2-3 times that of Sitka spruce as timber.

There are 16 separate forests in the area, ranging in size from 9ha to 1000ha. The lack of connectivity is a mixed blessing: for example, about 120 roe deer are culled every year, and the separation between the forest areas makes this much easier since roe tend to cover a large area; red deer would be more problematic since they would rarely break cover.
A significant constraint is the proximity of the A66: safety regulations require a minimum of two tree lengths in distance between any public road and tree felling; since CCF requires large seed trees to be grown, this distance becomes quite large. When felling within this limit takes place the road needs to be closed for some weeks- an expensive proposition.
CCF is fairly new here, just 30 years, compared to 300 years in Switzerland for example. In the last 10-20 years, the forests have begun to regenerate themselves.
Douglas fir needs a certain degree of warmth and sun for the seeds to germinate- it will not regenerate on north-facing slopes and requires underplanting here. Other species being introduced now include western red cedar, silver fir and Montgomery pine.
Large Douglas fir  frame tree surrounded by thicket of regeneration which will subsequently be thinned
One advantage of CCF is that it produces more wind-firm trees (although on other sites we learned that CCF for spruce is not practical for windy sites- any thinning leads to more windthrow, for spruce at least). Larger trees can develop good buttresses for stability. A more diverse structure is the aim. About 50 frame trees are retained per hectare, which works for shade tolerant species such as Douglas; more than that and it becomes hard to maintain a diverse structure with gaps that can regenerate.
Some plantation forest has now been designated ancient woodland, influencing future management plans and species choice. Increased species diversity is favoured for resilience to future pests and diseases and climate change. One species mix is beech, planted under conifers. As with other sites we visited, most larch here has succumbed to Phytophthora ramorum and has been felled.
Gareth argued that forests will be increasingly valued for other reasons, recreational and flood mitigation perhaps, and should be at least as deserving as subsidies as farming.
We drove round to nearby Dodd wood where the recreational value was obvious. Osprey viewing stations bring in £1-2million to the area annually. The birds need a diverse structure, with the precise species being unimportant. Some of the frame trees will be left to continue to grow with no plans of harvesting- visitors to the park appreciate this since “Big trees make us feel very small.” They have a Wow factor.
There was some discussion of the difficulties of extraction for very big trees close to the road or on steep slopes. In some cases helicopters might be considered. But the extraction process, although disruptive to the soil, creates a seed bed leading to more regeneration. Even opportunities for windthrow can help this and the end result is a “self-healing” forest. Ultimately however, small areas of CCF are not enough.
Stunning view from the hostel in the morning
Day 2- visit to the Eddlestone water project with Hugh Chalmers of the Tweed Forum. This is for flood mitigation involving engineering meanders into the river, planting trees, bank stabilization, log flow restrictors. To access the land used in this project, some £2.3million has been paid to farmers in the area either in compensation of land purchase. Hugh pointed out that it is not just the trees, which can help reduce flooding through increased water infiltration, but also the vegetation growing beneath them. Fish benefit from up to 50% shading of the water by trees. The project also benefits from carbon credits for carbon sequestration, though some of the land is peat bog and might be better left unplanted. Hugh made the wry comment “there is nothing logical in land management- people love peat for growing trees in [as a potting medium]!” The possible role of beavers was mentioned (not in this area at present) but that their beneficial effects could be replicated partly by growing willow on the riparian zone and regularly coppicing it- beavers apparently only use fairly small material (like willow coppice) for their dams, while constructing log flow restrictions would use bigger material which could cause a problem if large logs moved downstream rapidly in a flood. Impressive to see something of how this kind of project can happen in practice. As we have also seen on the course in North Wales, the key issue is successfully working with many stakeholders, especially the farmers with land along the river. As High said, it is good to get farmers working together and thinking in terms of the whole catchment.

Glen Tress Trial Area

This Forestry Commission forest is half way through a 120-year transition process from single-aged stand Sitka spruce to CCF with diverse age structure and mixed species.

From the FC website:

When the Trial Area was established in 1952 most of the plantations were 20-30 years old.  The 117 ha area was divided into six Blocks and the plan was to transform the area over a 60 year period by felling and regenerating groups totalling two hectares in each Block every six years.
Various different mixes are being trialed in different plots, with the prevailing philosophy of “anything but Sitka”. The problem is, as we were to find in other sites also, is that Sitka regenerates so vigorously that it is a major headache trying to establish anything else. On poor land, it even regenerating under itself is problematic as it tends to come up so thickly it gets checked and fails to thin itself, simply not growing. In some cases the most efficient thing is to simply mulch the entire seedling crop and plant into the bed of mulch.
Glentress is also the preeminent site in Scotland for mountain biking. Some of our group opted for a mountain bike session rather than the forest tour, but I decided to see the forest this time. There was considerable discussion about the challenge of combining hosting  quarter-of-a-million mountain bike visitors with the practice of felling large trees. A minority of bikers seems unwilling to always heed the No Entry signs when felling is taking place, and there have on occasion even been conflicts.  Ospreys and other protected species are also a challenge for the timber industry, but recreation here is an increasingly significant income generator.
As a forest, Glentress seems to play the role of laboratory, trying different species mixes for CCF, but the constant incursion of Sitka makes it difficult to really achieve what they want to do. In the meantime, it is a great example of how forests are being  asked increasingly to fulfill diverse functions for society well beyond simple timber production.

