News Article | April 5, 2016
Initial findings from the Woodland Creation and Ecological Networks (WrEN) project are published this week in the open access journal Ecology and Evolution and outline how British woodlands can be used as a study system to inform landscape-scale conservation. Dr Kevin Watts from Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission and lead author of the study, explained: "Experimental studies to inform how best to restore landscapes for wildlife conservation are really hard to do due to the large scales of time and distance required but the combination of a long history of woodland planting in the UK, coupled with comprehensive historical mapping, provides an excellent, possibly unique, opportunity to develop such experiments." WrEN is a long-term, large-scale 'natural experiment' created by identifying woodlands which were planted over the past 160 years from historical maps which have only recently become available. This provides a means of testing how past actions have influenced populations of animals and plants we observe today. Dr Elisa Fuentes-Montemayor, a researcher on the project from the University of Stirling, said: "So far we have surveyed over 100 woodlands in Scotland and England for a really wide variety of wildlife including plants, invertebrates, bats, birds and small mammals. "Now we are in the process of identifying what features of the woodland or its surrounding environment are most important – we hope to use this information to guide policy and practice so that we can ensure that when we plant woodlands in the future we are doing so in a way most likely to benefit wildlife." Explore further: Native thugs as bad for woodlands as foreign invaders More information: Kevin Watts et al. Using historical woodland creation to construct a long-term, large-scale natural experiment: the WrEN project, Ecology and Evolution (2016). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2066
News Article | December 26, 2016
Tens of millions of ash trees across Europe are dying from the Hymenoscyphus fraxinea fungus - the most visible signs that a tree is infected with ash dieback fungus are cankers on the bark and dying leaves. Project leader Dr Richard Buggs from QMUL's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences said: "This ash tree genome sequence lays the foundations for accelerated breeding of ash trees with resistance to ash dieback." A small percentage of ash trees in Denmark show some resistance to the fungus and the reference genome is the first step towards identifying the genes that confer this resistance. The ash tree genome also contains some surprises. Up to quarter of its genes are unique to ash. Known as orphan genes, they were not found in ten other plants whose genomes have been sequenced. Dr Buggs added: "Orphan genes present a fascinating evolutionary conundrum as we have no idea how they evolved." This research is published today in the journal Nature. It involved a collaboration between scientists at: QMUL, the Earlham Institute, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, University of York, University of Exeter, University of Warwick, Earth Trust, University of Oxford, Forest Research, Teagasc, John Innes Centre, and National Institute of Agricultural Botany. The reference genome from QMUL was used by scientists at York University who discovered genes that are associated with greater resistance to ash dieback. They have used these to predict the occurrence of more resistant trees in parts of the UK not yet affected by the disease, which is spreading rapidly. The genome sequence will also help efforts to combat the beetle Emerald Ash Borer, which has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America. Ash trees have a huge significance in culture and society - they are one of the most common trees in Britain and over 1,000 species, from wildflowers to butterflies, rely on its ecosystem for shelter or sustenance. Ash timber has been used for years for making tools and sport handles, for example hammers and hockey sticks, and is used often for furniture. The work was funded by NERC, BBSRC, Defra, ESRC, the Forestry Commission, the Scottish Government, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, Teagasc - the Agriculture and Food Development Authority. 'Genome sequence and genetic diversity of European ash trees' by E. Sollars et al is published in the journal Nature on Monday 26 December 2016. For further details, images or to arrange interviews with the author please contact the press office. Could disease 'tolerance' genes give new life to UK ash trees? Researchers at the University of York have identified genetic markers for disease tolerance that suggest UK ash trees may have a fighting chance against a fungal infection, which has the potential to wipe out 90% of the European ash tree population. The disease, called ash dieback, was first identified in Poland, where it devastated the native ash tree population. It rapidly spread across northern Europe, and was discovered in the UK in 2012. Results from the latest study, a collaboration between the University of York and Queen Mary University of London, could contribute to breeding new varieties of ash that are tolerant to the disease. The disease is aggressive, spreads quickly through the population, and has no cure, other than individual natural tolerance to the infection. It is spread on the wind or via the transfer of infected saplings between areas. Symptoms include loss of leaves and lesions, which are a useful way to diagnose fungal ash dieback, as they leave a characteristic diamond shape scar on the bark. Professor Ian Bancroft, plant biologist at the University of York, said: "This disease has spread across Europe in less than 10 years so there is some urgency to understand how we can better