Sunday at Bill's Mother's: 28th Jan 2024
Natural regeneration and tree planting: should humans plant trees, or leave it to the birds (and squirrels)? Plus brief news + condensed listings.
Morning. A longer feature about trees and woodlands today, asking if we should be tree planting this winter, or letting our woodlands get on with it themselves?
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If you have a lot of trees, along with a lot of squirrels, you tend to get a lot of woodland. That’s Sheffield in a nutshell, if you’ll pardon the convenient pun.
It’s tree planting season just now, and Sheffield has over 10,000 trees to plant, thanks largely to funding from the government’s Forestry Commission. But we also have all those squirrels, and Jays, and Beech and Hazel nuts, and acorns and catkins all doing their best to start growing new trees all over the place, with no help from us.
This is what our woodland professionals call ‘natural regeneration.’ We get a lot of it here, says Sheffield Council countryside manager Rowan Longhurst, because we’re lucky enough to have so many ancient woodlands.
“Natural regeneration is just letting nature do its thing,” she says.
Government tree planting targets can sometimes be fairly simple: ‘Hey, we need more trees, so let’s plant many hectares of them, right now, and tell everyone how eco we are,’ they tend to say.
But Sheffield is not like most cities, says Rowan. We already have scores of old woodlands, so we have to be more ‘considered’, she explains. Rowan and her team pick and choose what planting grants to find, because blanket native tree planting isn’t always the right answer for a wooded city like Sheffield.
It all sounds perfect, doesn't it? We let animals and birds and trees and weather get on with all those magical things they’ve been doing for thousands of years, and we get loads more trees and creatures to live in them. But what does natural regeneration actually look like?
Well, have a look at the young trees and bushes sprouting out of the decaying plastic mesh of the former Olympic training slopes of the ski village. Or try the brambly hillsides of the Shire Brook Valley nature reserve, above a valley that once housed sewage works and landfill sites. Or the bushes growing from the old mines at the bottom of Wadsley Common. All show emergent woodland trying to return to once very urban landscapes.
But if you find some undisturbed land at the edge of an existing ancient woodland, you’ll find the same tangle of thorns and young trees trying to get going.
These ‘edge’ habitats are full of life, says Rowan, with butterflies, bats, insects, hedgehogs, voles and birds of prey lurking, ready to eat most of the above. A fancy word for this kind of woodland is ‘ecotones.’ A less fancy word is ‘scrub.’
“Scrub is misunderstood as scruffy,” says Rowan. We need a better understanding of what scrub actually means, she adds, particularly since the millions of trees and bushes of Sheffield are trying so hard to grow more of it.
The sensible approach in a place where our landscape is busy trying to do its own thing, say officials like Rowan, is to work with that landscape, and crucially the people who live in and visit it.
So Sheffield’s community tree planting programme, which goes on until early March, tries to ask local people what to plant and where, and crucially to do quite a bit of the planting themselves.
Sheffield Council tree manager Jerry Gunton has been doing this for years, and says the city is a national example of community planting practice. If people plant trees in their neighbourhood, or their local school field, the trees tend to stay planted, he says.
“We did some planting in an estate in Northern Sheffield around ten years ago, and after working there for a while a lot of local youths turned up to do the tree planting,” Jerry says. "There'd been lots of vandalism in this particular area, and I remember all these kids sort of hugging the tree, and one of them saying: ‘Anyone touches this tree, I'm going to kill them.’ And as far as I know, those trees are still there.”
Community planting is also about simply getting the job done. And at the scale sometimes required, it can raise concerns about what it actually looks like.
There are now thousands of plastic tree guards at Rough Standhills, for example, where the statutory government order to clear diseased trees from the old Whirlow larch plantation also carried with it an order to plant native trees to replace them, so as not to reduce tree cover targets.
The site was an ancient woodland up to the 1960s (when someone thought planting a larch plantation instead might be a good idea), so remnants of centuries old woodland like Holly and Rowan are trying to gain a foothold again amongst thousands of new ‘whips’ (or small saplings). The tree guards have to be there for a few years, says Jerry, due to foraging Roe and Red Deer, which would eat unprotected young trees.
Staff at Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust make the wise point that natural regeneration is naturally different everywhere it happens. It depends what native trees are there, the soil, what animals and birds might be around to help, which way the wind blows, all that kind of thing.
Natural regeneration tends to favour trees that do well at a site anyway, but that might be hundreds of new young Silver Birch and Oak trees in a habitat where a more open environment might be judged better for biodiversity. Planting plans will also consider trees at risk from diseases like Ash dieback, or even what trees might survive in a warming and wetter world.
