Trees in the landscape

We will see changes this year in the driving forces for British landscapes, but it is uncertain what effect these changes will have when there is no over-arching vision for their future. I value my learning in Permaculture because it provides me with a framework within which to understand our current landscapes and our poor use of them, and which empowers me to consider and hopefully realise better options. Fortunately, I am in good company as Permacultural thinking does bring people together in what they see as that vision and what they want to do about it. But before we look at that, we ought to see what else is going on and, unsurprisingly for our countryside, it is heavily influenced by policy on farming.

From this year, the EU subsidy regime for farming no longer pays out per head of livestock, or per ton of cereal, and every farm can join the new entry level environmental stewardship scheme. Farmers that used to receive subsidy will still get it, even if they dont produce a single thing, and they can also get paid for leaving field margins and looking after hedges and ponds. The hope is that grazing pressure on land will go down and, coupled with some changes in crop production, there will be a slow down in the retreat of wildlife from farmland.

The agencies that protect the interests of wildlife and rural life are also up for change. A new integrated land agency is being formed for England that will take on the regulatory powers of English Nature, parts of the rural delivery of the Countryside Agency, and most of the functions of the Rural Development Service. This new land agency, Natural England, will thus have a duty to protect wildlife, but can also make payments to encourage better farming practice (Wales with its Countryside Council already does this). Natural England will be an adviser to Government and, it is hoped, can also provide a strategic steer that is outside of the shorter term planning of its governing department (DEFRA).

With our landscapes so dominated by farming (and particularly livestock grazing) it is unsurprising that many commentators are expecting that the rewards from these encouragements to farmers will aggregate and show up in the indicators for sustainability and biodiversity. I have no doubt they will, but I think we would be foolish to expect to see many visual changes in the landscape since that is not what these reforms are about.

Chipping away, around the edges of our traditional, broadscale farming have been experiments in agroforestry - combining the qualities and products of trees with grazing livestock or groundcover crops and non-food crops such as biomass, and the substitutes for transport fuel, lubricants and other chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Sadly, government has not yet found a way to fund new agroforestry, but biomass and some non-food crops will get subsidy and have the potential to change the landscape, blazing it with colour from some of the non-food crops, but with biomass it will be a re-instatement of some of the scrub-like cover that we have historically lost.

There is another interesting contribution to potential landscape change that comes from the increasing enthusiasm for wild land. Projects from Wild Ennerdale in Cumbria, Carrifran in the Borders and Moortrees in Dartmoor, demonstrate a landscape approach to rewilding Britain that is seeing scrub and tree regeneration. The new integrated land agency can play a role in this: English Nature, one of its future components, has been working alongside wildland networks in researching a process of opportunity mapping that is seeking out broad areas of the English landscape that have potential to be wilder again, and which could be inter-connected across the countryside.

Permaculturists have been lending support to this mapping and to the increasing enthusiasm for wildland. It is second nature for Permaculturists to see this regeneration of wildland in the context of a zonal approach to land use (see Zonal analysis - placement and relative location ). Viewing the landscape as a whole, Permaculturists design a continuum of decreasing intensity of use until wild land is reached (designated as Zone 5) where constraints are placed on its use by people becoming observers rather than users or exploiters. The trouble is, non-Permaculturists are fixated on their hard edges the stark boundaries that separate a ploughed field from a heavily grazed landscape, and that grazing is fenced off from the conifer (monoculture) plantation. Not for them a gradual transition across the landscape from pasture to parkland, thence to open wood and on into canopied woodland, with elements of the latter reserved as non-interventionary areas.

In Britain, the word wilderness is thrown around with gay abandon (particularly by journalists), often being used to describe some bleak, empty moorland landscape. We know, however, that this moor is an artificial landscape, along with most of our countryside, because we manage it to prevent the ecological succession that would populate it with trees again. Before farming came to Britain, we were a woodland people, knowing the resources and strengths that a wooded landscape can bring. We have that in common with the blackbird, a species that is considered to have been originally a shy, woodland bird - a description that is not very fitting today.

