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Wild Heart Lands

May 10, 2018

Whilst species rich ancient hedges are often discussed with some common agreement, woodland ecology and palaeoecology can be a more controversial topic. New woods take a long time to become species rich. Many people are asking why (other than for fund raising) so much new tree planting is taking place and why natural regeneration is over looked. Natural regeneration of woodland and other habitats can offer robust solutions at a time when biodiversity is challenged.

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Planted trees can introduce disease and often do not thrive for a range of issues including a lack of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil which may create weak stock due to soil structure issues, phosphate and other nutrient deficiencies & even poor water uptake. Introduced tree stock may have no empathy with local conditions, cross pollination integrity, or local climate.

Woodland and peat-lands are excellent carbon sinks. Trees soak up heat and trapping carbon dioxide as they grow, they release it when they burn or rot. Research into large remaining contemporary ecosystems, for example, in rain forest areas or Siberia could help us to understand the mechanics of dynamic vegetation lifecycles, interactions and change. Good land management and re-wilding of nature could be equivalent to stopping global oil burning and could avert 11.3bn tones of carbon dioxide emissions a year, (equivalent to fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions for China) and providing 37% of all cuts needed by 2030 to offset climate change. If added to this veganism became wide spread, possibly the single biggest act that could be delivered to reverse climate change, significant progress could be made.

It has been argued that newly planted woodland will probably have less wildlife value than a single ancient or veteran tree that can be in its self a mini nature reserve. Ancient trees are hollow and beyond maturity, the crown may be consolidated and the girth noticeably larger than neighboring trees. Veteran trees are old trees (pre-ancient or mature) Different species reach maturity at different ages. Environmental and ageing factors cause features such as flaking bark, cavities, fungal decay, running sap, if it is oak it may have a staghead feature, they may be old coppiced stools or man-.made or natural pollards. We have the technology to transplant huge mature trees in order to “save them” from development sites; but should we not instead relocate the development sites.US White Oak specimen trees in urban areas are given deserved attention (as with UK trees that have been awarded tree preservation orders) but these great trees have lost their natural homes, their habitat envelopes.

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Holistic, biodiverse habitats with natural regeneration are vital. The impact of human activity and long-term vegetation change must be properly understood. Large herbivore grazing in woodland and within re-wilding areas has become a recognized though controversial tool to create diverse habitats. When animals used in smaller scale conservation grazing are sold for meat to generate income, a conflict of interest can arise. It is argued that animals can disturb natural balance, destroy invertebrates and produce methane & other waste. Historically (post glacial) Ireland had no large grazing animals. It would be expected that Ireland’s tree cover would have varied from places with grazing animals. However, palaeoecological research including counts and analysis of historical pollen, show no unexpected difference between tree species distribution & density (closed canopy or park woodland) in Ireland & other places that did have grazing animals. Natural regeneration is preferred for creating and expanding new wildlife rich woodland and ancient semi natural woodland. It is cheap and the trees generated are better adapted to local conditions and reflect natural composition. What could be easier than to keep our hand off and allow space for nature?

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