UK elms – ‘not out of the woods yet’


Colin Tudge, the author of The Secret Life of Trees, is invited by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper to give his reaction to efforts to breed a Dutch elm disease-resistant species.

Library image from Take CoverIt’s an interesting read as he gives his reaction to this battle with nature, so here it is:

Could the English elm, so sadly laid low by Dutch elm disease, make a comeback? Paul King, who breeds trees at Raine in Essex, is on the case. Nearly 25 years ago he acquired cuttings from a few mature trees. He has now multiplied the tissues to produce a whole new generation of young elms that seem to be resistant (and are on sale for £120 apiece). Scientists at the Forestry Commission’s research centre in Surrey welcome his initiative – they are on the case, too – but are cautious. Resistance, they point out, is a tricky business.

The English elm, Ulmus procera, is probably not a “true” native – Britain has only 39 “truly” native trees – and was most likely introduced by Neolithic farmers from south-east Europe, via Spain. But it is an honorary citizen, treasured for its usefulness and its looks, favourite of landscape painters, notably of Constable; a tree of open woodland but just as happy in hedgerows where, if it was left alone, it flourished by the tens of millions. In the West Country it was known as “the Wiltshire weed”.

The first sign of trouble came in 1910 when the fungus Ophiostoma ulmi, a distant and degenerate cousin of the truffle, started killing trees in mainland Europe. It acquired its name, Dutch elm disease, in 1921 because it was first properly researched in Holland. It arrived in Britain by 1927 and looked very nasty. Happily, the disease died down by the Forties, after killing 10 to 40 per cent of our elms. Dr Tom Pearce of the Forestry Commission predicted, in 1960, that such a thing should not happen again – unless, he added, “the fungus completely changes its present trend of behaviour”.

Which it duly did. A new, closely related species of Ophiostoma appeared in North America – Ophiostoma novo-ulmi. It arrived in Britain in 1967 on imported logs, and throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties it killed about 25 million out of about 30 million elms, including most of the particular English species, Ulmus procera.

Dutch elm disease has all the biological attributes needed to be thoroughly nasty. It is one of the many “wilt diseases” of trees, which spread through the vessels of the xylem and block them. The spores are carried passively with wonderful efficiency in the sap, through the whole tree, and spread via the roots of separate trees that are often joined underground. The spores don’t live long once the tree has died and so should die out as their host succumbs – but they have a trump card: they are carried from tree to tree and from forest to forest by flying bark beetles of the genus Scolytus.

There is some innate resistance among the world’s many species of elm. The Ophiostoma fungus probably arose in Asia, so the Asian elms have evolved in its presence – and have developed considerable resistance. Breeding programmes are afoot in Europe to introduce genes from Asian species into European types by various means – and may yet succeed. Meanwhile, as Paul King has found, even within susceptible species, such as Ulmus procera, there will usually be some resistant strains. If they can be bred, perhaps we will have a new resistant strain.

So why the caution? Well, for one thing, it depends what the tree is really resistant to: the fungus or its insect vector? Paul King’s new trees are probably not resistant to the fungus itself, but are simply less palatable to the beetle. Of course, the fungus can’t usually infest the tree without the beetles – but it surely would be better to be specifically equipped with genes that would protect it even if beetles did get in.

The sad tale of Britain’s elms parallels that of the American chestnut, Castanea dentata – with some intriguing contrasts. For the American Indians and for the first immigrant Europeans, the American chestnut was a wonder tree. Its nuts were a food staple – and supported 40 million wild turkeys for good measure – and its trunks provided timber. There were so many that a squirrel could travel from chestnut to chestnut from Maine to Georgia without setting foot on the ground, or so the story went.

But the overconfident forestry “improvers” of the 19th century were still not content. They began to import Asian species with bigger nuts, to crossbreed. Inevitably, the newcomers came with their own diseases. And the American chestnuts, beset by novel pathogens, succumbed. By the end of the Twenties, the American chestnut, once perhaps the commonest North American broadleaf, was all but gone.