I don't know whether blackbirds will very easily re-adapt to woodland again, but since any major change in our landscapes will be over centuries rather than decades, then the blackbird has a few years to get used to it. And so will we as a predominantly urban people. Permaculturists have a head start as they seem instinctively to have that feel of a woodland people, and so it is not surprising that they seek to accelerate ecological succession in landscapes, take wild land regeneration seriously, and that trees are an important part of their designs through forest gardens, agro-forestry, shelter belts, timber and wood production, and forest crafts. A natural regeneration of wild woodland from existing local trees and seed bank is far preferable to planting trees. However, nature may occasionally need a helping hand because local trees and the seed bank may have disappeared centuries ago. I think most Permaculturists are alive to the fact that a good design would not have tree planting that is inappropriate, particularly when it is in the landscape away from their more daily activities.

Plant a tree in the landscape and you change it for the better. This is a generalisation that will always stumble over detail, but sometimes you just have to get a simple message across about landscapes because of the blanket views that currently predominate - firstly from a farming perspective and then, when unshackled from that, the protectionist view of special interests that seek a landscape that is unchanging. The latter is often a concern at the loss of existing diversity within a changed landscape - especially, it seems, many are defensive about moorland, but that diversity is often maintained at what I think is too high a cost for overall diversity in the larger landscape area.

I have just come back from some days walking in the remnants of the Caledonian forest in and around the Cairngorms National Park. The ski-ing area of the Cairngorms is a bleak and empty moorland landscape (Titchmmarsh in his recent TV series called these hills of the Cairngorms 'rounded stumps'). Contrast that with some of the other hills and moors in the Cairngorms, where you will find astonishing variety in the vegetation, including heather, juniper, bilberry, cowberry, bearberry and petty whin in the shrub layer, and with scrubby birch, rowan, willow and pine - seeding and restoring a natural vegetation now that grazing pressure is reduced. In the wetter areas, bog myrtle and bog asphodel flourish as does butterwort (Pinguicula) everywhere there are issues. I couldn't tell you about the insect population there as that is not my specialism, but on the days it wasn't raining (this is Scotland) there seemed to be plenty of insects, particularly making use of the blossom on the shrubs and trees. There were also mountain hares, frogs (and taddies) and woodcock amongst the open woodland. Lower down, in the Glens, the mix of pine, birch, bilberry, heather, bearberry and juniper is beguiling, and what makes the Caledonian woods so special. The charismatic animal species that Scotland so loves are, of course, all primarily woodland species.

On my local moor, there are heath orchid, sundew, cranberry, bog asphodel, cotton grass and ragged robin growing in a largish tract of wet land created by an issue. It is stunning, but only if you concentrate solely on the wet area. Around, and for most of the northern face of the moor, it grows bracken. So the grass and heather doesn't grow and this area is lost to what is its farming purpose - grazing sheep. The sheep prevent any regeneration of the woodland that would cover a substantial area of this moor, although the reduction in numbers of sheep since FMD has got some of us excited about the tree seedlings appearing - and which may turn into trees. It is unlikely that the trees will infiltrate the wet area for possibly centuries (a guess!). But the areas covered with bracken would be far better covered with trees - and nature provides support for this because in some of the bracken areas nearer to the valley-bottom woodland, wood sorrel and wood violet flower before the bracken emerges with the end of the late frosts. Thus these WOODLAND flowers have co-opted bracken into their woodland habitat! Put some trees in there and you may eventually gain the other nearby woodland plants - such as wood anemone, bluebells and campion, with wild garlic and lesser celandine in the damper (but not wet) areas.

The trouble with much of our current nature conservation is that it is too highly focussed on single species rather than whole landscapes. I have written before of the difficulties that statutory nature designation creates (such as NNR, SSSI - see Wildernesses of the Mind, Jan 2005). However, the most significant single species focus in conservation of the last few years has been Biodiversity Action Plans and their local equivalents. Certainly, at local level (local authority) LBAPS are written species by species, with action and management plans that aim to maximise each species. Thus it is inherent that there is habitat management to achieve that end. Here's a criticism of this from Peter Rhind, an ecologist working for the Countryside Council for Wales:

"Once you start tinkering with management to maximise species diversity you end up effectively intensively farming the land to create a good 'crop' of [a] species. ....... When this obsession with biodiversity is adopted, the only difference between farming and conservation is that the first aims to maximise biomass and the latter to maximise biodiversity." (Peter Rhind, Give Nature a Chance, ECOS 25 (2) 2004).

