The Permacultural approach to woodland

What would make a Permacultural approach to woodland be different to any other? As with so many areas of contemporary life, forestry and woodland management attracts its fair share of zealots who feel comfortable only when adhering to rigid rules or criteria. In this vein, an uncommon opportunity was presented earlier this year when woodlanders were given sight of a revised set of rules the organic standards for woodland management - and had the chance to comment.

I read these standards a number of times in an effort to try to make some useful comments, but it just did not work. I don't like certification systems, and those organic woodland standards were shot full of the usual hyperbole of the organic movement, with its fatuous, feel-good sentiments such as "encouraged to nurture and protect". And there were the usual cop-outs that are left bereft of the necessary discussion, such as the imprecation to woodlanders to follow "the appropriate character guideline for the locality/region" Well excuse me, but who says the received opinion of the local character guideline is right, and where is the judgement of the land user in reading their landscape and then designing accordingly?

The problem I have is that certification standards cannot substitute for a lack of earth understanding, skill set and capability. An aspirational process, as is exemplified by organic standards, is immensely inferior to an earth-science, education-based, definitional and design-led system, such as Permaculture, because aspirational processes are about wish-fulfilment rather than functionality; proscriptive processes rather than locality-based solutions; and are industry-led rather than ecologically-led. Organic standards are a marketing tool, not a quality mark or, necessarily, evidence of a public good. Trust the organic movement to also seek to make a profit off the back of Mother Nature's efforts through getting an income from certifying wild harvests, standards for which are included in the woodland standards.

So how does the Permaculture community develop its approaches to woodland? Most recently, a proposal has been circulated to set up a Woodland Working Group of the Permaculture Association (Britain). The proposal arose out of the Permaculture Woodland Gathering held at Hill Holt Wood this summer ( and from a workshop discussion at the Permaculture Convergence later in September. A report of the proceedings from the Woodland Gathering should eventually be posted on the Permaculture Association website where there will also be a copy of the Working Group proposal (

The report on the Woodland Gathering is an excellent and wide-ranging read, which captures what must have been a highly significant first Permaculture woodland event. The proposals for the Working Group are also good, being tight and highly focussed and giving the aims, objectives and a potential work program for the group. What is missing however from those documents is a thumbnail guide to the philosophy of what makes up our Permacultural approach to woodland. This will be given a greater airing at the first Woodland Working Group gathering in the new year, but since it is something that I'm working through for myself, I want to give a flavour of what that might be.

I have a problem with the British conception of woodland. As you would expect, it has something to do with the difference between woodland as being a natural part of a landscape, in comparison to it being a land space that is planted with trees, has its understorey cleared, and probably has a boundary enforced around it. And it is more than just a functional difference between these two since, if we view it in that way, then we will be viewing and utilising woodland in the same unnatural way that we utilise the major part of our land for broadscale agriculture. We should not be farming wood.

Partly this is to do with a rejection of plantation and monoculture, which Permaculturists would be unlikely to emulate anyway, but it is the danger of continuing to view woodland as discrete areas of land, often existing (certainly in the north of England) because they were considered worthless as grazing land (i.e. the sunken wooded dales in the Peak District; the wooded glens, crags and cloughs around me in W and N Yorkshire. - and the upland conifer plantations). It seems only in urban and urban-fringe public woodland (relics of estates, re-wooded quarries, benefactions of open space) that woodland seems to have any flow, variety and freedom.

The south of England has more and more interesting woodland in much more logical places, and I am still puzzling as to why - economically - this is so. Perhaps the lower rainfall translating into less useful grazing land, but it may be also the higher return from the greater proportion of land that can be used for arable crops. Some of it may be due to the wide band of chalk land that ranges east to west. Certainly there may be hangovers from the days of Norman deer parks or royal hunting woods. Whatever the reason, there is a clear disparity shown by this southerly distribution. Anyway, I digress.

Should we as Permaculturists be setting the following as our aim? Should we not be steering our landscape vegetation towards recreating the climax and sub-climax woodland communities of the different geological variations and rainfall around Britain, and then harvesting and restoring products at a rate that does not substantially affect that dynamic climax equilibrium? There definitely would be no clear felling in these wooded landscapes. Thus beech climax woodland would occur in the south, along with oak-hornbeam woodland. In the north, such as in the south pennine area where I live, it would be the sessile oak woodland characteristic of millstone grit landscapes (birch instead of oak would be dominant higher up the hill sides) and ash climax woodland would predominate where there is limestone. Variety comes not only with differing geology - alder carrs are stable as a subclimax where they do not substantially change the hydrographic nature of wetter areas, as would be the case for a dynamically stable willow subclimax.

According to Tansley's descriptions of the remnant characteristic vegetation cover of Britain, the sessile oak woodland of the south pennines would also have had birch, rowan, holly, willow, wych elm, both wild cherries, hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, rose, wild pear, elderberry, blackberry and raspberry. And there would also be field maple and guelder rose. This seems a very worthwhile mix to me, offering great variety and the potential for many yields.

The variety in sessile oakwood of the south pennines is probably only fully obtainable by allowing the rewooding of the major valley-bottom courses rather than just a regeneration on the valley sides and higher up (as is often what happens when there is any rewooding). This brings me back to my earlier point, and it has to do with the socio-cultural problem of woodland being regarded as inferior or secondary to grassland. Because of that, few people would consider re-wooding the Grade 3 agricultural land that most often flows through these valley bottoms. Why on earth not? In my home District of Bradford, this Grade 3 land the best land of the valley bottoms - can not be used for cereals as it might be elsewhere with a softer climate. But no one considers woodland as an alternative to the grazed pasture of the dairy farms. Thus woodland is never given an opportunity to perform well in "favourable" conditions. As Chris Dixon has shown with his rewilding at Tir Penrhos Isaf, woodland economics are unvalued and undervalued ( And, in the Bradford District, that Grade 3 land is unsurprisingly associated with the River Aire, the main water course that runs across the District, and which recently flooded out a number of its closeby settlements. It is perhaps unsurprising that flood management plans now consider the value of "riparian" woodland and its potential in flood mitigation.

I have no easy answer for a view on the acceptability of introduced trees versus native trees. I suppose the excellent Ben Law ( who achieves remarkable things with his woodland down in Sussex, would be hard pressed if we said sweet chestnut is out because the Romans brought it in with them when they couldn't find it here. Perhaps we could say that sycamore, introduced in the 1600's from mountainous continental Europe can only be planted above 600m. What I would find difficult is to say something like a restriction that you can only have 5% of non-native species, because then we are on the silly road to certification.

I would argue that it would be inappropriate to introduce non-natives into the wider landscape, and certainly not where the intention is to rewild land and leave it self willed. But some have suggested, that in keeping with the zonal approach that Permaculture Design encourages, it would be possible to cultivate non-natives closer to the centres of activity, where architectural and decorative timbers would receive greater attention and management, and their proliferation and impact could be much more easily controlled.

Mark Fisher, 24 December 2004