The Ministry of Defence (MOD) training estate comprises around 200,000 hectares of some of the most valuable habitats and landscapes in Great Britain. Through its National Training Estate Prime Contract (NTEP), Landmarc Support Services (Landmarc), the international provider of integrated training and sustainable infrastructure solutions, is responsible for managing and maintaining this land.
It includes over 40,000 hectares of National Park land, 70,000 hectares of nature conservation sites, 20,000 hectares of woodland, 21 million trees, 1,600 hectares of wetlands and 3,500 kilometers of tracks. Not to mention 782 Scheduled Ancient Monuments and some 111 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
The land is used by the military to carry out a wide range of manoeuvres to prepare troops for operations worldwide. However it is also used by tenant farmers and graziers, the general public, who take advantage of recreational opportunities on the estate, and third party users as diverse as film crews and rally drivers.
These woodlands, forests and trees are in some of the UK’s most sensitive landscapes, so it’s important that the right skills are in place to manage these assets and environments properly.
A dedicated rural team undertakes all aspects of tree management, from establishing new woodland through to sustainable harvesting and restocking. Arboriculture specialists are also on hand to ensure tree health is maintained.
Since 1970, over 100 new mixed woodlands have been planted over 170 acres to provide military cover and farm shelter. The coniferous woods across the ranges are also important training features, so a 20 year felling and restocking programme is currently being executed.
Sustainable woodland management also extends to an innovative forestry harvesting and marketing initiative where commercial harvesting of woodland is carried out on a gainshare basis, with a significant proportion being reinvested back into the estate on projects such as new woodland planting.
Felling for the future
From the end of the last Ice age, about 12,000 years ago, a vast mosaic of wild woodland once ebbed and flowed across the British Isles, supporting a diverse range of flora and fauna including early humans, who started to manage and shape the land.
As early as 8,000 years ago trees and woodlands were being managed for fuel and building materials. As agriculture and population developed, the woodlands were cleared and became fragmented, replaced by heathland and downland. By the end of the 19th Century woodland cover in the UK was as low as 5% of the land surface.
Now woodland cover in the UK is back up to around 13%, but still lower than the rest of Europe. Almost all of it is planted and managed, not the natural wildwood it once was. Modern forestry is largely a commercial enterprise, with the woodlands managed as a crop – no different to a cereal crop, just on a much longer timescale; they are both planted primarily to become a consumable product, whether it’s corn flakes or construction timber, but for a timber crop the timescale can be anything from 30 to 100+ years.
Over that time the plantation will regularly provide timber products as it is thinned out to improve the quality of the final crop. As well as providing a home to wildlife, the changing shape of a plantation provides different habitat opportunities for many different species. In order to limit the disturbance to this wildlife, most tree felling is undertaken in the autumn and winter, outside the bird-nesting season and after the trees and other plants have set seed or borne fruit.
Sustainable forestry management at Erlestoke Wood
In the case of our recent work at Erlestoke Wood on Salisbury Plain, we have been felling Spruce trees. These trees were planted as a commercial crop in 1958, so it’s now time to harvest them. Also, the Green Spruce Aphid (Elatobium abietinum) has been responsible for the rapid decline and death of these trees, so we needed to act before the value of the whole crop was lost. Luckily the other trees in the wood are unaffected.
Clear-felled areas recover really quickly, as the churning of the topsoil by the machines opens up the seed-bank and the increase in sunlight reaching the ground means that seeds which may have lain dormant for years suddenly germinate.
In order to help speed up the regeneration of the woodland, we will be planting trees as well. There will be a mixture of broadleaf species including Oaks, Maples, Beech and Hornbeam along with Pines, Firs and Yew. There will also be Rowan, Crab Apple and Cherry along with scrub species such as Spindle, Hazel and Guelder Rose. In total there will be about 3,600 new trees. These will already be two to three years old and planted in tree tubes to protect them from deer.
The reason for such a varied crop is partly to create a more ‘natural’ woodland, but more importantly it is to ensure the woodland is much more resilient to pests and diseases in the future – a rapidly growing concern for foresters, with the most recent issue being Chalara Ash Die-Back.
So while there can be some short-term loss when undertaking any woodland management, there is usually a substantial longer-term gain. Working hard to maintain these landscapes now means that they will be there for many generations to come.
This feature first appeared in the February issue of Landscape Insight