support breeding programmes for the species. "Ash trees can be found in home gardens, parks, and roadsides and are an important woodland species that support a number of insects and fungi. It is not known exactly how the loss of this tree species will impact the eco-system, but from past examples, we know that the extinction of any species can fundamentally alter the environment." The York team had previously tested a genetic screening process on Danish trees. Using this data alongside information from the ash tree genome, which was sequenced by researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), they were able to improve the genetic markers for disease tolerance, and use them to predict the tolerance of a sample of trees from across the UK. Early indications suggest that the proportion of UK trees with tolerance to ash dieback is greater than that of the Danish and Polish trees, but it is still unknown whether the UK trees have previously been infected with the disease and built tolerance or whether their genetic tolerance is yet to be tested. Dr Andrea Harper, plant biologist at the University of York, said: "Working with DEFRA, the next stage of this work will be to establish a UK panel suitable for identifying additional, UK-specific, markers for tolerance. This will improve our predictions on individual trees, and provide more information about why some trees are tolerant to the disease. It will also support breeding programmes to develop tolerant varieties of ash." The research, funded by BBSRC and Defra, is published in the journal, Nature. Supportive press release from University of Exeter and University of Warwick: Ash trees which can resist the killer dieback fungus may be more vulnerable to attacks by insects, according to new research. Scientists from the universities of Exeter and Warwick examined trees which are resistant to ash dieback and - unexpectedly - found they had very low levels of chemicals which defend against insects. With efforts under way to protect ash trees from dieback, the scientists warn that selecting trees for fungal resistance could put them at risk from insects. Aside from ash dieback, the other major threat to European ash trees is the Emerald Ash Borer beetle, which has already devastated vast tracts of ash in the USA and is currently spreading westwards across Europe. "Our research highlights the danger of selecting trees for resilience to ash dieback at the expense of resistance to insects that threaten this iconic UK tree species," said joint lead author Dr Christine Sambles, of the University of Exeter. "Ash dieback, which is caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, can kill young trees in a season, while older trees tend to decline and die over several years." The research, published in the journal Nature, is part of a study involving several universities and Government institutes which looked at the DNA of ash trees in the hope of identifying ash dieback resistance. Instead of focussing on DNA, the Exeter and Warwick scientists looked at differences in chemical composition between tolerant and susceptible ash trees. "Plants use a vast range of chemicals to defend against fungal attack, and the primary objective was to identify differences which could be used to screen young ash trees and choose the best ones for replanting," said co-author Professor Murray Grant, Elizabeth Creak Chair in Food Security at the University of Warwick. "Our findings underline the need for further research to ensure that we select ash trees resilient to present and future threats." Co-author Dr David Studholme, of the University of Exeter, added: "These findings highlight Exeter's world-class expertise in high-impact, integrative plant science underpinned by key research infrastructure, such as the Mass Spectrometry facility." Researchers have identified genetic markers for disease tolerance that suggest UK ash trees may have a fighting chance against a fungal infection that has the potential to wipe out 90% of the European ash tree population. The disease, called ash dieback, was first identified in Poland, where it devastated the native ash tree population. It rapidly spread across northern Europe, and was discovered in the UK in 2012. Results from the latest study published in Nature, a UK collaboration between Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), University of York, Earlham Institute (EI), John Innes Centre (JIC), NIAB and the University of Copenhagen, could contribute to breeding new varieties of ash that are tolerant to the disease. Much like Dutch elm disease, ash dieback is aggressive, spreads quickly through the ash tree population, and has no cure, other than individual natural tolerance to the infection. It is spread on the wind or via the transfer of infected saplings between areas. Symptoms include loss of leaves and lesions, which are a useful way to diagnose fungal ash dieback, as they leave a characteristic diamond-shaped scar on the bark. The York team had previously tested a genetic screening process on Danish trees identified by collaborators at the University of Copenhagen as having a range of different levels of disease susceptibility. Using this data alongside information from the ash tree genome, which was sequenced by researchers at QMUL by utilising EI's reference gene models, they were able to improve the genetic markers for disease tolerance, and use them to predict the tolerance of a sample of trees from across the UK. Leading to these research findings, EI (previously 'The Genome Analysis Centre') generated the transcriptome and re-sequencing (together with the Institute's previous analysis of the resistant 'Tree 35' from Denmark released in 2013) data to conduct the bioinformatics analysis of the UK ash tree, in alignment with the Nornex Consortium to combat Ash