Changes in the management of British forests between 1945 and 2000 and possible future trends




The last half-century has been an era of historically unprecedented expansion in British forests, which now cover over 12% of the land surface. In the immediate post-War period, the forest composition was evenly divided between conifers and broadleaves. However, several decades of extensive afforestation in parts of the uplands have resulted in conifers comprising over 60% of the forest area and Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis becoming the commonest species in British forests. Towards the end of the last century, forestry policies began to give prominence to sustainable forest management so that greater emphasis is now being given to aspects such as the restoration and enhancement of native woodlands and the diversification of plantation forests. Because of their age structure, at least 70% of both conifer and broadleaved high forest stands are now entering a closed-canopy stage where the trees compete with each other for light, moisture and nutrients. This is different from the situation in the late 1940s when the appreciable area of young stands in both new woodlands or felled areas would have provided a more open woodland habitat. The prevailing silvicultural system used for many years in all high forest types has been ‘patch clear felling’ but this can be detrimental to visual amenity and cause a sudden change in forest microclimate. There is now increasing interest in the use of continuous cover forestry, which seeks to promote irregular stand structures with intimate species mixtures as a means of avoiding some of the negative impacts of clear felling. Timber production in British forests is increasingly concentrated in the conifer forests and the amount of broadleaved timber harvested has declined sharply in recent years. This decline is another consequence of the lack of active broadleaved management that has been reported in recent ecological surveys. The possible advent of a new woodfuel market may be an opportunity to renew the viability of under-managed woodlands. The next decades are likely to see a greater range of silvicultural systems being practised in British woodlands and the development of more mixed woodland, which may also ensure greater resilience against climate change. Amongst the challenges for the future are the need to obtain a better understanding of the interactions between stand management, resulting forest habitat and the impacts on biodiversity so that foresters and other stakeholders can better predict the outcome from different silvicultural regimes.