The Woodland Trust is a charity close to our collective hearts here at Certainly Wood. We spoke to one of the organisation’s principal advisors, Mike Townsend, based nearby in Herefordshire, to find out more about the work and aims of the charity.
CW: Tell us more about The Woodland Trust and how it all began?
MT: The Woodland Trust started life in 1972 by Ken Watkins, a retired agricultural engineer from Devon. At the time, no legal protection was in place for native woodland and many farmers were ripping out trees and woodland to create more farmland.
Although the Forestry Commission was established 1919, most of the tree planting they did initially was coniferous and more protection was needed for native deciduous trees. So, the mandate of the Woodland Trust was first-and-foremost the conservation of native woodland.
CW: How far has the charity come since its inception?
MT: We now have over 450 staff working for us across the UK and are the country’s largest woodland conservation charity. We’ve got over 500k members and own more than 1000 woodland sites, all of which are free of charge for people to visit.
Nowadays, as well as protecting our native woodlands, we also restore ancient woodlands that have been converted to conifer plantation as well as planting new woodlands too. A big part of our work involves campaigning and lobbying to make people aware of issues, help change their attitudes and also fight for additional legislation to protect our woods and forests.
CW: Has the charity achieved everything it set out to do?
MT: Far from it. The UK is still the poor relation compared to its European cousins when it comes to native woodland. We have 12-13% woodland coverage in this country compared to the EU-wide’s 37%, so encouraging people to plant trees is still a big part of our agenda.
We’re creating new woodlands all the time and we also want people to protect the trees we have – whether they’re growing in big cities, within gardens or forming part of a hedgerow.
CW: Has the threat to trees changed over the years since the Woodland Trust began?
MT: Most farmers are aware of the importance of maintaining woodlands and the holistic role trees play in all our lives. However, environmental issues are now one of the biggest problems we face as an entire planet. We work closely with other charities and NGOs such as the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts to protect wildlife in its entirety.
CW: What sort of threats are you talking about?
MT: Climate change, an increase in pests and diseases as well as pollution problems all create a major headache. The increase in international trade in trees and plants has meant that we’ve imported problems into the UK, which are now threatening native species like ash, oak and lesser-known species like juniper. Ash dieback is an example of a disease which came in on imported trees.
That’s why the work of businesses like Certainly Wood is so important.
As well as managing their woodlands sustainably, they only sell British species grown here in the UK. The problem with some of the cheaper firewood sold over here is that it has come unchecked from Europe and has the potential to carry devastating woodland diseases and pests with it.
CW: Why is there a need to manage woodlands? Don’t they do just fine on their own?
MT: When woodlands were vast and widespread and humans had not yet interfered with them, they did alright on their own. Woodland management was a natural process. However, given we have lost so much of our native woodland, we now need to pro-actively manage what’s left to ensure its future success.
Deer, for example, left to forage freely in woodland will eat everything in their path, which means there would be no regeneration. So, we must protect trees from animals like these nowadays.
As I’ve already mentioned, disease is a bigger threat than it used to be. We need to watch for signs of trees that have been infected, and when appropriate, remove them to stop any disease spreading.
We also remove trees to allow increased light to reach the woodland floor to allow a range of species to grow. Likewise, if a wood comprised trees of the same height and size, it wouldn’t support a diversity of wildlife.
CW: If you had just one message to give people about the future of trees, what would it be?
MT: It is hard to overstate the importance of trees and woodland, not just for wildlife, but for the range of things they provide. Obviously, firewood and timber, but also flood protection, clean air, overwintering habitat for pollinating insects, shade and shelter for livestock and people. They also define the character of many landscapes. It is vital that we protect and expand tree and woodland cover in the UK.