Dieback, funded by DEFRA and BBSRC. The analysis was carried out on a subset of the tree's genetic regions, with high coverage across the samples. This increased the number of potential markers that could be used to sustain ash tree diversity for breeding programmes. EI also sequenced 37 trees originating from across Europe to investigate genomic diversity in ash. The data were analysed by researchers at QMU, JIC and NIAB finding evidence for apparent long-term decline in effective population size. The EI team generated the most comprehensive annotation of ash genes to date, and this will aid researchers in identifying genetic variants linked to specific traits associated with the killer tree disease. This will help seek out the suspected tolerant genes and support future breeding programmes of ash trees with low susceptibility to the disease. Dr David Swarbreck, Regulatory Genomics Group Leader at EI, said: "Having a more comprehensive annotation of ash genes has improved the identification of markers for ash dieback and will aid future functional studies into this prevalent disease." Professor Mario Caccamo, previously at EI, now Head of Crop Bioinformatics at NIAB, added: "This effort is a great example of team-work across several leading UK research organisations responding to the devastating threat of ash dieback. The identification of markers for tolerance will be a very important tool in the toolbox that complements other ongoing efforts to manage the threat of this disease. We have also generated important genomic resources that will support other studies and offer the foundations for more research into tackling the epidemic." Professor Allan Downie, Emeritus Fellow at JIC and coordinator of the NORNEX programme, commented: "This work represents significant new progress in our understanding of ash dieback disease and the patterns of inheritance of tolerance to this disease. Our success has been built on excellent national and international collaborations. These have brought the strengths of genomics and transcriptomics research in the UK together with the excellent analyses of disease susceptibility done in Denmark, to enhance our research into UK ash trees. This progress has been breath-taking in its speed and as a research coordinator based at JIC; I have been delighted by the spirit of collaboration and determination brought to this project by my Danish and UK collaborators. Early indications suggest that the proportion of UK trees with tolerance to ash dieback is greater than that of the Danish and Polish trees, but it is still unknown whether the UK trees have previously been infected with the disease and built tolerance or whether this is due to their genetic tolerance, is yet to be tested. The study, "Genome sequence and genetic diversity of European ash trees" is published in the journal, Nature. A team of scientists have successfully decoded the genetic sequence of the ash tree, to help the fight against the fungal disease, ash dieback. In a paper published by the journal Nature today, a team of researchers led by Richard Buggs, who heads up plant health research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, assembled a reference genome and analysed the diversity of ash trees throughout Europe. Their collaborators have used this resource to identify genes that may be associated with low susceptibility to ash dieback. They used these to predict the effect that ash dieback will have on ash trees all over Britain. The genome sequence will also help efforts to combat the beetle Emerald Ash Borer, which has already killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America. Project Leader Dr Richard Buggs, Senior Research Leader (Plant Health) at RBG Kew who conducted the work at Queen Mary University of London's (QMUL) School of Biological and Chemical Sciences said: "This is the first time a plant genome has been rapidly sequenced in response to an emerging disease threat, leading to an assessment of the susceptibility of as yet uninfected populations. Kew is continuing to work with the latest genomic technologies to increase the armoury of methods that can be deployed against plant pests and pathogens." There are 520 specimens of the Ash tree at Kew and its Sussex site, Wakehurst (227 of these are at Kew). At Kew's Millennium Seed bank scientists are also involved in gathering seed of different ash populations around Britain to help inform broader efforts to control disease spread and drive plant health policy.
Devoto M.,University of Bristol |
Bailey S.,Forestry Commission |
Craze P.,University of Bristol |
Memmott J.,University of Bristol
Ecology Letters | Year: 2012
Theory developed from studying changes in the structure and function of communities during natural or managed succession can guide the restoration of particular communities. We constructed 30 quantitative plant-flower visitor networks along a managed successional gradient to identify the main drivers of change in network structure. We then applied two alternative restoration strategies in silico (restoring for functional complementarity or redundancy) to data from our early successional plots to examine whether different strategies affected the restoration trajectories. Changes in network structure were explained by a combination of age, tree density and variation in tree diameter, even when variance explained by undergrowth structure was accounted for first. A combination of field data, a network approach and numerical simulations helped to identify which species should be given restoration priority in the context of different restoration targets. This combined approach provides a powerful tool for directing management decisions, particularly when management seeks to restore or conserve ecosystem function. © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/CNRS.
