The pantomime season is approaching fast, and seemingly kicked off with this piece on the BBC’s Countryfile programme last Sunday, in which Tom Heap explored the intriguing question of “why burning trees is better for the environment than many think”.
Subsequent media coverage has quoted the support of a number of conservation bodies, including ourselves, for the Forestry Commission’s desire to harvest two million tonnes of woodfuel a year from the UK’s “undermanaged” woods. Our supporters would rightly question why a woodland conservation charity like the Woodland Trust would wish to see trees felled and burned to produce heat.
The Trust believes that woodfuel can be part of the answer to our renewable energy needs, so long as it’s produced in a sustainable way and in particular so long as its production doesn’t damage biodiversity. Sensitively harvested, locally produced woodfuel can help avoid fossil fuel emissions and provide habitat for wildlife.
We also think that demand for woodfuel could be one of the drivers in encouraging new native woodland planting, which would bring with it a whole host of other benefits from improving air and water quality, locking up carbon and helping woodland wildlife adapt to climate change.
The Forestry Commission, in its woodfuel strategy for England, is keen that woodfuel should come from what it describes as currently “unmanaged” woods. We’re happy with that, so long as management is carried out in a sustainable way consistent with wildlife conservation.
In some cases such an approach could actually bring biodiversity improvements, for example when it means restoring ancient woodland or other semi-natural habitats planted with conifers, or restoring coppice management in woods where there are important species dependant on it. That’s why we supported the position statement, drawn up by Wildlife and Countryside Link, that was referred to in the Countryfile programme.
Rest assured, though, that the Woodland Trust will not, as implied in some of the recent media coverage, be seeking to fell two million tonnes of timber from its own woods for woodfuel. In our sites, the conservation needs of the wood are considered first: any timber or firewood produced are merely a consequence of essential conservation management work. Felled trees and branches are often left on site, as deadwood provides invaluable insect habitat as it decays.
So here’s the deal. We are a woodland conservation charity and as such our central aim is the conservation of woodland. We’re not gung-ho about chopping down trees but in these more complex times we fully acknowledge the urgent need to address the drivers of climate change. A big part of the solution is to wean ourselves off fossil fuel and for some woodfuel provides a great alternative. However, management of woods for fuel must sensitively and sustainably carried out and not come at the expense of all the other wonderful things that trees and woods do for us.
In fact, we’d like to go further. We would welcome more emphasis on the creation of new native woodland as part of the development of a domestic woodfuel market. Properly sited and managed native coppice woodland can deliver both sustainable low carbon fuel and wildlife benefits. Meeting the UK Government’s woodland creation “aspirations”, not to mention our own desire to see native woodland cover doubled, will require impetus from a diversity of sources. Low carbon woodfuel has a part to play in both driving woodland creation and moving our society towards a less damaging source of energy.
So on with the pantomime season. If woodfuel is the golden egg, we better look after the goose really well.