Highlights of the conference held in collaboration with CENTA, Envision, the Forest Edge and the Royal Forestry Society with support from Forest Research and the Woodland Trust.

A three-day online conference aimed at anyone working in tree science, forest sciences or as a forester, Treescapes 2021 brought a wide variety of people together to talk about the big issues in forest and tree landscapes, opening up conversations between researchers and those tackling the issues on the ground.

Led by early career researchers based at three universities – Bangor, Birmingham and the Open University – the conference sought to stimulate lasting conversations between researchers and woodland practitioners, proving that research and practice should be intertwined.

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Day 1 began with a welcome and briefing by Sir James Scott, president of the Royal Forestry Society, followed by a keynote presentation from Professor Jaboury Ghazoul, director of the Centre for Sustainable Forests and Landscapes at the University of Edinburgh.

Encouraging delegates to think critically about the kind of research they are doing, he put forward three ‘controversial’ statements:

  • We’re doing the wrong kind of science.
  • We’re using the wrong language.
  • We’re promoting the wrong tools.

Calling for more ‘systems’ science, which gives more though to the roles of business, government and community, he said: “There’s tension between these three sectors of society, reflected in issues of governance, regulation and ownership. We should be researching these interactions between business, government and community to better understand how decisions are made.”

Moving on to tackle language, he took issue with the title of the conference itself and the Future of UK Treescapes programme, complaining the word ‘treescapes’ is both vague and thus “beloved by politicians” but normative in that it suggests universal agreement that more trees are needed in the landscape, and so is “hated by farmers”. This was just one example, he said, of how the language used within forestry “puts people off”.

Finally, he addressed the tools being used, saying the kinds of models relied on to inform decision-making needed to be embedded in more realistic and interactive participatory modelling frameworks.

Chaired by Holly Woo, Tuesday’s presentations all focused on the theme of future-proofing forests. Among the doctoral students, early career researchers and practitioners were Justin Byrne from Newcastle University, who looked at how fungal communities developed on 27 woodland sites around the city, exploring the impacts of age and management decisions.

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Thomas Ovenden of Stirling University spoke on a study into the resilience of Scots pine trees impacted by drought, while Fiona Plenderleith, University of Aberdeen, explored the consequences of tree disease on functional connectivity for forest-associated insects. Focusing on ash, she used scenario modelling to investigate the indirect impact of tree loss on various insects.

Forest Research’s Michael Bell spoke next, with a presentation on ‘Improving our estimates of forest soil carbon dioxide flux’. He told how the installation of a new automated measuring system had helped Forest Research to learn a lot more about how carbon is stored in soil, explaining: “In UK forests and woodlands, more carbon is stored in soils than in above-ground biomass, so any pathway to net zero needs to ensure the proper protection and management of this large carbon stock. And like the stock in a shop, this carbon stock is not fixed. Carbon is continually moving into and out of that soil. This movement is termed the ‘flux’, and large uncertainties remain over its size and how it may respond to climate change.”

Lucia Watts of Bangor University used three case study sites in Wales to analyse how parkland trees may become more exposed to wind speed and directions in the future, while Nine Douwes Dekker, University of Birmingham, focused on the ‘atmospheric exchange of greenhouse gasses under future climates’. Like Michael Bell, she used flux chambers to analyse carbon dioxide flux, this time at BIFoR FACE.

Forestry Journal: L-R: Professor Jaboury Ghazoul, keynote speaker on Day 1; Professor Chris Quine, keynote speaker on Day 2; and Day 3’s keynote speaker, Geraint Richards.L-R: Professor Jaboury Ghazoul, keynote speaker on Day 1; Professor Chris Quine, keynote speaker on Day 2; and Day 3’s keynote speaker, Geraint Richards.

Led by Theresa Bodner of Bangor University, the first day’s workshop focused on the hot topic of natural regeneration, titled ‘Who put that there, and what’s it for? – Can the natural regeneration of trees help us create Britain’s future woodlands?’.

Opening the debate, she said: “Natural regeneration is on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now. But where is our natural regeneration and how much do we have? So far there is no spatial dataset that shows us the location and extent of natural regeneration. We need to think if there’s anything we can come up with – especially now that our data sets are getting better – that could show us that regeneration.

