In defence of conifer plantations

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

Reverence

I often say I’ve ‘always’ been interested in nature, but there are a few crucial bits of evidence that contradict that claim. Chiefly, the fact that as an undergraduate student I used to go on a moth-killing rampage around my bedroom before turning out the light for the night. I couldn’t stand the idea of an insect flying about my head in the dark while I tried to sleep. In the long years since, I eventually woke up to the fact that moths are much nicer to look at than to squash, and I very rarely kill an insect out of irritation. I will swat at the odd mosquito, true; they’re beautiful animals (really!), but I react badly to their bites. Killing anything else upsets me. This week I briefly lost patience with an infestation of fruit flies in our kitchen food waste caddy and squashed a few on the kitchen window, but immediately regretted it.

But those few fruit flies were hardly the first insects I killed this year. First of all, everyone kills insects every day without even thinking about it: crushed carelessly underfoot, hit by cars, buses and trains, or through the impacts of growing our food. Secondly, if you look in my attic room, you’ll find several wooden boxes full of unmistakably dead insects, some with pins through their thorax, some glued to bits of card.  And there we have the curious contradiction at the heart of being an entomologist. The more I understand the need to dispatch insects for identification and further scientific study, the more it bothers me to take the life of even the tiniest fly for any other purpose.

I think it comes down to reverence. Respecting insect populations means taking specimens, or for most species we can’t learn anything about them. Responsible insect-collecting has no impact on the health of populations, and in many cases the impact of taking any one individual is precisely zero if it is a member of a short-lived species that has already bred. Carefully preserved insect specimens capture the intricate beauty of a vanishingly brief life for hundreds of years, and as part of well-curated collections have enormous research value. If I have no intention of making a good specimen – and it’s difficult to make much of a soft-bodied fruit fly after it’s been mashed under a clumsy human finger – doesn’t knowingly killing an insect betray an impatient disregard for lives other than my own?

A Stilt-legged Fly (Micropezidae)

Countryside Half Full

One of my favourite toys as a child was a box of farm paraphernalia: animals, fences and walls, tractors, a Land Rover and trailer, a combine harvester. From this odd assortment I’d lay out a chaotic mixed farm, sprawling across the floor just where it was almost guaranteed to trip my Dad on his way through to the office. Overseeing this rural expanse of carpet were the miniature plastic farmers. One red-shirted figure came bow-legged, ready to be seated on the tractor, but rather looking as though a lifetime of operating farm machinery had set his legs that way permanently. On TV country life was a kind of Postman Pat utopia, where softly spoken rustic characters got into minor scrapes and it was almost always midsummer. Round lollipop trees in leaf, trickling brooks crossed by little stone bridges, constant birdsong, a scattering of livestock ambling through flowery meadows. I enjoyed the countryside in an uncomplicated way, and even a primary school trip to a dairy farm – where we were warned of the dangers of slurry pits and invited to inhale deeply from a fistful of silage – didn’t put me off.

When I regained an interest in wildlife in the aimless years after I graduated from university, I tried to rekindle my earlier liking for farming and the countryside and became interested in ‘agri-environment’ issues. But I soon found that the more I knew about the truth of modern farming the more I wanted to run back to my imaginary smallholding on the playroom carpet. The idyll I’d constructed out of sanitised trips to the country and assorted cultural myths had been swept into the corner decades ago, if it ever existed. Britain’s rural landscapes are now so contested that I have almost come to resent the way the sound and fury can spoil simple enjoyment of a walk in the countryside. I resent, too, the labels I see thrown around by some antagonists in those debates: townie, incomer, armchair conservationist. Even though they’re not usually directed at me personally, it is perhaps telling that I recognise myself in those insults and feel my hackles rise. I like to think I live in a comfy suburb of town and work mostly indoors (despite teaching ecology and zoology) almost by an accident of history, that in any other era I’d merrily take up my three acres and a cow. In reality, I sense that farming is a painfully tough business and I doubt I’d have the strength, courage and skill to make a fist of it, in any form from modern to traditional.

So, while the countryside is drained of wildlife, I don’t blame those who work it – though farming, like any endeavour, surely has its unscrupulous and selfish practitioners. Farming has followed a path laid out by deeper patterns in society, and it will take a similarly significant shift to tilt rural Britain towards having more space for nature. I resist the temptation to say tilt back, because while there must be worthwhile lessons from the ‘old’ farming, and a more-or-less traditional mixed farming model may be just what’s needed in some landscapes, it also seems a sure bet that big change is coming for others. I also imagine we’ll continue to find some tricks of modern ‘industrial’ farming useful for feeding the sheer number of us hanging about the place.

What I’m trying to say is that, while a negative outlook is in many ways realistic, and strangely comforting, I don’t think it’s getting us anywhere. It’s why I’m training myself to see a glass half full countryside. Taking an evening walk from a Northumberland farm stay this week, I paid attention to the rough meadow under my feet, not the fresh silage cuts over the wall; the mature field maples, not the heavily grazed sheep-studded pasture below. I studied the lane-side verge of hedgerow vetch, harebells and trefoil, and barely gave the roughly mown one by the B road up the hill a second glance. I admired the simple beauty of a ripening barley field headed for harvest and the skylark singing through sunset somewhere over the hill. I took in the austere grandeur of the moor’s expanse on the horizon while trying not to let the entrenched debate hanging over it get in the way of the view. I try not to hear the ghostly wail of the absent curlew, whose cry leaps out of the pages of much of my recent reading. Yet, knowing what riches could be possible, I find none of this easy.  

Hadrian’s Wall: a contested landscape through the millenia! One distant curlew heard here.