Habitats

Trees & Habitats

There are many different habitats and landscapes towhich trees belong and are an intrinsic part. At TreeLife we are interested in creating, restoring and educating about all of them! Whether they are places just for wildlife and biodiversity, or they are landscapes for human enjoyment or farming, trees play many varied and vital roles.

 

Single Field Trees

Parklands are a historic, cultural feature of the British landscape, with mature single trees dotted through grassland. But this landscape can be rapidly and suddenly lost without replanting. Trees originally planted hundreds of years ago may come to the end of their lives within a few decades of each other. Leaving a treeless field.

Single field trees provide shelter for livestock from extreme weather conditions. In the heat of the midsummer sun, heavy rains and snow, sheep and cattle will be seen to shelter under these majestic trees.

Mature tree roots go deep into the subsoils and bring nutrients from those depths to the surface via their leaf drop. The pastures reaps the benefit of these added nutrients as they enriching the soils and therefore grassland quality.

Single field trees when they reach maturity are majestic beings which provide a habitat for an incredible diversity of wildlife, including nesting sites for birds such as owls, blue tits, woodpeckers and many more. (picture- Large oak near Geltsdale). Trees also foster the fungal life of an ecosystem, trees and fungi being intrinsically linked. The fungi help feed the tree and the tree provides a home for fungi to fruit. These beneficial effect of fungal networks on soil health in-turn increases the health and productivity of the grasslands.

DID YOU KNOW? trees will be healthier if you leave their leaf drop around the base of the tree, rather than raking it up, because then they get to reabsorb those nutrients. Leaf drop also improves drainage because leaves increase worm activity. As they pull the leaves into the soil, they create drainage channels. The presence of this leafy organic matter in the soil, increases the soil biome – the sheer quantity, quality and diversity of living beasties in the soil – which are the basis of the health of the whole system above ground, be it a garden, hayfield, arable crop or forest.

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Hedgerows

Hedges are a distinctly British thing. Hedgerow act as barriers between fields and roads and provide a wonderfully diverse habitat and act as essential corridors for wildlife to safely traverse through.

Less commonly acknowledge are some of the other roles that hedgerows provide in the way of vertical food sources, and we don’t just mean for humans in the way of blackberries, sloes, hawthorns berries, elderflowers and berries, even wild gooseberries here in Cumbria.

Hedgerows also provide and important and varied forage source for livestock. Many farm animals suffer poor health from a basic lack of diversity in their diets. The increasingly redundant wisdom of ‘improved grasslands’ introduced with the industrialisation of agriculture, where diverse swards of grasslands once full of wild plants were ploughed up and replaced with 3-4 different species of grass only, also destroyed the diverse diet of the animals that lived on them. Hedgerows diverse in species can help to make up this deficit as animals graze the vertical forage layers around them. There are certain trees which, if animals can reach them, they will eat in preference to the grass.

In ‘the old days’ animals would have been fed tree fodder, see more in the next section on Veteran Pollards.

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Veteran Pollards

In certain parts of Cumbria, pollarded Ash in particular are an historic part of the farmed landscape. These trees were cut for animal feed, charcoal and firewood. The leaves were often made into hay as a winter feed stock. Sadly this practice is now redundant, but there are still lots of examples of the beautiful old pollards maintained for conservation purposes. The Borrowdale valley in the North Lakes in a good place to find these wonderful old beings. These old trees like the one below are usually hollow, providing lovely habitats for insects, animals and birds.

Below is an example of a veteran ash pollard, still happily growing with a healthy young rowan tree growing within it! These trees are often called air-trees, as they start growing way up in the branches of the first tree, then grow their roots down into the soil. These sort of trees are only found in ancient treed landscapes. This tree can be found on the path from Watendlath towards Dock Tarn.

 

In the following picture is a rowan that grew in the crotch of a tree and wound its roots around that tree. The original tree is now completely gone and just the barrel shape of the rowan roots remain. Landscapes with extraordinary trees like this one at Geltsdale, feel like mystical fairytale worlds. They are fuel for the imagination and places where people can go and experience not just the peace and wellbeing of being in a wilder place, but also the otherworldly quality that might ask questions of you, you did not expect!

