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Forest Diary - November

Celebrating trees - National Tree Week

by Mike Pittock, Operations Manager – Forest Management at the Forestry Commission

 There are so many great reasons why we should celebrate National Tree Week, which was first set up in 1975 to launch the start of the winter planting season.

We’re increasingly recognising the wider value of trees and woods for our health and wellbeing. Research shows that natural places and spaces contribute to, and improve people’s health and happiness. Trees also have a critical role to play in reducing the amount of silt entering streams and rivers therefore improving water quality. And then of course, there’s the fact that rainfall falling on woodland enters streams and rivers more slowly, thereby reducing the chances of flooding. These multiple benefits all mean that well-sited, well-designed and appropriately managed woodlands are very important, and certainly worth celebrating.

Each year, National Tree Week inspires around a quarter of a million people to get their hands dirty and plant up to one million trees. And this year’s no exception, me and my team are already busy organising the planting of thousands of new trees across the New Forest.

In total, this year alone, we’ve ordered more than 149,000 trees for the whole South District forest area that I help to manage; 9,600 of these are broadleaf trees for the New Forest, all of which are being planted between now and March 2017.

The new trees are being planted according to our ‘Forest Design Plans’ which are regularly consulted upon by local parish councils and representatives from local associations. The Plans set out which woodland inclosures should be re-stocked with young trees, after having been previously harvested for sustainable timber.

As with past years, we are planting a wide variety of trees as part of our work. This is to respond to climate change and also to maintain the ‘mosaic’ effect, which our local wildlife depends upon to thrive. A complex woodland structure that includes a ground layer, shrub layer, trees of various ages and species, with an overarching tree canopy is the ideal habitat for a range of native plants and animals.

Soil type across the New Forest also determines what will grow best and where, and this is reflected in our Design Plans for the area. We are planning to plant 5,800 oak trees, 900 hornbeam, 500 wild cherry trees, plus other broadleaf trees. Although intensive and tiring work, planting is an immensely satisfying job, as we symbolically ‘breath new life’ into our forests, ensuring that they are here for the next generation to enjoy.

Historically wood provided our building material and fuel which resulted in woodlands being intensively managed. The diversity of habitats created by felling and replanting allowed many of our native plants and animals to thrive.

Since the Industrial Revolution our use of locally sourced woodland produce has declined, leading to less woodland management and loss of habitats. Our role at the Forestry Commission is to address this, and seek a balance between the needs of people, nature and economy, both in the woods directly in our care and in those owned and managed by others (through advice, grants and regulation).

When it comes to managing our woodlands it’s a long-term process, and there’s a small team of skilled and experienced foresters working across our region, 365 days a year to ensure that we can protect this valuable and precious resource, and get the most from it, now and in the future.

We appreciate and understand the wide-range of benefits that trees and woods can deliver. Today’s foresters have to consider ‘sustainability’ and ‘balance’ - the goal is to deliver the greatest range of benefits in the most cost effective manner.

 So what of the future for our trees and woods?

 It is very clear that our woods will need to be more resilient to the impacts of stormier weather, droughts and a generally warmer climate. These weather conditions could result in a range of pests and diseases, which have not been present or common in England before. Diversity of species, age and management is therefore critical in order to improve resilience.

 Far from tampering with nature, our active woodland management is in fact protecting it and ensuring the local landscapes we know and love are there for many years to come.

All across the country people will be out enjoying their local woodlands this week and I’d encourage you to visit our fantastic woods here in the New Forest and join us in celebrating National Tree Week.

Further information about National Tree Week can be found here: www.treecouncil.org.uk/Take-Part/National-Tree-Week 

Leaf your troubles behind

By Esta Mion, Communications Manager at the Forestry Commission

 One of the best things about this time of year is putting on my favourite pair of boots and crunching through the leaves in the forest, and enjoying the spectacular shades of autumn. But have you ever wondered why do green leaves turn to red or orange, and how do the trees know when summer is over? Forestry Commission experts are here to break down the science for you below.

Leaf science isn’t as confusing as all the long words and technical terms make it sound. It all comes down to the fact that different chemical pigments in leaves determine the colors we see.

When there’s more of one particular pigment, leaves will appear certain colours. When one pigment is reduced and others are found in greater quantities, other colours become more visible.

During spring and summer, chlorophyll helps plants with the process of photosynthesis. This essentially turns carbon dioxide, water and the light from the sun into sugars for the tree. The green from chlorophyll masks other colours during the warmer, sunnier months. Then, as nights start to grow longer and less sunlight is available, this change signals to trees that autumn is on the way. The production of chlorophyll slows and then stops completely. This is the point where the golden hues of autumn finally become visible. 

A group of chemicals called carotenoids are always found in leaves, as they help to protect plants from damage from too much sunlight. Once the dominant green of chlorophyll is reduced, their colours become much bolder.