Again, through too much zeal, the Americans felled great swathes of chestnuts to create a firewall against the spread of infection. This failed to contain the disease – but it did, so some biologists suggest, remove the myriad genetic variations from among the wild trees, which might have included some that would have conferred resistance.

By leaving our own beleaguered elms to live on in the hedges, and nurturing the few survivors, as Paul King and others have been doing, we may avoid that final fate. (In truth, the American chestnut might not quite be dead. At least, George W Bush planted one outside the White House on Arbor Day in 2005 – but it is a hybrid: 15 per cent of its genes are from resistant Asian species. It is a sad relic, like an exhumed dodo).

Overall, the message is mixed. We could see the heroic efforts of a few growers and scientists as a triumph of human ingenuity over natural adversity – the continuing tale of “man’s conquest of nature”. Or we could see this endeavour as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to ward off the consequences of our own folly. For these are tales of hubris. We thought we could do what we liked in the name of commerce. But actually, life is more complicated than we ever supposed – and in the end, it is beyond our ken. Cause and effect relationships in nature are non-linear, which means it is intrinsically impossible to predict the outcome, beyond saying it won’t be good.

Source: Telegraph newspaper

Date: 09/06/2010

Wales to update its ancient woodlands map


Forestry Commission Wales has announced plans to update the nation’s Ancient Woodland Inventory.

Take Cover library image In a press release, the commission said that these habitats, which date back to at least the 17th Century, “support many species of plants and wildlife that depend on the evolving but continuous environments created by dead and dying wood and broken sunlight”.

It added that the inventory was first produced about 30 years ago, and since then, technology for gathering data had improved dramatically and better sources of information had come to light.

The update, which will be carried out over the next 12 months, will identify former ancient woodlands that have subsequently been planted with conifer trees to satisfy the demand for timber over many decades.

These woodlands are known as Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS).

This information will guide decisions on restoring some of the PAWS to their natural state by removing non-native trees and planting native broadleaf species such as oak, birch, rowan and ash.

“Such work helps to increase the variety of different plant and wildlife species in the woodland by improving habitats and providing food and shelter,” the commission explained.

Wood pastures – ancient and veteran trees found on grazed sites – will also be systematically recorded as part of the update to the inventory.

Despite the ecological value of wood pasture, it has no legal protection, so identification on the inventory may help protect these sites from damage or destruction.

The concept of  “ancient woodland” was developed in the 1970s and 1980s, when studies showed that woodlands that have had a continuous woodland cover for centuries were typically of higher nature conservation value than those that had developed recently.

The baseline date of 1600 AD was adopted because reasonable maps were available from this time (in England, at least).

But the commission admitted that it was an arbitrary date, and there was no clear ecological cut-off.

Michelle van Velzen, forestry and environment policy and programme manager at Forestry Commission Wales, said: “Ancient woodlands are a precious and finite resource that cannot be recreated.

“This update to the Ancient Woodland Inventory will ensure we have the most comprehensive and accurate information on the extent and nature of ancient woodlands in Wales.”

The update to the inventory will be completed in March 2011 and the new information will be supplied to local authorities for their use when developing planning policy that affects woodland.

Source: Forestry Commission Wales press release

Date: 11/06/2010

Oak disease ‘threatens British landscape’


The continuing spread of a deadly disease that affects the UK’s native oak trees is causing concern among tree professionals and conservation groups.

Take Cover library photoThe BBC’s environment reporter Mark Kinver writes that Acute Oak Decline (AOD), caused by a bacterial infection, can kill an infected tree in just a few years.

Some tree experts are comparing AOD to Dutch elm disease, which killed millions of trees throughout the UK during the 1970-80s.

They said extra funds for more research into the disease were urgently needed.

Although AOD has been confirmed in 55 cases, the number of trees displaying symptoms was steadily increasing, delegates at the Royal Forestry Society’s (RFS) annual conference were told.

