As I write we are being hammered – again - by another winter gale. In the Highlands & Islands we are used to severe winter weather, and tend to cope with it OK, but there is no question that this has been a particularly stormy winter so far. But looking back, this seems to be becoming the pattern rather than the exception: for the last few years storms which might be have been once-a-winter events now happen every month.
This year we’re having a spell where every month has become every week and just now it’s almost every other day. This of course is one of the consequences of climate change we have been warned of – whilst specific events cannot be predicted, it is basic physics that more energy in the atmosphere will produce more frequent and severe storms, including gales.
So perhaps this is the new reality and we will have to get used to it – and in due course design and build our structures and plan all our activities accordingly. Which brings me to forestry.
Woodlands of any type are vulnerable to wind – indeed windthow is a natural process within the forest, which serves an important role in producing gaps in the canopy to allow new trees to regenerate, amongst other things. However, where a woodland is being grown as a timber crop, windthrow is at best a nuisance, and at worst can destroy the value of a crop.
As a result professional foresters make considerable efforts to avoid windthrow through the management choices they make. However, it is worth reflecting that the model of forestry which dominates in Scotland – large-scale plantations of often no more than one or two species, managed mainly under clearfell & replant regimes – is relatively young: forestry of this type has really only developed since the establishment of the Forestry Commission in 1919.
That’s not much more than a couple of rotations in timber terms, and what we are now realising is that this period has probably been fairly benign overall in climatic terms. The next 100 years could be quite different. We may need to adapt our forestry as a result.
Scientists are indeed looking ahead and sounding warning bells. Maps of predicted future rainfall patterns have been produced to guide species choice. The threat of pests and diseases is the hot topic in forestry at the moment, and species diversity to spread risk and provide resilience is being promoted. To date however, the threat to current approaches from a windier climate seems to be getting less attention.
Furthermore, what researchers are advising and what practitioners are doing are not necessarily the same as yet. The forest industry has an alarming tendency to make future plans based on today’s markets and conditions. If the first hundred years of ‘commercial’ forestry tell us anything, it is that the only thing we can be certain of is that things will change. ‘Landlocked’ forests of today are just one example of that.
Of course some foresters will say that a windier climate will require, more than ever, the no-thin regime which currently predominates. Thinned stands, they will say, are always less stable, and thus we must avoid them at all costs.
I am not so sure. Even if there is some truth in that, a windier climate will shorten the possible rotation length even of an unthinned stand – and this will alter the economics in its own way. At the same time, the status quo may not be an option anyway. Forest certification requirements look for more thinning, and more management under Low Impact Silvicultural Systems, not less. The threat of pests and disease means we need more diversity, not less, of species, ages, structure, and management methods.
Hoping that a no-thin regime will be the best solution to a windier world, also seems a bit like playing a giant game of Jenga. As long as things are still standing, you’re OK………
So what has all this got to do with woodland crofts? Well, whilst we can’t be certain of what the future will bring, we do have some broad pointers: above all the need for resilient forests, but also the likelihood that the way to deliver that will be through more diverse woodlands. More diverse woodlands are likely to need more management input; and more ‘weather events’ will require close site monitoring, to spot and deal with issues before they have time to become major problems.
In short, we will need more forester’s boots on the ground. And if there is one thing that woodland crofts deliver, par excellence, it is boots on the ground. The resident woodland crofter is probably in his woodland as much in a week as the ‘remote’ commercial forester is in a year. That provides the opportunity to build an intimate knowledge of the woodland on an ongoing basis, and better knowledge allows better management, leading to more resilient woodlands.
In an uncertain future, we are going to need that more than ever.