Vanessa Burton took ESCom members to Tilhill's Jerrah plantation to hear more about one of the largest woodland creation schemes in recent years.
ESCom events seem to be blessed with attracting some rare Scottish sun and a particularly beautiful Wednesday saw 11 members of ESCom venturing out to Menstrie Glen, near Dunblane, to explore Jerah, one of the largest new forest plantations in recent years.
Jerah is now two years old (think trees at or below knee height), and has been created with the primary purpose of being a productive conifer woodland to provide quality timber. It is home to an impressive 1.3 million trees, comprising 16 different tree species and 30% amenity woodland. Previously a sheep farm owned by two farmer brothers, grazing became an increasingly marginal activity, and the brothers chose to sell the site to a woodland investor in May 2013.
Tilhill Forestry are in charge of implementing the project for the investor, and we met Andrew Vaughan and colleagues Darrell and Bruce at the site of the new bridge Tilhill acquired planning permission for in order to facilitate access to and from the site. As well as this bridge, 11km of new forest tracks have enhanced off-road access from Menstrie to Dunblane, and are already in use by mountain bikers and walkers. After brief introductions, Andrew took us through the process Tilhill have been through to get to this point.
Jerah was carefully planned, following guidelines set by the UK Forestry Standard, the Water Framework Directive, and Forestry Commission guidelines on Forests and Water, Forests and Soil, Forests and Climate Change and Forests and Biodiversity. Andrew highlighted the particularly useful role of the Forestry Commission's Ecological Site Classification (ESC) tool in guiding appropriate species choices. In practice, Jerah has exceeded the expectations of many of the guidelines, providing 19.1% native species (well over the 5% minimum required), and increasing the width of buffers surrounding watercourses well beyond the required 10 metres for channels less than 2 metres wide.
Despite the careful planning, Tilhill's experience of getting Jerah planted highlights the lengthy and complicated consultation process currently required for woodland creation schemes. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) identified landscape, archaeology, flood management, diffuse pollution, public access and timber transport as main considerations, and the whole process of approval took two years and a word count equivalent to three bibles!
EIA is of course a necessary and valuable process, yet given the anticipated benefits that will be provided by the scheme, it seems greater attention should be paid to reducing the length and difficulty of this process. It is anticipated that forest growth at Jerah will sequester an estimated 183,000 tonnes of CO2 within its first rotation, and that it will provide 5 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs, as well as creating new native woodland habitat networks that will allow native fauna and flora to move along the watercourses within the glen. Research has also suggested that forest cover can have a role in intercepting and slowing rainfall (Nisbet and Thomas, 2002; Woodland Trust, 2012), thus regulating flood events, and a PhD research project has been set up to monitor river flows in the catchment in order to see what effect the new woodland is having. Given previous damaging flood events in Menstrie, it is hoped that Jerah could have a beneficial effect in reducing the likelihood of these happening again. In addition to the hydrology study, another PhD is being set up to monitor carbon fluxes on the site, and another university has expressed interest in examining the archaeological features of the glen. As well as generating considerable research interest, a well-planned area of community woodland aims to enhance public access and enjoyment of the site, and has maintained flightpaths for local paragliders.
Of course, a project as large and complicated as Jerah can't be perfect, and Roy Sexton, a local ecologist, highlighted the loss of rare orchids and existing native trees as unintended downsides of the scheme. Although a difficult choice to make, the loss of open ground specialist species is an inherent trade-off generated by woodland creation. The point about loss of existing native woodland remnants is a well-made one, as adapting grant schemes for woodland planting to allow for use of existing native seed sources for natural regeneration would both save money and retain local native trees.
Despite this, overall Jerah presents itself as an exemplar of modern forestry. Tilhill's open approach to promoting site visits, discussions and encouraging better understanding of forestry is commendable and highlights the important role of individuals in driving difficult projects like this through. 21st Century challenges present society with tough choices to make for sustainability, and with the Scottish Government aspiring to plant 10,000 ha of new woodland each year, large scale modern forestry projects such as Jerah offer the potential for sustainable and efficient building materials, renewable energy, carbon storage and flood management – a great deal more benefits than many other land use options.
There need to be many more plantations like Jerah to be anywhere near meeting both the Scottish government targets for woodland expansion and UK timber demand, and as a result more needs to be done to advertise the benefits of such plantations, and to reduce the difficulty of the consultation process needed to get such schemes into the ground. Of course, plantations are not a panacea, but they have their place among a variety of other woodland types and land uses. Any forester you speak to will be painfully aware of the 'wrongs of the past' (i.e. the blanket conifer plantations of the 1970s) and will be quick to explain how much forestry has changed. With more varied plantations like Jerah and open and transparent approaches from organisations like Tilhill, modern forestry has a major role to play in sustainable land use in Scotland and beyond.
Thomas, H. and Nisbet, T.R (2007) An assessment of the impact of floodplain woodland on flood flows, Water and Environment Journal, 21, 2, 114-126
Woodland Trust (2014) Holding back the waters: woodland creation and flood mitigation, Policy Paper, woodlandtrust.org.uk/wales
Vanessa Burton is a PhD student at Edinburgh University, joint funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Forest Research and the Scottish Forestry Trust.