Conifer plantations. Nobody likes them; at least, few folk in the strange corner of Twitter I spend time in do. In terms of planting location and species mix, the majority of conifers are indeed ecologically and culturally alien. However, even in the gloomiest plantation the odd ray of light makes it down to ground level. Inability, or unwillingness, to even contemplate the potential upsides* of a land use we dislike strikes me as unconstructive. It’s also an easy way to guarantee a lot of very depressing walks in the countryside, because whatever our perspective I doubt there are many places we could walk for miles and find everything as it ‘should’ be. If we can’t see the beauty in contested, everyday landscapes, we must surely be missing many small opportunities for joy*. So, in hesitant defence of plantations, I offer three little views from travels over the last three years.
Firstly, this summer. Seen from Hadrian’s Wall, the small conifer plantations in Northumberland stand dark, tall and incongruously angular above the gradually unfolding ridge line. Unnatural, sure, but I enjoyed the way they add heterogeneity to the scenery, breaking the expanse of only sporadically species-rich grass. The arrival of both conifers and wind turbines, which also crown many high points in the interior of Northumberland, was much lamented by some, I’m sure, yet both add to the feel of a landscape that is worked. And the trees might be the only ones for miles around otherwise, adding some blessed variety to a day’s birding – crests and coal tits, siskins and redpolls, crossbills if you’re lucky**.
Three years earlier, in Galloway – some 75 miles due west from the wall – we walked up a steep slope into the heart of a larger plantation on the edge of the Galloway Forest. This vast artificially forested landscape is much enjoyed by recreational users who view the area with a less discerning ecological eye or, if I’m being more generous, a less curmudgeonly one, able to enjoy what is without losing sleep over what could be.
We were in search of what was once a closely guarded secret, and there is surely no better place to hide something than deep within the cool, lichen-draped underworld of a plantation floor. Now relatively well signposted paths lead to a small clearing, which protect the gently crumbling aviaries that served as a release site for red kites into Galloway about twenty years ago. The still atmosphere of the plantation feels like a semi-natural cathedral, with larch stems as pillars lining the nave, the clearing a sanctuary where the jumble of plywood and chicken wire forms a conservation shrine of sorts. Neither kites nor trees were self-sown and neither are universally welcomed (though the kites have more ‘right’ to be present, from a historic ecological perspective), but both now help to draw people to this quietly captivating part of Scotland that is still off the usual visitor trail.
Closer to home, a mixed plantation offered us sanctuary early this spring when we fled the house to avoid witnessing the destruction of a beloved willow in a neighbour’s garden. Great Pen is another Forestry Commission site, with a mix of native woodland and various colossal, planted conifers. An interesting mix of wildlife rubs along uneasily with the dog walkers and casual ramblers (like us), all drawn in one way or another to spend time among big trees. It is still a working plantation, and I ironically lament the growth of trees that have now shaded out habitat for tiger beetles and woodlarks. Hopefully, when the forestry operations clear another area, they’ll be back.
* There’s a practical argument in favour of planting conifers, too – and I mean proper productive forestry, not the straggly little squares planted for tax purposes in the 1980s which were probably what I was seeing in Northumberland – considering that the demand to cut plastic from packaging must ultimately lead to increased demand for forestry products, but that’s a whole other blog, and probably not one I’m qualified to write.
**As the Wildlife Trusts say, “Plantations can support species that would otherwise be absent from the landscape.” https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/habitats/woodland/coniferous-plantation