Surely chopping down trees can’t be good for nature?

It’s counter-intuitive, chopping down healthy trees in the name of woodland conservation. Walking around the woods, and stumbling across a new clearing surrounded by 6ft high-visibility plastic fencing doesn’t exactly give you a glow of seeing nature at its best. So I can understand why the grumpy dog-walker was so upset by the work the Wildlife Trust had done in one of the woods I regularly visit. But despite appearances, this work is vital for the wildlife that lives in the wood.

While we think of our woodlands as wild places, humans have played a big role in making them what they are. When the need for wood as fuel, or for ship-building, was greater, many of our woodlands would have been managed in some way, for example coppicing. Coppicing is where every few years trees and shrubs are cut down to ground level, to allow vigorous regrowth. Coppicing can help trees live longer, and crucially allow light into woodlands.

Without management of some kind our woods would soon go from beautiful wildlife havens filled with birdsong and bluebells in spring, to deep, dark, silent places reminiscent of troubling fairy tales. When trees grow too big, they prevent light reaching the understory (lower-growing plants), so these plants disappear, along with the insects, birds and animals that depend on them for food (like the dormouse).

So that explains why the trees were cut down. But why the ugly fencing? The fencing is needed to keep deer and bunnies out. Deer have a voracious appetite, and would quickly eat the new shoots coming from the coppiced trees, preventing them from re-growing properly. Once the coppiced trees are big enough, the fences can come down to let everything wander freely through the coppiced area.

So chopping down some trees (done not too much, nor to frequently) can help to ensure our woods remain how we like to think of them, bursting with life of many kinds. While the work might not be pretty in the short term, it’s essential.

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