As Peter would also point out, this is fundamentally flawed and far from natural. The beauty of natural ecosystems is not just in their component species but also in their highly developed level of organisation amongst all the species. Our clumsy attempts at management only push systems into what Peter has called a disclimax (disturbed climax) and a crude disorder. Planting trees may seem like a gross intervention, but it is often our impatient response to stimulating (accelerating) that natural succession and allowing that complexity of natural organisation to return.

A local example to me of this biodiversity farming is in the south Pennines, designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) mostly on the back of its bird populations. One in particular, the twite, is as uninteresting as its name and its appearance, but land management on the SAC is geared towards this type of bird. I believe that one LBAP suggests that school children will scatter seed as food for them on moorland tracks. Woodland on this moor would harbour predators of this and other ground nesting birds (fox, weasel etc.) and so local "naturalists" will always recommend against tree planting schemes on the moors. It would seem that in our "unnatural nature", we get to choose which species are allowed to thrive and which will come to dominate the character of our land management. There is no sense that nature will be allowed to develop a dynamic balance in prey-predator relationships (as it would also in landscape vegetation) and that predation may actually work to the benefit of species. As we have seen, the current legislation is anathema to naturalness and we should be challenging the entrenched concepts of interventionist management in reserved nature so that we ultimately go beyond nature conservation a future natural. And we will also need to look for complementary mechanisms for allowing more scope for natural succession to take place in all our landscapes so that a continuum of use can be established.

I think it inevitable as a Permaculturist that I have reached this point of understanding, but it has to be more than a modus vivendi on wildland. We should be viewing landscapes as that continuum (see earlier) in which we as a significant species interact with dynamic climactic landscapes, reserving the wildlands (Zone 5) for our observation and education only, and as our gift to wild nature. Our needs from the rest of this climactic landscape are, by default, more sophisticated than browsing deer or squirrels, and so we need to be more thoughtful about the impact of our use and how this climactic landscape can be encouraged to regenerate at a sustainable rate. It will be the complete antithesis to the blunt approach of broadscale farming and land use, and it is unlikely to replicate the pressures on uplands that are currently applied by sheep grazing (the woolly mower). George Peterken provides us with a non-Permacultural but useful overview when he addresses forest distribution in his vision of future natural:

"A large-scale pattern of forest and non-forest is particularly appropriate for moorland, where the visual scale of the landscape, the scale of the forestry operations, the pattern of site conditions, and the territories of important moorland vertebrates are all large. A small-scale pattern is more appropriate for afforestation in farmland, where the scale of the landscape is small. This is the right place for the integration of farming and forestry." (George Peterken, Natural Woodland: Ecology and conservation in the northern temperate regions, 1996).

While Permaculture in Britain has many forms of expression, the Permaculture Association has a proposal to make 2006 the Year of the Tree for Permaculturists. The Woodland Group of the Association is working up a yearlong program to support this theme, and a comprehensive draft will be in place by September. Its outline has: opportunities for learning about trees and woodland and their use in Permaculture; research into successful tree projects, identifying Permacultural best practice and disseminating this widely; making links with other tree and woodland groups and creating working relationships with them (an autumn conference in 2006 is planned, ideally hosted in partnership with other woodland organisations); and a list of events and activities that includes study tours, locally led project days, open days, themed seminars, training, work days, and practicals.

Its an ambitious program. The Year of the Tree has the potential to unite us in learning about and using our landscapes in new and better ways. This has to be a cause for optimism - and a little bit of group tree planting will be some fun along the way.

Mark Fisher, 12 June 2005


Shortly after I wrote this article, a momentous new policy was launched by the Forestry Commission that has the potential to change the landscape - and do it by using trees (29th June). Called "Keepers of Time", it places England's ancient and native woodland at the heart of forestry policy. The first action is a major programme of tree felling and thinning in those ancient woodlands that were converted to plantations in the last century. Millions of non-native conifers and other tree species are to be gradually removed from the English landscape over the next 20 years or so, to be replaced with native species such as oak, ash and beech, which will be allowed to naturally seed and regenerate.

England's ancient and native woodland are often small and fragmented, making them vulnerable to shading from planted conifers, overgrazing by deer and livestock, competition from introduced 'alien' species, interference from agriculture, poor management and neglect. The new policy aims to reverse the decline of ancient and native woodland and improve its value for wildlife. It will also involve more new native woodland being created, especially where it can buffer or link the many small fragments of woodland that are spread throughout the country.