Walker Fold & Dunscar: A Tale of Two Woods

February 13th and 20th 2022

It was the wettest of times; it was the wildest of times. Walker Fold Wood is part of the Woodland Trust’s Smithills Estate, and also part of the newly planted and expanding Northern Forest; Dunscar Wood is a Millennium woodland planted 20 years ago and growing towards maturity. I’ve combined the two tasks together because they tell a story of woodland management from new plantings to first thinnings, and also because I’m lazy and don’t want to write two posts covering largely the same subject.

So, Walker Fold. Walker Fold is an existing woodland consisting mostly of conifers, which doesn’t interest us very much because coniferous plantations have very little wild life value. The land nearby, however, has recently been planted with thousands of broadleaf saplings which are much more interesting and will provide plenty of habitat for wild animals, help with flood prevention, and help with soaking up carbon…. somewhat.

Our section grass was on a hillside near the corner of Walker Fold Road leading up to Colliers Row. On the day of planting heavy rain had made the area extremely wet, so wet that every time we dug a tree pit it would instantly fill will with water, this isn’t good, but there were a few less saturated spots that we manage to plant in. We planted spindle, way-faring tree, crab apple, and hawthorn the first three are less well known and don’t usually make it on to the top ten list of things we usually plant so well done to Roberta at the WT for doing something different. How many will survive is another matter.

This brings us to an interesting point about tree planting. In recent years large companies have bigged up their green credentials by paying for trees to be planted in order to offset their carbon footprint. Claims such as ‘We have planted 100,000 trees,’ sound really good, but if you plant 100,000 trees not all will make it to maturity. At one time a 10% survival rate was considered normal. Soil conditions, frost, disease, grazing by deer, root nibbling by shrews, and even the types of trees planted on a given site can contribute towards tree survival. Changes in planting methodologies, such as using tree shelters, have improved trees’ survival rates. Some studies indicate 30-40% of trees don’t survive to their 5th year, but this is complicated by which mix of trees are planted with some trees being more prone to failure than others. But there is another part of the woodland creation process that also accounts tree loss.

At Dunscar Wood the trees that were planted 20 years ago are now sturdy young trees with a bright future, but there’s just too many of them. The strategy of saturating and area with trees 2 metres apart is sound and sensible ensuring that you get the highest uptake possible, but 2 metres is not much room for a growing tree so thinning has to take place to cull the herd. Trees are preferably selected to remove any that are diseased or stunted, but sometimes healthy trees have to be felled just to make room for the survivors. There are some very complex formulas for selecting trees to take out, most are aimed at commercial forestry and maximising the revenue from a timber crop. Generally the first thinnings will remove 10% with more being removed with each round of thinning. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that between planting and maturity an area could lose 50% of its trees. Thinning is what we were doing at Dunscar Wood on a wet and windy Sunday. Taking down healthy trees can be really disheartening but you have to look at the bigger picture which is the long term sustainability of a woodland.

Trees take up carbon but only hold it out of the carbon cycle until the fall over and decompose, many climate scientists have pointed out that the value of tree planting for carbon capture has been overstated and the best way to reduce atmospheric carbon is not to put it there in the first place. The short version is don’t always believe the green hype made by billionaires.

However, planting trees will always be otherwise a good thing and trees have other important functions which make tree planting important: they provide habitat for wild life and consequently improve biodiversity, they hold soil in place with networks of root systems which help lessen the severity of flood events, and the also give conservationists something to do. So, planting trees is a far better thing to do to the landscape than has ever been done before, and it will be a far better future we will have than the one we have left behind. (Apologies to Charlie D for mangling his prose.. and his name.)

Many thanks to the Woodland Trust for letting us work on their two sites.