Day 3 Carrifran Wildwood

The Wildwood project was started in 1993, a grass-roots community project to restore “native” woodlands  in the Southern uplands, as a demonstration of the kind of vegetation that was once found over most of southern Scotland. The 650ha site at Carrifran was purchased on Milenium Day, 01-01-2000. Regeneration would have been far too slow because of lack of seed source – in fact, as with Glentress, the main regeneration would be Sitka from neighbouring plantations, which requires constant weeding-out anyway! Over a half million trees have been planted since then, 75,000 by volunteers, and all the trees were grown by seed collected by volunteers and contracted to nurseries to grow on.
The choice of species was made after a site classification based on assessing what woodland type was likely to have been there in Neolithic times, which mainly upland birch-oak mix.
Our host for the day Philip Ashmole, one of the projects’ founders and author, with his wife Myrtle, of The Carrifran Wildwood Story (2009).IMG_4117
Philip explained that there was a deliberate decision made not to incorporate more southerly species that might subsequently move northwards in a warming climate; the range of elevations available at Carrfiran allow for a certain amount of migration for differing climates here anyway. But no attempt at building in either climate or disease resilience is being made through species choice- it is all about demonstrating what the lowlands of Scotland might have been like 6000 years ago before intensive farming, forest clearing and sheep grazing. The patchy plantings is also deliberate- there would always have been herbivores such as deer which would have prevented complete canopy closure, their numbers held in check by wolves and lynx which would have kept the herbivores moving.
A major expense has been a deer fence- “the best fence in Britain” paid for with lottery funding, which is hoped to last 10-20 years with maintenance. A group of mountain goats that had been living here were captured (bar three that could not be caught and were shot) and moved to the Windsor Forest park, ironically to aid in a peat conservation project by grazing regenerating trees and shrubs! This caused some conflict in the early days as the goats removal was fiercely opposed by another local group- a good example of conflicts than can arise between differing conservation goals.
80% of funding comes from private investors, there is also income from carbon credits, and the project has over 1000 subscribers.
Juniper in the foreground.
Little formal research is being undertaken at Carrfiran, deliberately so since research markers etc would interfere with the projects aim- to give visitors an experience of wilderness. However, despite being favourable to wolves and lynx in principle Philip disliked the word “rewilding” since it “has a lot of baggage associated with it”- though we did not hear what he was referring to.

One of the few original trees, a rowan, is visible on the bank behind Philip, now protected from grazers it has several seedlings growing around it.

Perhaps the main issue regarding resilience is that the project relies heavily on a small group of dedicated volunteers, but these are predominantly males over 60. A local hillwalking group regularly walk the entire fenceline to inspect it for faults.

A beautiful place and an inspiring project, well worth a visit.

Day 3: Eskdalemuir

For a complete contrast, our next stop was plantation forestry sites at Eskdalemuir characterized by single-age stands, hard edges and clear-fells. The forestry covers some 20,000 ha of mainly Sitka spruce established in the 1970s and 80s, grown on a 40-year rotation- much of it now ready for or just after felling and re-planting. The forestry is managed by a number of different forest management companies, and we were met by two forest investment fund mangers who discussed the project with us.

This site was the subject of a recent CONFOR report comparing incomes and carbon storage from forestry with upland sheep farming on similar areas, finding that while forestry only receives about 1/6th the subsidies of agriculture, before subsidies it can generate up to 3x the income, as well as being a net carbon store as opposed to an emitter of CO2 in the case of sheep farming.

Much of the discussion was about improving public relations regarding the impact of forestry of this nature. For the second rotation, regulations now stipulate greater age-structure diversity, softer edges with native species on the boundaries, much smaller areas of clear-fell. However, Sitka seems here to stay- in terms of productivity and profitability in difficult environments, it ticks all the boxes while few other species show any real promise. They certainly would not grow so fast-although given some of the limitations of timber quality resulting from the fast growth of Sitka this might not be a bad thing. However, for now the economics of upland forestry manged purely for profit seem to dictate no real increase in species diversification is likely- although worth in excess of  £100million, as only a small fraction of the investors’ total portfolio, the risks of catastrophic disease outbreak in Sitka seem to be something that will just be absorbed should the situation arise.