The disease affects the UK’s two native species of oak – sessile and pedunculate. To date, there have been no confirmed cases in other species of oaks found in Britain, such as Turkey and red oaks.

‘Extensive bleeding’

Information from Forest Research, the scientific department of the UK Forestry Commission, says the new disease affects oaks more than 50 years old.

Symptoms are “extensive stem bleeding” in which dark fluid seeps from small cracks in the bark and runs down the tree trunk.

In early stages of the disease, the health of a tree’s canopy does not appear to be affected, but it may become thinner as the tree succumbs to AOD.

On its website, Forest Research says: “The incidence of AOD in Britain is unquantified at this stage, but estimates put the figure at a few thousand affected trees.

“The condition appears to be most prevalent in the Midlands and investigations to determine the extent of the disorder are under way.”

A spokesman told BBC News: “Forest Research pathologists have isolated a previously unidentified bacterium they believe is highly likely to be playing a key role in the Acute Oak Decline observed in Leicestershire and elsewhere.

“However, the full cause of the condition is thought likely to be complex, involving a number of factors besides the bacterium. A research report is currently awaiting peer review.”

‘Major threat’

Tree organisations are calling for more funding to be made available to allow researchers to better understand the full impact of the disease.

John Jackson, the organiser of the RFS’s conference, said: “Urgent action is not an option – it’s a necessity.”

Hilary Allison, policy director for the Woodland Trust, added: “The impact of the loss of an iconic tree both from our countryside and towns would be catastrophic, and therefore has the capacity to be a major threat to the UK’s oak woods.”

“I have never seen anything like it,” said Peter Goodwin, co-founder of Woodland Heritage.

“Its spread over the last two years has been quite alarming.”

Mr Goodwin told BBC News that very little was known about the virulent bacteria responsible for the disease.

“We’ve never had a bacterium that is capable of doing what this one is doing.”

He suggested that people were possibly the main way in which the disease was spread from tree to tree, but added that “natural vectors” – such as squirrels, birds and insects – could also play a role.

“I think this is the worrying thing, we all want to know what are the vectors that is spreading it. Is it airborne? We just don’t know.”

Forest Research advises people working in affected areas to take appropriate measures to limit the chances of AOD being carried to new sites.

“The most important thing we can do in this and other cases is to research and understand the causes so that we can provide appropriate management advice for tree owners and woodland managers,” the spokesman added.

“It is also important that we remain vigilant against accidentally importing new and damaging pests and diseases from outside Great Britain.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 28/04/10

Quarter of PNG’s rainforests ‘lost to logging’


Nearly one quarter of Papua New Guinea’s rainforests were damaged or destroyed between 1972 and 2002, Mongabay.com reports.

Researchers, writing in the journal Biotopica, said the results – published in a report last June – show that Papua New Guinea is losing forests at a much faster rate than previously believed.

Over the 30-year study period, 15% of the nation’s tropical forests were cleared and a further 8.8% were degraded through logging.

“Our analysis does not support the theory that PNG’s forests have escaped the rapid changes recorded in other tropical regions,” the authors wrote.

“We conclude that rapid and substantial forest change has occurred in Papua New Guinea.”

Deforestation and forest degradation in Papua New Guinea are primarily driven by logging, followed by clearing for subsistence agriculture.

Since 2002 (a period not covered in the study), reports suggest that conversion of forest for industrial agriculture, especially oil palm plantations, has increased.

The study is based on comparisons between a land-cover map from 1972 and a land-cover map created from nationwide high-resolution satellite imagery recorded in 2002.

The authors found that most deforestation occurred in commercially accessible forest, where forest loss ranged from 1.1 to 3.4% each year.

Overall deforestation was 0.8 to 1.8% per year, higher than reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), but lower than the rate of deforestation on neighboring islands, including Borneo and Sumatra.

Papua New Guinea’s primary forest cover fell from 33.23 million hectares to 25.33 million hectares during the 30-year period.