“Then we must ask what management it needs, which closely relates to what we want to use it for, which often depends where it is. So we must discuss these three things together to understand the complexity of natural regeneration, which is currently squeezed into various conversations about land use, science, how much we know and how practical we can be.”

Delegates then shared their thoughts in breakout room discussions which were summarised by their respective chairs and in visual representations produced during the debates by artist Holly McKelvey.

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Professor Chris Quine, chief scientist at Forest Research, got the second day’s proceedings underway with the question: “How do we achieve forestry’s potential?”

Criticizing the mantra of ‘achieving the right tree in the right place for the right reason, etc’, he said: “There’s a danger it’s being overused and we’ve stopped thinking about what it really means. I was quite taken by a recent document looking at reforestation in the Congo which focused on three qualities they thought lay behind successful implementation: purpose, partnership and science. I think that’s a much smarter way of summarising how we might realise forestry’s potential. We’ve got to be clear, whether it’s at landscape scale or at the level of the individual stand, about the purpose we’re seeking.”

Chaired by Ed Pyne, the afternoon sessions considered this question further, with Jenny Knight of the University of Birmingham presenting on ‘Integrating lived experience and expertise into tree planting for Natural Flood Management’. She told how, by tapping into local expertise, foresters could improve the planning of treescapes and landscape change.

Hazel Mooney, University of Leeds, made Leeds 4 Trees the focus of her presentation, ‘Forests for the future: management, planting and co-benefits’. The collaboration between LEAF, UBoC and Leeds City Council aims to increase knowledge about the importance of trees and greenspaces in urban areas and breaking down their environmental benefits. One of the big findings so far? Big trees matter.

Hazel said: “In our study we really saw difference in the delivery of benefits between those large, mature trees and smaller trees. In fact, the top 100 trees were found to deliver over one third of all environmental benefits, despite representing just 7 per cent of the total tree population.”

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She added that 30 replacement trees were found to be needed in order to reclaim the benefits lost from one large mature tree.

‘The contribution of instream wood to ecosystem (dis)services’ was the focus for Ben Howard, University of Birmingham, whose study found that increasing the input and retention of wood in rivers accelerates biogeochemical cycles – good for reducing nutrient concentrations but bad for the production of greenhouse gases.

Nerea Ferrando Jorge, a scientist and visual artist from the University of Reading followed by looking at the ‘Impact of leaf litter management of urban trees on soil health’. Explaining that urban soil is understudied and under threat worldwide, she said it is being lost in some places 100 times faster than it forms. Her study, looking at sites in Cannon Hill Park, Kew Gardens and Les Fontaines, France, found soil carbon was significantly higher in unmanaged areas, revealing the benefits of retaining leaf litter, adding: “We need to think about leaving leaf litter everywhere.”

Staying on the subject of soil, Forest Research’s Elena Vanguelova tackled ‘Carbon storage and sequestration potential of forest soils in the UK’. Her review found forest soils store around 75 per cent of total forest carbon in the UK and different forest management practices will change forest soil carbon storage and dynamics.

Fraser Wight concluded the session with a look at trials in mixed-species silviculture being undertaken at Norbury Park Estate in Staffordshire. He explained how experiments at the estate formed part of a “pantheon of research” looking into ways of measuring the productivity and resilience of our forests in the face of climate change and other threats.

Day 2’s workshop was led by Andrew Heald, director and co-founder of NGTPA, a company focused on developing blended finance projects for large-scale sustainable land-use and forest landscape restoration. He posed the participants five seemingly simple questions: What type of woodland should we be creating? Where in the UK should we be expanding our woodland? How do we create 30,000 ha of new woodland every year? Who will plant and manage these woodlands? And why?

This final question, he said, had already been addressed by other speakers: “We’re facing a nature and climate emergency and more well-planned woodland in the right place of all different types can begin to slowly help us address some of these challenges. What I would like to see in the UK is a lot more woodland, perhaps up to European levels.”