We were told that there has been next to no new conifer afforestation in the past few years, and that this is due to bureaucratic filibustering. Delays spawn further delays and the necessary permissions are just never signed off on. Broadleaf is ok, but while fracking licences for example are guaranteed to be granted within 16 weeks, applications for new conifer plantations have been sitting for several years without progress. This shows perhaps just how far public opinion has swung against conifer plantations, despite their profitability in recent years, which will have serious consequences for British forestry in the future which will meet a supply crunch by 2030 unless new afforestation occurs. In the meantime, with returns on investment forestry still very strong, our fund managers were looking to Ireland for new opportunities (though conifers are certainly not popular there either!).

Day 4 Galloway Forest Park


IMG_4152 Above- larch stand due for sanitation fellingIMG_4155

Examining the Forest Management Plans in the Clatterinshaws visitors’ centre.

Dumfries and Galloway is the biggest FC district in Scotland  covering 115000 ha with 20% of production at 700,000 cu m. The district generates £80m from timber and recieves £20m from the Scottish government for visitors centres and other recreational facilities.

The species make up consists of:

78% spruce

10% pine

8% broadleaf- this is expected to increase to help meet the national target of  20%

4% larch- all of which is scheduled for sanitation felling on account of Phytopthera ramorum which has been present since 2010. Some of the larch shows signs of healthy branches, and cuttings are being taken for grafting onto rootstocks in the hope of finding resistance- but “noone really expects to find any.”

Great spruce bark beetle has been present since the 1980s but so far can be controlled with one of the few successful biocontrol methods.

Afforestation at Clatteringshaws was begun in the 1940s, with most of these now felled and active felling underway for most of the 1970s plantations also. The area is now being managed to meet a range of production, environmental and landscape demands. New plantings include intimate species mixes to maximise soil benefits, such as shelterwood systems of beech, Silver fir and sycamore. A dozen conifer species and a dozen broadleaf species are in the plans. Rotation lengths for conifers are being extended. 60% of the plantation area is bog and in some cases on deep peat de-forestation is occurring, with the peatlands being restored after felling.

Public opinion was discussed: do the public understand forestry> A resounding “No!” was the answer given. Every two years, the FC commission a public opinion survey which makes for depressing reading (according to one of our lecturers) – forests are generally held in very negative regard, often associated with crime and vandalism. There is serious arson problems in forests closer to the big cities. On the other hand, around Clatteringshaws, while larch is generally preferred aesthetically for its more diverse herbaceous layers and understory, after an initial outcry when sanitation felling takes place (were it not for Phytopthera, most of the larch would be held onto for as long as possible), often the felling of the older blocks has opened up the views and improved opportunities for mountain biking and other activities, and generally been quite well received.

For further information on Scottish FC managment and planning see here.

Day 5 Slowing the Flow, Pickering

Last stop- another flood mitigation project, this time on a much larger landscape scale. The project was initiated after Pickering suffered severe flooding in 2007. The aim is to prevent chronic flooding up to a 1 in 25-year event. Slowing the Flow is a partnership project lead by Forest Research and with DEFRA as the main funder. The project is believed to have saved the town from the worst of the flooding in 2010.

Over a catchment of 66 square kms, there are 50 ha of woodland planted, 140 mini dams and a large bund protecting the railway. There are also mini-bunds and stockades made from spruce, and 170 large woody debris dams.

Although the media has focussed mainly on the soft landscaping measures of tree-planting etc, the engineered bund (see photos) is by far the most significant contribution. The key in flood mitigation is to reduce the peak- “slowing the flow”.

In terms of forestry, planning for species diversification is designed to meet climate scenarios for 2080, when 30% of the public estate is expected to become unsuitable for current species due to higher temperatures. 20% diversification is planned, including shag-bark hickory as a possible alternative to ash, grand fir, Macedonian pine and oriental spruce.

Beavers were discussed as being considered for introduction, with the proviso that they will simply be shot if they get out of hand: they will almost certainly undermine the railway through burrowing. There is roe deer and some red and muntjac, and our FC host, who advocated much more extensive re-planting of the moors which have suffered “centuries of abuse from grazing” commented “lynx would help.”


A great trip all considered, very informative and lots to think about. Now all there is to do is write the assignment… Many thanks to our lecturers Mark, James and Tim for organising everything and all the hosts who patiently answered all our questions.

I leave you with some atmospheric photos from where we stayed Thursday night, the beach at the funky and wonderful Boggle Hole hostel just below Whitby, the heart of Dracula country…