News Article | November 10, 2016
Much Of The Southeast U.S. Is Grappling With Drought Large parts of the Southeast are grappling with severe drought. In some parts of Alabama, there hasn't been any rain in nearly six weeks. Some farmers are selling off cattle because there's not enough hay to feed them over the winter. Denise Croker, a chief ranger with the Georgia Forestry Commission, told the Insurance Journal, "our dirt is like talcum powder." The latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, released Thursday, shows parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi under "exceptional drought" conditions. An even larger swath of the country — from eastern Texas through parts of Arkansas, Louisiana and up to Kentucky — is experiencing less serious, but still severe, drought that threatens crops and has led to water shortages. Nearly 40 percent of the Southeast is under moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the most recent analysis by the Southeast Regional Climate Center. Jordan McLeod, a regional climatologist at the Southeast Regional Climate Center, told the Los Angeles Times that the Southeastern drought first developed in the spring and "really began to intensify during the summer." The Times reports that the reason for the drought is essentially bad weather luck, because recent storms have skipped the driest areas: The hardest-hit parts of the Southeast, mostly in Georgia and Alabama, are dealing with dryness comparable to the ongoing, catastrophic drought in California. The new report classifies conditions in both parts of the country as long-term droughts, meaning they have been going on six months or more. In the Southeast, the lack of water also has intensified a decades-long fight between Georgia and Florida over water rights. The main issue is that Florida thinks Georgia — and especially Atlanta — uses too much water from the Chattahoochee River, as Molly Samuel of member station WABE reported this fall. An October report by the Southeast Regional Climate Center said Lake Lanier, "a major reservoir for Atlanta's water supply, [was] about 8 feet below its summer pool level." It also recorded at least 1,000 wildfires in Alabama since late September. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has issued a drought declaration for every county in the state, and the northern half of the state is under a drought emergency, which allows local officials to restrict water use. As of Monday, all of Alabama was under a "no burn" order that bars all outdoor burning, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission. So far, the Georgia's Department of Natural Resources has not gone as far. In September, officials began what they called a "level 1 drought response," which consisted of a public information campaign in 53 counties. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters last week that he would impose water-use restrictions in some parts of the state "very soon," according to member station WABE. Deal didn't say when the new restrictions would take effect. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated the Georgia counties of Putnam, Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Jones and Morgan as disaster areas due to farmer and rancher losses from the drought. The designation means some farmers in those counties are eligible for "low interest emergency loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA)." The FSA says farmers in those seven counties have eight months, beginning from the Sept. 21 date of the disaster declaration, to apply for loans to help cover losses.
News Article | November 1, 2016
A fatal explosion has shut down a pipeline supplying gasoline to millions of people across the Southeast — the second accident and shutdown in two months — raising the specter of another round of gas shortages and price increases. It happened when a dirt-moving track hoe struck the pipeline, ignited gasoline and sparked a blast Monday, killing one worker and injuring five others, Colonial Pipeline said. Flames and thick black smoke continued to soar on Tuesday, and firefighters built an earthen berm to contain the burning fuel. The explosion happened not far from where a pipeline sprung a leak and spilled 252,000 to 336,000 gallons of gasoline in September. After the leak, the company was able to use one of its two main lines to move fuel through as it made repairs, but it still led to days of dry pumps and higher gas prices in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas while repairs were made. Fuel shortages in the Southeast could be more severe this time if both of Colonial Pipeline's main lines remain shut down, as they were Tuesday, for several days, experts say. Together the two pipelines carry more than 2 million barrels of fuel a day. "Both lines are down, no gasoline is moving down the line. Nothing is going through," said Tamra Johnson, a spokeswoman for AAA. "So we can actually start seeing some supply outages in the coming days if they don't put a plan in place." If the pipeline's two main lines remain closed, motorists could begin seeing prices rise at the pumps within about a week, Johnson said. After the explosion, gasoline futures rocketed almost 8 percent higher on the New York Mercantile exchange, to $1.53 per gallon. "In a worst-case scenario we could be talking about more severe outages than what we saw back in September. It's very worrisome that both pipelines are shut down right now," said Patrick DeHaan, an analyst with price-tracking service GasBuddy.com. The severity of the situation will depend on how long the pipeline remains closed — whether it's a few days or a few weeks, AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said. The cause of the September leak still has not been determined. Colonial Pipeline, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, operates 5,599 miles of pipelines, transporting gasoline, jet fuel, home heating oil and other hazardous liquids daily in 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to company filings. Plagued by a severe drought after weeks without rain, the section of Alabama where the explosion happened has been scarred by multiple wildfires in recent weeks, and crews worked to keep the blaze from spreading. Coleen Vansant, a spokeswoman with the Alabama Forestry Commission, said crews built a 75-foot-long earthen dam to contain burning fuel. The Shelby County Sheriff's Office said the blaze had been contained but it was unclear how long the fire may take to burn out. Two wildfires caused by the explosion burned 31 acres of land, Vansant said. "We'll just hope and pray for the best," Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement. Houses around the blast scene were evacuated, and sheriff's Capt. Jeff Hartley said it wasn't clear when people might be able to return home. Eight or nine subcontractors were working on the pipeline when it exploded about 3 p.m. Monday, sheriff's Maj. Ken Burchfield told Al.com. The conditions of those hurt weren't immediately known. "Colonial's top priorities are the health and safety of the work crew on site and protection of the public," the company said in a brief statement.