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Dead Trees

Death is Life, about sums it up. Life in an ecosystem is a function of death. When you get into it, it really is very difficult to draw the lines between life and death. Dead wood is food for fungi and insects, the fungi creates health in the soil and takes nutrients to living trees, insects are the base of the food chain for birds and mammals.

Below is a dead birch tree in Borrowdale with the birch polipore fungi growing on it.

Dead trees are as important as living ones!

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Woodland

Cumbria has 9-10% woodland cover. The woodland cover across the United Kingdom is: 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 18% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland (Forestry commission date 2017). At an average of 12% the UK has the lowest woodland cover of any country in Europe. Drastically so. The next lowest at is France at 29%. Spain has 36% and Sweden a whopping 69% (Forestry commission).

Is this what we (the people of this country) want? At TreeLife we feel this needs to change. There are names of places in the Lake Districts that carry the legacy of it’s past residence, Eagle crag near Stonethwaite in Borrowdale for example is a massive rocky turret that sticks out into the valley, yet goodness knows when the last eagles flew here, let alone nested in this crag that bears their name. There simply isn’t the habitat and food for Eagles anywhere in Cumbria.

There are some beautiful woodlands in Cumbria, particularly in Borrowdale and the Duddon valley. However many of these woodlands are in a regeneration crisis. Below is a classic atlantic oak wood at Wallabarrow, note the lack of an understory of younger trees growing up in the light spaces.

The reason for this lack of regeneration is over grazing. Sheep and deer are the main culprits. They are both none specific grazers and browsers that will eat anything, and particularly tasty are the new shoots of baby trees. While these woods are stunning with there picturesque clear understory, they are, when you know what you are looking at, dying. The remedy is simple, exclude the sheep and deer, the reality of which isn’t simple. Both are excellent at scaling walls and fences and it takes policy change and community co-operation to bring in the protection in the way of deer fencing and the agreements to exclude sheep, that these woodland require.

The best way to protect, and also actually to create woodland habitats is simply to fence it to prevent deer and sheep getting in. The tendency of land to succeed to woodland can then take over, seeds germinate and new tree start to grow as long as there is sufficient seed stock in the soil. Otherwise planting may be required to get the woodland started. A great example of this is a Forestry Commission rewilding site in the Duddon Valley near Millers Ground, where deer fencing and some tree planting in the excluded area are now showing fruit as the woodland regenerates and diversity of life returns to the valley.

TreeLife hopes to find sites to help new woods grow. We want to do this in a way that supports natural ecosystem processes, so fencing (at least in Cumbria) will have to be part of the equation. Without the exclusion of sheep and deer, a woodland has no hope of regenerating. We would like to experience with seed sowing and only when necessary actually plant trees. When we do plant trees we will source stock as local as possible.

To tube or not to tube?

Much tree planting these days is done with tree tubes. We would like to avoid this where possible for a number of reasons. Tubes restrict the shape of the tree. Low spreading branches of natural growth is prohibited by tubes. Tubes carry a big carbon and plastic footprint, which goes against our attempts to keep our operations as green as possible. So when we have to use tubes we will use biodegradable ones.

Carrifran Wildwood project have set an amazing example in not needing tubes. Their site is fenced to keep sheep and feral goats out, and deer are culled to keep their numbers from stopping the woodland regeneration. They have planted 600,000 trees, and the results are magnificent. A wonderful wild landscape is springing up and life in all it’s forms is returning to the valley. Wild flowers once banished by sheep and goats to the most inaccessible crags, are pouring down the river banks and gravels beds as the water carries their seeds these new safe grounds. Birds numbers increasing each year, as the valley rings out with their song now is Spring. To find out more about this inspiring project click here

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The Bracken Problem

Bracken is commonly seen as a problem from both the farming perspective and the reforestation perspective. The bracken creates an impenetrable root bed that makes woodland regeneration tricky. And bracken impinging on grazing land, means less productive grass for livestock.

However there is a different way to look at bracken. It’s presence denotes deep fertile soils where oak woods would once have been. The bracken does a fantastic job at protecting and maintaining those soils, where they would otherwise have been lost to erosion long ago. Bracken is the guardian of woodland soils, in the absence of trees and once trees are planted back into bracken beds, the bracken dies back and the woodland takes over. Carrifran again is a great example of this, as you can see this process in action.

