I’ve been reading the Forestry Commission’s Dartmoor Forestry Plan, now available online in its revised form following public consultation. It offers an admirably clear description of the FC’s holdings and its intentions.
It’s here: https://englandconsult.forestry.gov.uk/forest-districts/dartmoor-forest-plan/
The Plan is also an exercise in conventional thinking, reflecting approaches established over the past forty years.
The first thing to recognise when thinking about the FC’s activities on the High Moor is that they are confined to the FC’s freehold and leasehold plantations at Bellever, Fernworthy, Soussons Down and Brimpts. These sites were originally tenement farms and were already enclosed when the FC took them over in the 1920s.
Second, although the FC places much emphasis on the amenity and ecological benefits of its plantations, it also seeks to produce a crop that can be marketed at a profit. Fast-growing softwoods are in most demand, hence coniferisation and particularly the current dominance by Sitka spruce. This dates back to early twentieth-century concerns about wood security. See Q&F.
I also discuss in Q&F how in the 1960s the FC came under intense pressure to scrap its ambitious plans to expand its holdings on the moor. These wounding conflicts continue to affect how the FC pursues its activities, particularly with respect to the visual impact of the plantations and the treatment of antiquities in its sites. For some decades, the emphasis has been placed on softening the edges of the conifer stands by intermixing native deciduous trees and keeping antiquities clear when re-planting. The Plan makes clear that the FC intends to continue with this approach. It also intends to address current concerns about the effect its plantations have on the quality of drinking water – the Fernworthy and Bellever plantations partly surround reservoirs.
The most striking section of the Plan, however, concerns the proposed schedule for clear-felling and replanting. Much of Brimpts, a significant proportion of Soussons Down and Bellever and something in the region of 40% of Fernworthy is reaching maturity and will be felled between now and 2031. The plan is to restock almost entirely with evergreen conifers. Felling and restocking will continue in the decades to follow as other stands reach maturity. Projections suggest that between 2026 and 2046 the plantation cover will remain 69% evergreen, roughly what it is now.
That 69% figure obscures significant diversification. Restocking plans for 2016-2026 mark a departure from the Sitka monocultures that dominate the plantations today and promise a richer mix of conifer planting and small broadleaf additions, particularly on edges or in riverine coupes. At Fernworthy, for example, the restocking mix comprises Sitka spruce, noble fir, Pacific silver fir, Douglas fir, Norway spruce and Wellingtonia, plus in select coupes willow, birch, common alder, Wych elm, swamp cypress and sycamore. By 2046, the plantations will be just 5% native and naturalised broadleaves, a small increase over present levels, but the overall evergreen mix will be much more diverse than it is today.
Certain edges will not be replanted, reducing the effect the hard serrated edge of conifer plantations has on popular viewpoints. The most important of these changes, it seems to me, concern two sections of the southern edge of Fernworthy, including Assycombe Hill. Not restocking these coupes will effect the view from the south and southeast, going some way to restoring the lay of the land to its pre-plantation shape. This marks a significant concession to landscape aesthetics.
But such a concession begs a number of questions.
Is it preferable that the High Moor is bare of trees, as the decisions about viewpoints suggest?
Why are these areas being replanted with conifers at all?
Why aren’t they being replanted with native broadleaves?
New broadleaf forests would mean considerable biodiversity gains, improved water quality and a more flourishing wildlife. It would provide an excellent chance to experiment, establishing what works on the High Moor – forestry research is an important part of what the FC does. Such a move would also be a positive response to the growing public enthusiasm for uplands wooded with deciduous trees without changing the proportion of tree cover on the High Moor.
A self-willed nature might be the ultimate aim, but establishing broadleaf forests in place of conifer plantations would initially require much careful management by professional foresters. FC expertise could be put to a new kind of forestry work.
Dartmoor accounts for 5-7% of the West England Forest District timber crop and the FC’s projected work in 2017-21 will provide 1350 days work a year, about six full-time jobs. No business happily gives up 5-7% of its production and to rewild the FC’s holdings would incur significant costs, but such are surely surmountable in the interests of the public good.
This is a moment of opportunity for Dartmoor. The Dartmoor Forestry Plan, despite its progressive gestures, suggests this will be missed. When conventional thinking no longer chimes with the public mood it should be challenged.
Could not at least one of the FC’s Dartmoor holdings be dedicated solely to native broadleaf planting? It is hard to exaggerate what an exciting development this would be for Dartmoor nature. My vote goes to Fernworthy.