News Article | November 14, 2016
'The Worst I've Ever Seen'; Fires Sweep Through Southeastern U.S. "No one can remember a wildfire as peculiar as the monster gnawing through the gorge above the village of Chimney Rock," began an article Monday in the Charlotte Observer. The blaze in question is one of dozens of partially contained wildfires, some of them suspected cases of arson, burning across the Southeast. In Alabama alone, there are currently 20 fires burning, and more than 1,500 blazes have burned there since October 1, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission. People are being evacuated in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, including in and around Chimney Rock, N.C., where the erratic fire described in the Observer has enveloped some 3,000 acres since Saturday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. As of Monday afternoon, that blaze was only 15 percent contained. "This fire has the characteristics of western fires, of California fires," Richard Barnwell, the 74-year-old fire chief for the town of Bat Cave, N.C., told the Observer. "This is the worst I've ever seen." Even the mountain coyotes are spooked. "We've had sightings of them from several people," Carrie Harmon of the N.C. Forest Service told the paper. Like many fires in the region, the cause of the Bat Cave/Chimney Rock blaze is still under investigation. Just over the state line in northern Georgia, authorities think someone started a 4,000-acre fire, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Starting fires is banned in the entire Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, where this fire is burning. In northeast Georgia, the Rabun County Sheriff's Office said on Facebook that it was was looking for "a dark blue SUV driven by a person of interest" in connection with fires that forced parts of that county to be evacuated. In Tennessee, police arrested a man suspected of setting fires in the eastern part of the state. Andrew Scott Lewis is charged with three counts of setting fire to personal property or land and "vandalism over $250,000," according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. On Friday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley announced the state would pay a $5,000 reward to anyone with information about who set the fires burning in that state. In a statement, Bentley reminded residents that a severe, months-long drought increased the risk of fires, and posed "a real danger to Alabama wildland and property." As we have reported, nearly 40 percent of the Southeast is suffering moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the most recent analysis by the Southeast Regional Climate Center.
News Article | October 28, 2016
More than 100 of the biggest Christmas trees in Britain which will adorn town centres across the country have been plucked from a forest – by helicopter. The 131 Norway spruces picked from Kielder Forest in Northumberland were felled by chainsaw before being fitted with a harness to be airlifted. They will then be delivered individually by low-loader to their final destinations. The trees – some 50ft tall – require special transport due to the remoteness of their location in Kielder Forest, which is the largest man-made wood in England. Frances Fleming, marketing manager at Elveden Farms which operates the site, said: “They’re in a remote location with very craggy hillsides. “The terrain underneath is quite bad for vehicles to get into. We can’t get vehicles in there. “The easiest way is to get a helicopter. The men then come in and harness the trees. “The helicopter takes them to a landing point and they get wrapped with rope to make sure the branches are protected. “They are loaded from there onto a low loader and taken to individual cities.” The average weight of this year’s harvested trees is 1.9 tonnes and several are 50 ft tall. They will be part of festive displays in London, Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as several other towns and cities in the UK. All of the conifers have been harvested as part of an ongoing forestry management scheme carried out in partnership between Elveden Farms and the Forestry Commission. And once Christmas is over, the trees will be recycled. Frances added: “They are recycled for mulch or wood chips.” Last year, Christmas trees which decorated London Zoo were later given to the tigers to play with as part of the Zoological Society of London’s enrichment programme. This programme tries to encourage natural behaviour in animals in captivity by focusing on their well-being. Elveden Farms is the leading supplier of display Christmas trees, delivering more than 900 to town and city centres each year. They have forestry sites across Scotland and England, including Elveden Estate in Suffolk and Kielder Forest, and their tree harvesting team take full responsibility for the majority of installations. This starts from selecting the perfect tree, to harvesting it and delivering it to the site, then decorating and lighting it before taking it away for recycling.