Xanthophyll, a type of carotenoid, is responsible for the yellow colours we see in plants as it continues in the leaves even when the chlorophyll has disappeared. This yellow pigment can be seen is a variety of trees including beeches, birches and ashes.

Golden orange hues also come from carotenoids. These pigments start disappearing at the same time as chlorophyll does, but at a much slower rate, so their colours last well into autumn. One of the best trees to see the carotene in action is sweet chestnut. Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid and is responsible for giving plants and many edible goodies their orange colouring. You can find it in foods such as sweet potato, carrots and apricots.

While all trees have chlorophyll and carotenoids, not all produce anthocyanin, the pigment that causes leaves to turn red. Anthocyanin is only found during part of a tree’s growing season, and is produced from sugars that are trapped in leaves as the tree prepares to shed them.

You’re more likely to see brighter reds in a year where spring and summer have been warmer, drier and sunny. This year’s summer has seen above-average levels of sunshine, which means this autumn is extra colourful!

So, now that you know why autumn produces such wonderful colours, now is the perfect time to get out and see them for yourself. There are so many places to experience autumn’s golden hues here in the New Forest, so what are you waiting for!

Leaves can be so much fun - to give you a bit of inspiration we’ve put together free activity sheets for children, so that you can experience the spectacular sights and sounds of autumn with the whole family. Find out how to go on a hunt for leaves in the forest or make your own leaf decoration, for more details visit:

www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-9alhfp

Talented little creatures of the New Forest

By Jay Doyle, Ecologist for the Forestry Commission

Principal actors often take all the limelight, but spare a thought for the supporting cast – in nature it’s the same, little bugs rarely get any attention. But it’s really important to give these talented little characters some well overdue recognition.

There is a strong supporting cast of about a million different species of insects known to us – and experts believe that around 10 times that number has not yet been scientifically described. This illustrates the contribution that insects and other invertebrates make to the structure and function of all ecosystems on Earth.

You might only notice an insect when it’s seen as a pest – slugs, aphids or caterpillars can cause damage on plant leaves in gardens, but these relatively few damaging species are only a tiny minority of the invertebrates that make such an important contribution to biodiversity. The feeding activities of most invertebrates go unnoticed, but are vital to the overall web of life.

These other invertebrates may feed on tiny bacteria, grains of pollen or fungi. Many are miniature predators, eating other invertebrates and even small vertebrates. Other species are decomposers, feeding on dead wood and leaf litter, carcasses of larger animals, or the soil. As a result of all these activities, flowers are pollinated, the number of pests reduced, vegetation broken down, the soil aerated, and nutrients recycled back to the roots of plants. Despite the fact that insects will never be cast in the lead role, they are very important to the main characters – as they are the main food sources for many birds and mammals.

Even in an average sized garden you’ll find a staggering number of invertebrates, among the more familiar of which are beetles, spiders, ants, true bugs (such as aphids), butterflies and moths, flies, wasps, centipedes, woodlice and earthworms.

Faced with this abundance, maintaining a proper balance here in the New Forest requires a better understanding and assessment of the numbers of rare and protected species.

That’s why I recently commissioned repeat surveys of some of the rarest invertebrates that live in the New Forest, to see how they are getting on.

One recent survey looked at the much misunderstood medicinal leech, which was previously found in just four ponds in the New Forest and is at risk nationally. With three jaws each containing 100 sharp teeth and the ability to consume up to 10 times their body weight in blood, it is easy to see how the medicinal leech has earned its spine-chilling reputation. But life for the leech isn’t easy, and a new survey of these leeches in the New Forest has shown their continued vulnerability, with numbers improving in two of the ponds, but down at a third pond with none at all found in the fourth pond.

The report was carried out as part of the New Forest Higher Level Stewardship scheme by an independent expert specialising in freshwater ecology. The New Forest HLS Scheme is a 10-year agreement with Natural England that is held by the Verderers of the New Forest. The scheme is managed by them in partnership with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.

The medicinal leech has been in decline across the whole of the UK for many years, with a number of populations lost altogether. In fact, it has been declared extinct in this country twice in the 20th century but has subsequently been rediscovered. Current estimates suggest there are 20 isolated populations remaining in the UK, mainly in the New Forest, Dungeness, south Wales and the Lake District and South Wales.

With so few of these leeches left in the New Forest and a decline across the country as a whole, work to increase their numbers is vital. So plans may be considered to reintroduce medicinal leeches to selected ponds in the New Forest to safeguard the future of the species. The need to make populations of rare invertebrates such as the medicinal leech more resilient is ever more important in light of predicted climate change which may lead to an increase in drought events across the South.

So we’ll keep you posted and let you know how the little guys are being looked after. For more information about wildlife and conservation in the New Forest visit: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-6a5kw3 

 

Last updated: 2nd December 2016

England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.