THE thick end of 20 years ago I found myself on the platform of a high-powered conference in York University at which (now hard to believe) one of the speakers, representing the National Trust, introduced the concept of global warming and the likely effects it might have on estate management.

It will get warmer, he opined, and we could expect the climate of southern England to be like the then climate of Bordeaux. Vineyards in Dorset, claret country, definitely something to look forward to, and the learned audience sat back, relaxed and smiling in contented anticipation. 

The next speaker was the professor of botany from Bordeaux University. His message was less welcome. While we English might quite reasonably smile in pleasant anticipation, his colleagues could expect to inherit the climate from Morocco. Most amusing, said the delegates to one another. But of course this won’t come about in our lifetimes, will it?


What really is the point of Confor? - Forester's Diary

Those idiots pulling up newly planted Sitka really show their ignorance - Diary

I tried to introduce a note of caution in my summing up, but I’m not sure, looking back, how successful I was. The whole issue – notwithstanding a war or two – is rapidly gaining its rightful place as the most important and intractable problem facing us all. What to make then of a recent Times newspaper headline, ‘Britain’s forests face catastrophic collapse over the next 50 years’? The article refers to a wide-ranging survey emanating from Cambridge University and goes on to list the multitude of hazards faced both in the present and, alarmingly, in the imaginable future.

Droughts and floods, storms and pests all have the potential to combine and react to a certainly damaged and possibly extinct set of new ecosystems – if any that we know can survive in a hotter environment which is rapidly coming upon us. Indeed, yesterday’s targets are already superseded and fossil fuels continue to dominate our global energy generation. So the UK’s meagre forest cover will have to face combined onslaughts. The major dangers reflect the fact that forests and trees in general are long lived and relatively robust, so they will be around for decades or longer, making them vulnerable to changes and new threats for longer periods than say a neighbouring stock-breeding farm whose animals can come to grief in a few weeks.

The report itself stems from a survey of 180 issues, ranked in importance by a panel of industry experts. These cover both environmental, commercial and social aspects of a country without tree health and productive functions. Will we still be harvesting new, more adaptable species which will replace traditional forests, if indeed such species exist and can thrive in a warmer atmosphere? If we believe this we should be planting now as well as learning about novel methods and products. Today’s Sitka plantations in our uplands will continue to catch fire after a prolonged hot, dry and extreme set of climatic events. We are now capable of defining and installing new silvicultural systems, and proposing new tree species and new management regimes, building risk factors into our plans. Rotation lengths are an obvious area of review.

Forestry Journal: Should we be reviewing the rotation period of Sitka plantations? Should we be reviewing the rotation period of Sitka plantations? (Image: Getty/Stock)

But I move on. My first reaction to the Cambridge University report is to suggest that it at least puts forward some structure of a likely practical scenario. If today’s ecosystems are doomed then what will replace them? We have defined and identified the enemy. Now let’s take a more positive stance, perhaps one influenced and formed by another current obsession, AI. Let’s look at the characteristics, the data revealed by artificial intelligence which can guide us into a future perhaps in groves of fireproof eucalyptus, or the potential for planting the tundra with hitherto unknown species which can exploit a new set of silvicultural requirements.

Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed. I recall the words of Dad’s Army veteran Private Fraser. And already, it seems; after a poor grape harvest this season, the Sahara has advanced again. We are at best in limbo. Let’s look for a constructive way out.