News Article | December 6, 2016
Every year Brazil, Congo and other developing countries are lambasted by environmentalists and western politicians for deforestation at a time when trees are needed to counter climate change and prevent flooding. Now two prestigious organisations are warning that England may have tipped into deforestation, with more trees being cut down than planted for the first time in possibly 40 years. “We are only planting 700 hectares (1,730 acres) a year, almost certainly less than we are felling,” said Austin Brady, the conservation director of the Woodland Trust charity which, with commercial forestry groups, wants government to pledge to meet its planting targets at a parliamentary debate on Wednesday. “Seven hundred hectares is well below the government and Forestry Commission aim of [planting] 5,000 hectares a year. In comparison, 2,400 hectares was planted in 2014-2015, but planting in England has been consistently low, at under 5,000 hectares a year since 2006,” he said. England is already one of Europe’s least wooded countries. “We think we are losing trees faster than we are planting them. It is difficult to say exactly because the government does not hold records of all trees felled. But technically, we may be in a state of deforestation. “What is worrying is we have been planting mainly conifers and cutting down our native and ancient woodland. At a time when we are losing trees to tree diseases we are storing up ecological problems,” said Brady. Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, the trade association for the UK forestry industry, said planting was at its lowest level in England in more than 40 years. “Forests are being lost to development and infrastructure; we are cutting a lot and planting so few, so it may be that England is technically deforesting,” said Goodall. The steep decline in tree planting means the government is almost certain to miss its manifesto commitment to plant 11m trees in the UK in the lifetime of this parliament, he said. “Only 1.35 million trees were planted in England in the 18-month period from April 2015 to September 2016. At this rate the 11 million tree target will not be hit until summer 2027, more than seven years late. “The 11 million target is neither ambitious nor linked to any policy objectives. It is simply a carry-forward from the number of trees planted by the 2010-2015 government. We should be planting many, many more than 11 million trees in the lifetime of this parliament,” said Goodall. Tree cover in England stands at about 10%, lower than the UK average of 13% per cent and well below the EU average of 38%. In response, the UK government said woodland cover was at its highest level in more than 600 years. “Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century and, although planting rates vary from year to year, we are committed to planting another 11 million trees over the course of this Parliament,” a spokesperson said. But the Woodland Trust questioned the government statistics. “The 14th-century figure is a complete red herring. In England we have lost half of our irreplaceable ancient woodland since 1930, and many more were planted with non-natives to ‘commercialise’ them,” said Brady. “The big growth in woodland area more recently was the result of large-scale non-native plantations on marginal land in the first two thirds of the 20th century – whilst all the time our ancient woods are inexorably chipped away by development and infrastructure.” The Woodland Trust, Confor and large commercial forestry groups will, through MPs debating forestry in parliament on Wednesday, call on the government to commit to planting 7,000 hectares of woodland every year until 2020 and then to increase planting to 10,000 hectares a year. This would mean planting around 15-20m trees per year. The groups point out that while England is barely planting new trees, Scotland is planting 16m trees a year and aims to reach 22m a year from 2017. Britain is only about 20% sufficient in wood, importing millions of tonnes a year from the US, Canada and Europe.