In the same period, almost 93 million hectares of forest were degraded by logging.

Lead author Phil Shearman, director of the University of Papua New Guinea’s Remote Sensing Centre, said that without incentives to keep forest standing, Papua New Guinea would continue to lose its forests.

“Forests in Papua New Guinea are being logged repeatedly and wastefully with little regard for the environmental consequences and with at least the passive complicity of government authorities,” Dr Shearman said.

He noted that nearly half of the country’s 8.7 million hectares of forest accessible to mechanised logging have been allocated to the commercial logging industry.

But he added that there may be hope because Papua New Guinea had become a leader in the push by tropical nations to seek compensation from industrialised countries for conserving forests as a giant store of carbon.

The mechanism known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) could potentially provide billions of dollars for conservation, sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

“The government could make a significant contribution to global efforts to combat climate change,” observed Dr Shearman.

“It is in its own interest to do so, as this nation is particularly susceptible to negative effects due to loss of the forest cover.”

UN studies have show that coastal communities in Papua New Guinea are particularly at risk from climate change.
Source: Mongabay.com

Date: 23/02/2009

Judge uses 12,000 words to legally define “a tree”


A High Court judge, Mr Justice Cranston, has taken 12,000 words to answer the question: what is a tree?

As the UK’s Daily Telegraph reports, the judge thought it necessary to spell out the exact legal definition of a tree because of confusion in the planning process.

While trees could obviously be the object of tree preservation orders, the question remained about the status of saplings.

For clarity the judge ruled that size did not matter, and that the smallest sapling was, legally speaking, a tree.

His conclusion clashes with that of Lord Denning, a former Master of the Rolls, who ruled that a tree was only a tree if its trunk had a diameter of at least seven inches.

In opening his judgment Mr Justice Cranston said: “What is a tree? In particular does it include a young tree, a sapling?”

He continued: “On one occasion Lord Denning said emphatically that many saplings were not trees and that in woodland a tree was something over seven or eight inches, 180 to 200mm, in diameter.”

The issue arose in the case on which he was ruling because, while section 198 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provided for tree preservation orders (TPOs) to preserve trees, groups of trees and woodlands, he said that there was “no statutory definition of a tree”.

He concluded that “with tree preservation orders there are no limitations in terms of size for what is to be treated as a tree. In other words, saplings are trees”.

The case was brought by a developer who had challenged a Government decision to not allow works in a young patch of woodland in North Halling, by the River Medway in Kent.

Palm Developments Ltd bought the site in 2001 and applied for permission to use the land as a commercial wharf.

Before the World War II, it was an industrial site but then it was abandoned, leaving a succession of trees to grow up.

Medway Council refused planning permission and applied for the site to be protected with a tree preservation order.

The company then appealed to Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, but she agreed with planning inspectors that the development would “cause irreversible harm to the visual amenity of the woodland”.

Palm Developments Ltd launched a fresh appeal in the High Court but that also proved to be unsuccessful.

Here is the full ruling by Mr Justice Cranston

Source: Daily Telegraph

Date: 13/02/2009

UK to set tougher timber measures


From the beginning of April, only certified timber and timber products will be able to be used on UK government properties and projects, according to a press release from the UK Forestry Commission.

The material will have to originate either from independently verified legal and sustainable sources or from a licensed Forest Law Enforcement, Governance & Trade (FLEGT) partner.

The change will initially apply to England, Great Britain and UK departments and their executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

It is anticipated that the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will follow suit in the near future.

Other public bodies, including local authorities, will be encouraged to follow the government’s lead.

The Forestry Commission says the new policy is designed to combat illegal and unsustainable logging.

It is described as a key element in the effort to help reduce and mitigate climate change by tackling deforestation, which is a threat to societies and the environment around the world.

The UK is a major importer of timber, and the government is at the forefront of global efforts to encourage legal and sustainable management of the world’s forests.

Under the new guidelines, government buyers will have to request evidence from contractors and suppliers that the wood products they propose to supply comply with the policy.