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Wood Pasture

Now, if you’ve read the above section on woodland, at first this part on wood pasture is going to sound utterly contradictory, but stay with it, because this is where we skilfully combining farming and wildilife, and it’s where biodiversity really kicks into action.

Wood pasture is believed by some experts like Frans Vera, to have once been the predominant habitat across Northern Europe. It’s not dense woodland and it’s not open pasture, it is a combination of the two. A dynamic ecosystem maintained as such by grazers. Yes the thus far much maligned grazer, does have a role to play, but we are talking big grazers like cattle rather than sheep.

Sheep originate from arid landscapes, hence they get a lot of foot problems here in Cumbria. Large grazers like cattle however are much more at home here, and the good thing about cattle is they don’t eat absolutely every tree shoot they come across and they can’t get to half the places that sheep can.

Wood pasture is maintained as a dynamic ecosystem because grazing animals prevent succession  to dense woodland, but their numbers need to be kept in check either by predators such as wolves (rewilding) or humans, who prevent over grazing and therefore the loss of too many trees. What results are dynamic, highly biodiverse landscapes. There are a few examples of ancient wood pasture in Cumbria, such as Geltsdale and Helsington Barrows.

You can replace the predator with a farmer and run low density cattle in this habitat all year round, as long as they are an old breed like this belted galloway above, that can take staying out through the winter. These sort of cattle need very little care, and so although the land will produce less meat, the inputs are so low, with little or no need for additional feed, fuel and housing, this sort of farming can actually be more profitable and a lot less effort, than the intensive sheep farming we see in most of our uplands. Cattle are very at home with the trees.

Cattle hooves play a very important role in maintaining the diversity in a wood pasture, they break up the ground leaving bare earth divets, and it is here that wild plant seeds get a chance to germinate. Disturbance like this is an essential aspect to ecosystem health.

Above is an example of the wonderful quirky trees found in ancient wood pasture (Geltsdale)

TreeLife is partnering with organisation who have expertise in managing livestock for ecosystem health. Caroline Grinodd of Wilderculture is an expert in Holistic Planned Grazing and The Horned Beef Company have old breeds of cattle in various locations in Cumbria for conservation grazing.

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Rewilding

This, now rather politicised term is really best defined as the attempt to create a ‘functioning ecosystem’. Wood pasture managed by grazers is about the closest we come to a functioning ecosystem with human management, and we at TreeLife believe that managed wood pasture is one of the best way to maintain a farming landscape that support biodiversity.

However there is also the desire by many to give some areas of the world completely back to natural processes – allowing a wilderness redevelop. This process is much the same as wood pasture. You need the right combination of large animals in order to create the functioning ecosystem and you need predators to keep their numbers in check and change the way the grazers behave.

First the grazers keep the balance between succession and degradation. And the rewilding project that are doing the best job of have a combination of different grazers and browsers, who play different roles. Cattle tend to graze the grasses and herbs, horses will do that too, but will also eat the bark of trees, this will kill a few trees, which creates new spaces in the system. Red deer will browse things that cattle and horse won’t such as hawthorn, so deer stop thorn thickets taking over the landscape.

Rewilding projects across Europe are bringing back animals from the brink of extinction and beyond. The European Bison that very nearly went extinct now have a 6000 strong stock across Europe. The Konik horse, a wild horse from Polland is being reintroduced across the north and west of Europe. The Hecks and Tauros cattle are both an attempt to recreate the extinct Auroch cattle that once roamed Europe. These big beast with horns are, unlike most other cattle able to defend themselves against wolves.

Predators are essential to maintaining the overall health of the ecosystem, to keep it truly functioning. This has been clearly seen in Yellowstone National Park in the USA where the reintroduction of wolves has completely changed the behaviour of the grazers – in this case deer and elk, which in turn has rejuvenation the entire ecosystem, to the point where even the rivers behave differently. Riparian areas have recovered, because, being a a less safe area to graze, trees have had a chance to regrow and the whole river ecosystem has become much more health and diverse.

Click the play button for a YouTube video from Yellowstone:
 

In Europe, wolves are also our top predator. There are in fact more wolves in Europe than in the USA. France, Germany, Spain, Italy to name a few, all have wolf populations, and even Holland are ready for their anticipated return as they migrate from Germany. In Britain, as an island we would have to reintroduce wolves. We have to decide, is the recreation of real wilderness something we want?

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