News Article | November 14, 2016
The largest ever survey of footpaths in England and Wales has found that almost half are in need of improvement, with a tenth of the 140,000-mile network in serious disrepair. For anyone, like me, who considers a decent yomp a staple of any good weekend, those results won’t seem in the least bit surprising. Of the 59,000 problems reported by the 3,250 citizen surveyors who took part in the Ramblers’ Big Pathwatch, a third were for missing signposts that can quickly turn a pleasant country stroll into an epic trudge as the detours mount up. But most were for obstructions, like barbed wire and collapsed bridges, or footpaths made impassable by flooding and overgrowth that would likely force you to abandon your walk altogether. My most recent walk in the otherwise glorious Shropshire Hills suffered from many of the same symptoms. Field upon field of free-roaming and frisky young bulls initially tested the nerves of me and my companion as we followed the Shropshire Way. As a nationally recognised long-distance trail through numerous National Trust, SSSI and Forestry Commission beauty spots, the route was handsomely signed and maintained throughout. But as soon as we left it to continue our journey along more minor footpaths, we quickly found ourselves in unsigned territory, negotiating dangerously dilapidated stiles and wading through chest-high crops and brambles along barely there trails. In the end, we were forced out of the fields and traipsed the last few miles along dangerous B-roads instead. This pattern of feast and famine for walkers is something the Ramblers’ survey picks up on across England and Wales. Areas of land with high levels of active custodianship, such as national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, predictably had the footpaths with the least problems. And the government-funded National Trails scored particularly highly. But it’s the thousands of miles of small but essential footpaths administered by local authorities, which link the whole rights of way network together, that are the poor relations and suffering the most. And the explanation isn’t too hard to find. For many austerity-hit councils, rights of way budgets were the first to go, with a fifth of staff employed to maintain footpaths cut in the last six years. So it’s not surprising that a rural county as big as Cornwall (like Shropshire) finds itself with a thriving South West Coast Path national trail worth £436m a year in tourism, that’s connected to an ailing local path network with the highest reported instances of blockages. And this disparity is, ironically, only likely to get worse because of the boom in popularity of challenge walking and an increasing demand for prestige routes, like the Three Peaks. I think it’s fantastic that after years of being gently derided for my love of Gore-Tex and OS maps, thousands of people are now discovering the joys of hillwalking for themselves (often while also raising money for charity). But getting up Snowdon at any time of the year can now be a bit of a bunfight, and it’s getting similarly busy on many of our 15 National Trails. Indeed, the Wales Coast Path, which opened in 2012 as the first complete round-country walk in the world, has proved so popular that the government has committed to completing the England Coast Path by 2020, reversing earlier threats to abandon the costly scheme. While it’s exciting to see such landmark new footpaths and the landscapes they pass through opened up to walkers, with the welcome boost in tourism that they’ll no doubt bring, I just hope they don’t come at the expense of the local network that provides such a vital amenity for everyday walking. With the UK’s burgeoning obesity and mental health problems, we need there to be as few obstacles as possible to people enjoying the benefits of a good walk in the outdoors.
News Article | August 6, 2016
Twenty-five years ago, the Midlands villages of Moira, Donisthorpe and Overseal overlooked a gruesome landscape. The communities were surrounded by opencast mines, old clay quarries, spoil heaps, derelict coal workings, polluted waterways and all the other ecological wreckage of heavy industry. The air smelt and tasted unpleasant and the land was poisoned. There were next to no trees, not many jobs and little wildlife. Following the closure of the pits, people were deserting the area for Midlands cities such as Birmingham, Derby and Leicester. The future looked bleak. Today, a pastoral renaissance is taking place. Around dozens of former mining and industrial communities, in what was the broken heart of the old Midlands coalfield, a vast, splendid forest of native oak, ash and birch trees is emerging, attracting cyclists, walkers, birdwatchers, canoeists, campers and horse-riders. Britain’s trees have come under increasing attack from exotic diseases, and the grants for planting woodland are drying up, so the 200 sq miles of the National Forest come as a welcome good news story. The new woodland in the Midlands is proving that large-scale tree planting is not just good value for money, but can also have immense social, economic and ecological benefits. In this one corner of the Midlands, more than 8.5m trees have been planted in 25 years, hundreds of miles of footpath have been created and 500 abandoned industrial sites have been transformed. The landscape and ecology of semi-derelict Britain has been revived and rewilded with trees. “I came here from Staffordshire 62 years ago,” says Graham Knight, a former coalface engineer who lives near Moira and now works for a retraining charity. “It was clay pits, quarries, coal mines, chimneys, sewer pipes, and kilns then. It was very unhealthy, pretty grim. It was a hard life and it toughened people up. The area went into steep decline when the industry closed and almost everything disappeared. It has changed from a wasteland to an environment that we envied. “People love trees. They like to see forests and woods. In those days you would go to a place like this for holidays. People are moving in and communities are growing.” Many of the young trees in the National Forest are little more than whips because hundreds of hectares are being planted every year as more derelict sites are taken over. But the trees that were dug in 25 