This evidence can take two forms:

Category A – independent certification of the timber and timber products by any of the forest certification schemes that meet the policy requirements, such as those endorsed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC).

Category B – includes alternative documentary evidence that the source forest is known and that it is legally and sustainably managed.

Defra, the Government department with lead responsibility for sustainable timber procurement, has established the Central Point of Expertise on Timber (CPET) to provide training and a free support helpline to public-sector buying agencies and their timber suppliers.

Official figures suggest that about 23% of the timber sold in the UK is sold to government or public bodies.

The Forestry Commission estimates that 80% all timber produced in the UK is certified, including two-thirds of private-sector production, therefore meeting the criteria for Category A timber.

As for Category B, the benchmark for sustainable forest management in the UK is the UK Forestry Standard.

The Forestry Commission and Northern Ireland Forest Service are currently revising the Standard to bring it up-to-date and ensure it is consistent with international criteria.

When this process is completed, compliance with the revised Standard should provide a sound basis for demonstrating sustainable management under CPET Category B.

In the interim, the Commission and Forest Service are working closely with Defra to establish an appropriate protocol to enable all woodland owners to continue to meet the Government’s new procurement criteria from 1st April 2009.

Source: Forestry Commission press release

Date:  02/02/2009

UK charity gets funds to plant urban woodland


A multimillion-pound grant scheme to improve access to nature has targeted a project to plant urban woods to help people reconnect with nature, and avoid anti-social behaviour, Horticulture Week reports.

Access to Nature, managed by Natural England, aims to hand out £25 million of Big Lottery money to urban communities to start or improve nature projects.

One of the winners, conservation charity the Woodland Trust, aims to transform 10 of its urban woods in the North West.

Its grant of £213,000 will help launch a Woodland Communities project, said Woodland Trust woodland officer Tim Kirwin.

“The aim is to re-connect local people with their environment and reverse elements of antisocial behaviour,” he said of the target area around Warrington and Runcorn.

The zone straddled two boroughs containing some of the most deprived wards in England and within one mile of an estimated 155,000 people, Kirwin said.

“We want to increase local appreciation of woodland and tackle attitudes behind current antisocial activities and the dumping of rubbish.”

Events will include woodland-discovery sessions for schools, conservation work and efforts to help “make the sites an asset to the area rather than a blight”.

Mr Kirwin observed: “It will involve transforming areas that are often deserted and sometimes litter-strewn into bustling outdoor community facilities and give people the confidence to use woodland more fully.

“Many people in the area are just not connected with their natural environment, so we need to find ways to help make that happen, with schools playing a big part.”

Another project to receive the lottery funding was Wild About Plants, a project lead by charity Plantlife, which has received £327,000.

Dr Helen Phillips, chief executive of Natural England, said: “Modern life can mean losing regular contact with nature, and we must find a way of putting people back in touch.”

Source: Horticulture Week

Date: 13/01/2009

Landmark agreement for England’s trees


The Forestry Commission and Natural England have joined forces with more than 100 organisations, representing woodland owners, forestry businesses, conservation and local communities to create a new five-year action plan for trees and woodlands in England.

A press release from the Forestry Commission said that the ultimate goal of the new partnership was to deliver a healthier landscape for wildlife and an increase in people visiting woodlands for leisure and tourism by 2020.

The local environment and local communities will be improved with more, high-quality, wooded greenspace close to where people live and a revival of trees in our streets.

It added that the management of the both small, private woods and large commercial forestry will provide greater use of home-grown wood in construction and woodfuel,

Speaking at the launch of the scheme, Forestry Minister Huw Irranca-Davies said: “There are more than a million hectares of woodland and forest in England today.

“Trees make a big difference to people’s quality of life and wellbeing, improving the places where we live, work and play.

“People need to be able to get involved in planning, managing and looking after their local woodlands and trees, and the plan launched today will help us to make the most of our trees to combat climate change, protect wildlife, and yield other social, economic and environmental benefits.”