And what about the ‘amenity’ value of the landscape? If human visitors matter too, do we want a scrub woodland that might not look spectacular for the next 10-15 years?
It’s a delicate balance, but not many cities are in our position, where we’re almost holding back the trees to try and create a patchwork of different habitats that should help insect and bird and butterfly numbers recover.
An old landfill site between Beighton and Woodhouse, Linley Bank, was a large grey mound when I visited with rangers a few years ago. After landscaping it over, the rangers told me it would soon fill with wildflowers and rare birds like Skylarks. It’s now Linley Bank Meadow, part of the Shire Brook Valley nature reserve, and the Skylarks nest and sing there every spring.
Much of this year’s 10,000 tree planting allocation is going to Linley Bank, not to plant a forest but shorter trees like Hawthorn and Hazel that will grow into hedges around the meadows, protecting the Skylarks and wildflowers, and to eventually replace the current wire fences, originally put in to to keep dogs and small children away from the growing meadow and its ground nesting birds.
Taller trees would just provide perches for birds of prey, like Sparrowhawks, which would then unhelpfully eat the protected Skylarks.
Around three kilometres of hedges will be community planted at Shire Brook Valley (book your place to help here) in February and March. The very active Shire Brook Valley Heritage and Conservation groups are also striving with the council to bring in over a million pounds of additional funding for wildlife protection work.
Community Forester Tom Broadhead has seen the site change over the years, and tells me working somewhere like this gives rangers and conservationists the chance to talk about all these matters with the tree-planting public, especially school groups, which will help encourage locals to value the site in future.
Past generations knew about working our woodlands to keep them growing, and providing fuel and tools and fencing.
“All this we’re doing now is for future generations really,” says Tom Broadhead. “Somebody in the past has done it for us, which is why we’ve got so many trees. So it’s nice for us to do it for someone else.”
Humans desperate for more trees need to find the right mix of natural and community planting, when we want our green spaces to increase biodiversity, sequester carbon in wet woodlands, and reduce flooding.
Particularly when all Sheffield’s seeds and nuts and catkins are trying their best to re-wood our city around us.
Sustainable Urban Drainage
We’ve had a lot of rain recently, you may have noticed, and although many of us have heard of the city centre Grey to Green multicoloured urban drainage architecture, I hear the city’s less famous Sustainable Urban Drainage Schemes (SUDS) have also been doing their job.
Ponds and swales and underground drainage schemes have been collecting surface rain water in places like Parson Cross and the Carr Brook watercourse and reducing the risk of flooding: they’ve taken the flow of water down by over 95% in some cases, I’m told. I’ll have more on this in a future post.
There were 907 runners at Endcliffe parkrun yesterday, the highest ever total in Sheffield and the second highest in Yorkshire. Organisers keen to avoid congestion on the revised route point out that there are plenty of other parkruns in Sheffield if you don’t like it thronging: Millhouses and Hillsborough are a jog away, for example.
Meanwhile, the new Parkwood Springs parkrun is to open in early summer. Organisers have a fundraiser to raise the £4,000 needed. The route is hilly, but spectacular, they say. Full subscribers will get more on this in their Round at Bill’s Mother’s post this coming week, all being well.
Chet Cunago, from Sheffield Swift Network, has just won a national award from Birdwatch magazine for her work rescuing and campaigning for the migrants that only visit the UK for around 14 weeks every year. She and colleagues are busy pushing for the installation of swift bricks in all new housing to help numbers of breeding swifts recover. More in a future post.
Selected What’s On Out There (from Sun 28th Jan)
If you’re in a group who put on outdoor events and want me to include them, please stick them in the comments below as follows: Date, What it is, Online link.
Sun 28th - Sheffield Conservation Volunteers work day at Wadsley & Loxley Common
Sun 28th - Big Garden Birdwatch Walk - Manor Fields Park
Mon 29th - Finding Lost Norton Park at Graves Park - Identifying lichens talk by Dr Paul Ardron at Lees Hall Golf Club
Weds 31st - Learn to Ride cycling (CycleBoost) at Hillsborough - booking required
Weds 31st - Sheffield Ramblers Walk - Bakewell, Ashford in the Water and Monsal Trail (10m - from bus station)
Thurs 1st Feb - SRWT Volunteer Work Day - Moss Valley
Thurs 1st - Finding Lost Norton Park at Graves Park - Identifying lichens guided walk by Dr Paul Ardron
Sat 3rd - Sheffield Cycle Tours Cycle Ride to Forge Dam from Tudor Square
Sat 3rd - Ranger-led Conservation at Wardsend Cemetery
Sat 3rd - Volunteer Session at Whirlow Brook Park
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