years ago now stand 30ft tall and need to be thinned. Along with the maturing trees have come buzzards and red kites, skylarks, butterflies, otters, bats and owls. As the trees continue to grow, insects, small mammals and flora will come too, says John Everitt, director of the not-for-profit National Forest company, which has taken over many of the area’s old industrial workings and also advises landowners and farmers about switching from low-grade farmland to forest and woodland. “This is one of the largest landscape transformations in the United Kingdom, the first major forest to have been planted in England for 1,000 years. We have taken a black hole and given it a new lease of life; given people a new landscape they can identify with. We can say that air pollution is better, the rivers are cleaner, the water is being retained better and soil is being better conserved. “We are a typical piece of Middle England,” he adds. “This is not closed canopy, wall-to-wall forest, but forest in the medieval sense with a mosaic of habitats, of trees, open grassland, pastures, and communities. We are roughly half way there. We have planted about 8.5m trees and we expect to plant 16-17m.” The idea of recreating a new national forest was born in the old Countryside Commission in the late 1980s and was backed first by Tory politicians such as Michael Heseltine and John Gummer and then by Labour ministers, including Michael Meacher, says the National Forest’s director of operations, Simon Evans. “The first trees were planted in 1991 when the ambition was for 33% of the 200 sq miles to be forested from a starting point of 6- 7%. The idea was to take an area that had very few trees and bring it up to the level of somewhere like Surrey. There were remnants of ancient forest but at the core there were no trees at all,” he says. This pioneering regeneration experiment has had a low profile and has gone largely unnoticed by environment groups, possibly because it has cost so little and, for many years while the trees were so small, there was very little to see. Only £60m of public money has been spent in the first 25 years and most of that has come from European Union farm subsidies which would have gone to landowners anyway. Everitt says: “£60m is the equivalent of just two miles of three-lane motorway, or one mile of HS2 [rail link]. It is peanuts, incredible value for money.” He argues that the forest has already attracted nearly £1bn of inward investment, created many hundreds of jobs, stimulated house prices in the area and led directly to hundreds of new tourism, leisure and wood-based businesses starting up. “It is one of the very few long-term projects for which a government had a vision and that successive ones have followed through and supported. It’s very hard to argue against it. Why would you not do this? It has cost just £2.5m a year and brings in so many benefits in health and economics. It shows that the principle of using the environment and trees to regenerate a place and stimulate growth can work anywhere.” Conservationists and regeneration experts now claim that the National Forest is absolute proof that tree planting on a large scale can increase wealth, change the identity of a place and pay for itself hundreds of times over. A second major new forest has now been proposed for elsewhere in Britain, possibly south Wales or a rural area of northern England. “People understand the economic and aesthetic benefits of trees,” says Everitt. “They are very popular. They can be a backcloth to many other activities. People prefer a wooded landscape. I do not understand why the idea is not used more. I think politicians may not be environmentally literate. “There was an active demand by local people for the forest to come here. It did not need to be imposed on people, but it took some time before the farmers embraced the idea fully,” he says. “All the surveys done in the past 20 years suggest that the transformation of the landscape has been popular, giving communities a new sense of place and identity.” The challenge is to ensure that the flourishing of the National Forest is not an isolated success. Elsewhere, Britain’s tree planting is grinding to a halt. Figures last month from the Forestry Commission showed that only 700 hectares of new woodland was planted last year, instead of a goal of 5,000. Woodland areas damaged by storms and other extreme weather are not being replaced and ancient woodland is under threat from infrastructure projects such as the high-speed train line HS2 and airport expansions. Grant schemes have been cut and those that still exist are said to be confusing, and hard to access. “We have to present tree planting as a solution; people have to understand that it is a good thing to plant trees,” says Andrew Heald, technical director of forest industry body ConFor (Confederation of Forest Industries). Government committed last year to the planting of 11m trees by 2020, but Britain is likely to remain near the bottom of the European league table for tree cover, with around 13%. In addition, Britain’s forests are threatened with devastation by tree diseases. Recent academic analysis has warned that all the ash trees in the UK and across Europe are likely to be wiped out by a “double whammy” of a bright green borer beetle and the fungus that causes ash dieback. “Between ash dieback and the emerald ash borer, it is likely that almost all ash trees in Europe will be wiped out, just as the elm was largely eliminated by Dutch elm disease,” said Peter Thomas, a tree ecologist at Keele University whose analysis was published in March’s Journal of Ecology. The same problems face the National Forest, says Everitt. “There are grants available for tree planting, but they are not that attractive now. Good woodland schemes are not available now. “But the National Forest is protected because it has so many species. Last year, we had our cases of dieback and it is now spreading quite rapidly; 15-20% of the trees that have been planted are probably ash. Many of them will be replaced naturally. But there may not be huge die-off here because we are thinning around 20% of the trees. We must understand that this forest is not just about its trees. Trees are important, of course, but they are the setting for everything else.”