He expanded on his own hopes to see foresters growing more trees of all types and for different reasons, integrated into farms and urban fringe areas, with commercial forestry clustered near existing sawmills and processors to cut down on timber miles. He called for increased diversity a wider range of public sector ownership of forests and a tax on greenhouse gas emissions.

He said: “I think we need to look at the big picture issues and the road map to zero carbon. We need to be careful and we need to be really focused around trade-offs and nuance. We really need to be talking about integrated land-use strategies and in particular how we better plan land use in our countryside.

“Most of the challenges we are grappling with are not simply economical or environmental. They’re really social challenges. In the UK these challenges are often connected to land ownership, culture and heritage. It’s about what we value, our identities and our shared vision for the future. If releasing forestry’s potential was just about timber, that would be easy – but it isn’t.”

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The third day’s keynote speech was given by Geraint Richards, head forester for the Duchy of Cornwall. As head forester for the Duchy, Geraint is responsible for managing 2,000 hectares of trees, woodlands and forest, mostly in south-west England and Herefordshire.

Touching on the event’s theme of research and practice in the forestry sector, Geraint admitted there is definitely “room for improvement”. This is an exciting time to be a forester, he said. The opportunity is enormous, but there are also many challenges – climate change, pests and diseases, issues around tree-planting, for example – and this is why it is “absolutely vital” that every effort is made to bridge the divide and better connect research and practice.

Geraint concluded that there are three steps that can be taken with regard to this: “Firstly, we need to promote the community because we are all devoted to the same vital cause – creating and maintaining resilient treescapes.

“Secondly, we need to facilitate communication in order for this community to function as one … Whether it be through conferences such as this one, through webinars, through publications, through social media, or, best of all, in the treescape, we need to make sure the platforms are in place for the community to communicate.

“Thirdly, we all need to join the conversation. I end on this because I want to remind all of us that we cannot simply pass the responsibility for bridging that divide to other organisations and individuals.”

READ MORE: Diversity in tree populations: species selection

Chaired by Amy Gresham of Bangor University, the afternoon session consisted of six presentations discussing issues around crossing disciplines and sharing knowledge through research and practice.

Berglind Karlsdottir of Forest Research presented on ‘Designing Policies that Bridge the Knowledge–Action Gap’. “Land managers often know the tree health issues they’re facing but they don’t necessarily know what practices they can implement to mitigate those threats and build resilience,” she explained.

“It’s clear that there’s a need for tree health networks to understand more clearly who their audiences are and strategically decide on their key topics and messages.”

Emily Warner, from the University of Oxford, presented on ‘Integrating Research into a Long-Term Native Reforestation Project’. She spoke about a project in Glen Affric and Glenmoriston, in the Scottish Highlands, which has been establishing native forest by fencing sites and planting naked trees with the aim of restoring Caledonian pinewood habitat.

Ed Pyne of Bangor University’s presentation focused on the veteranisation of attached oak branches, and posed the question, ‘Do restored dead wood substrates harbour similar fungal communities to branches that have died naturally?’

An experiment in the Forest of Dean allowed him to identify physiological differences in the wood anatomy between branches that had died naturally and branches that had been killed with a chainsaw and to identify the dominant fungal species in the community.

Estimating tree outside woods loss since 1850 was the topic of Dr Ewan McHenry of the Woodland Trust. He focused on a case study from Essex and Suffolk, strongly associated with trees outside woods.

Darren Axe presented on Lancaster University’s Forest of the Future Project, a practice-based approach to the climate emergency. The project, currently in the proof-of-concept phase, originated from the university’s carbon sequestration agenda, particularly with regards to the impact of student travel.

Jonas Brandl of Landscape Energy Plus presented on his experience as the first recipient of the Patsy Wood Scholarship, which helps graduates secure their first paid forestry employment.

In the event’s final session, organisers, speakers and attendees came together to reflect on the diverse debate and discussion from across the three days. The final word went to Sir James Scott, who extended his thanks to the organising committee for their tireless efforts in making the conference such a success. Sir James said he didn’t relish the unenviable task of attempting to sum up three days packed with the output from so much grey matter, but it was in fact rather easy. “To crib from one of the speakers, forestry is not about trees, it is about people.”

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