Forestry Commission chairman Lord Clark of Windermere added: “These are important and exciting times for trees, woods and forests in England as they face the challenges of climate change while providing a range of benefits to people, wildlife and to our economy.

He went on to say: “This new plan is testament to those people representing landowners, businesses, communities, local councils and government who worked together to secure the future for our trees, woods and forests.”

Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, acknowledged the crucial role that trees played in ecological and economic terms, as well as adding to people’s quality of life.

“These benefits are increasingly being recognised, but they can only be secured through careful long term planning and co-ordinated action,” he said.

“Today’s Delivery Plan has been created through working closely with a wide range of organisations and local communities and marks a major step forward in securing a sustainable future for our woodlands.”

Source: Forestry Commission press release

Date: 15/12/2008

UK woodland birds ‘in decline’


The latest Breeding Bird Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, has highlighted a significant decline in woodland bird species, writes the woodlands.co.uk blog.

It says that the annual survey has revealed numbers down by more than 50% in several species, the worst hit being the willow tit down by 77%.

The reason for the decline is not obvious, the blog adds.

“It isn’t due to loss of habitat – there is more woodland in the UK today than there has ever been, and, on the whole, modern woodland management is more sympathetic to environmental concerns.

“The Farm Woodland Scheme and Farm Woodland Premium Scheme have also encouraged the planting of small woodlands.”

It suggests the fall in breeding woodland bird species may be the result of a change to the composition and structure of the UK’s woodlands.

“Traditional methods of management such as coppicing provide a perfect habitat for warblers and nightingales, for instance,” woodlands.co.uk reports.

“The coppicing process whereby the wood is regularly cut back creates open woodland with plenty of undergrowth for nesting. Where coppice is left to grow unchecked, eventually the canopy closes and the undergrowth is shaded out.

“Mature woodland with a closed canopy supports tree-dwelling birds such as the woodpecker, but offers a less diverse selection of species overall.”

The blog highlights a possible connection between the fall in bird numbers and the growing population of deer: “Many woodland species like the woodland edges and open areas where there is shrubby, low-level cover.

“An explosion in the number of deer in the UK has had a noticeable impact on just this sort of habitat through grazing at the herb and low shrub level. It is quite likely that this is making a serious impact on woodland bird numbers.”

Migration has also been suggested as a factor.

Several British woodland birds, such as the wood warbler, are annual summer visitors that overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa. It has been suggested that drought in that region may be having an effect.

Citing studies in the Netherlands, the blog post by Catherine also suggested that reduction of habitat quality through traffic noise from nearby roads could have significantly affected local woodland bird populations.

Source: woodlands.co.uk

Date: 22/08/2008

Six key Scottish species get woodland aid


A programme has been launched to help six key species flourish in woodlands across Scotland, reports the BBC’s Giancarlo Rinaldi.

Forestry Commission Scotland’s new biodiversity plan aims to create “stronger, more adaptable ecosystems”.

It identifies the capercaillie, black grouse, red squirrel, pearl-bordered fritillary, chequered skipper butterfly and juniper as important species.

Scottish Environment Minister Mike Russell launched the plan at the Carrick Forest in Dumfries and Galloway.

He said Scotland’s forests had a key part to play in protecting endangered species.

The criteria for selecting the six species as priorities include:

  • All declining and/or threatened but still widely distributed
  • Scotland holds a large proportion of the UK population
  • Forestry is important to their habitats
  • Managing of these species should have wider biodiversity benefits

“Woodlands – and the open spaces within them – have a vital contribution to make towards conserving Scotland’s threatened habitats and species,” Mr Russell is reported as saying.

“We are very fortunate in Scotland to enjoy a wealth of biodiversity that is for the most part robust and healthy.

“However, some elements are extremely fragile and making sure that they thrive will require some large-scale thinking and landscape scale vision – both of which are forestry sector strengths.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 21/08/2008

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