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:

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