Tree planting in Brora, Sutherland.
My apologies to anyone who pays any attention to this occasional blog and has noted the lack of posts in recent months. Work has been good and all that, but there has not been much of interest to report.
To make amends for my silence, I thought that I would provide a little information about a small woodland planting project that I have been working on at Brora, Sutherland.
Yesterday I left the house early to meet the tree planting contractor at the site. That is not in itself a particularly unusual event in itself, but seeing as I previously uploaded a few pictures of my earlier planning work here to my Facebook page (this link) I thought that it would be nice to do a follow up post with some news from the other side of the woodland design and grant approval process.
The planting contractor - John McNally of Boreal Forestry - was there to plant around seven thousand trees in the this future woodland to be. Everything was ready to go, with the ground fenced to protect the young trees from wild deer and livestock and the ground spot-cultivated with an excavator to create a planting position for each individual tree.
The process is commonly referred to as 'mounding' and these excavator mounds provide many benefits for the young tree. For instance, the mounding process mixes the soil horizons so that nutrients washed down into lower strata by the rain are now within the reach of the young trees, it improves drainage in the immediate vicinity of the young tree, it creates a raised planting position leading to a warmer growing environment, organic matter in the surface layers are incorporated throughout the soil, and weeds are knocked-back for a short period of time.
The mounds were created last summer by a local contractor who was already known to my client, the farm owner. This machine operator did an excellent job and between the three of us we were able to get the work done painlessly and at less cost to the farmer than would usually be the case.
He saved on my fees too as finding, appointing and managing the ground preparation contractor is something that I would normally expect to do.
This approach worked well for the both of us. He saved a portion of my fees and I was able to spend more time on other matters, such as procuring a supply of trees to plant in the project area.
It took a little work to finalise the specification for the the trees and to order the planting stock as I discovered that some of the native broadleaves proposed by my original plan were going to be unavailable come the anticipated planting date (today!) Because of this, I had to agree an alternative species mix with the Forestry Commission, who were acting as grant regulators in this instance.
This amended species mix was guided by both the growing conditions on the site (soil, altitude, exposure, fertility) as well as the stock levels anticipated by various tree nurseries for at least six months down the line.
The provenance of that future planting stock also had to be right.
'Provenance' with regard to trees sold by a nursery means the same as the common use of the word 'provenance' - i.e. where something comes from.
Foresters are expected to identify the provenances of the trees that they intend to use in their projects. This is necessary because new native woodlands should be planted with trees grown from seed or vegetative material collected in the same general area as the proposed new woodland. Doing this provides the young trees with the best chance that they will be suited to the local climate and growing conditions.
To formalise this approach, a system has been established by the Forestry Commission for this purpose and one often hears mention of these ‘seed zones’ in talk pertaining to the supply and planting of trees for native woodlands.
It is not unusual to experience these kinds of tree supply problems and from time to time it can even be necessary to instruct a nursery to contract grow particular trees in order to avoid them.
For example, a forester could have plans for a large woodland in an area where trees of the right provenance are just not grown in large numbers in the nursery trade. Even if they are, there can be years where seed production in the wild is unexpectedly low and contract growing can be a useful, if costly, precautionary approach.
The can be other reasons for growing trees under contract.
For example, I worked on a project where the woodland owner wanted me to restock a timber harvesting site with Silver birch (Betula pendula) for future timber production purposes.
I could not obtain the right planting stock as that which was available from the general nursery trade at the time was intended for native woodland projects and had not been selected for its timber production potential.
As a workaround, I identified a local stand of Silver birch that was well known for its straight and lightly branched trees and I arranged for seed to be collected from them and grown on to become the next rotation for this particular forest.
Contrast this approach with seed zones for conifers that are grown for timber production purposes.
In this situation, because most of the conifers used for plantation forestry are non-native species, it is somewhat redundant to be talking about seed zones as if they matter. Instead, it is common for the forester to identify particularly well performing stands within his or her wider geographic area and then seek to obtain planting stock grown from seed obtained within them. To make it easier for the buyer, commercial nurseries often identify the specific forest of origin of the conifers that they supply to this purpose.
[Edited 17/3/18 to add that this is a gross simplification. In fact, provenance can be very important for conifers when selecting seed or vegetative material from overseas, where the same species will grow very differently in the UK depending on where the parent material comes from. Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) is a excellent example of this, where trees grown from seed collected in the coastal provinces of areas such as Alaska produces considerably better timber than seed collected from stands in the Canadian interior.]
Many nurseries go much further than that and they either produce trees that are vegetatively propagated from an exceptional specimen (thus creating clones that will exhibit identical characteristics) or they will establish their own seed orchards so that they have more control over the genetics of the trees they grow.
The trees in these seed orchards are either allowed to freely pollinate themselves or they are pollinated in a controlled manner. These two similar-yet-different approaches result in planting stock that is either of the 'half sibling' variety (where only the mother is 100% known) or of the 'full sibling' variety (where both parents are known because of controlled pollination).
Anyway, I digress.
As mentioned before, this project area at Brora was intended to be a native woodland. In fact, it was to be a native Scots pine woodland and around six thousand trees of this species were delivered to the farm yesterday for this purpose. To comply with the UK Forestry Standard - and also because it makes good sense - an element of native broadleaves were also to be planted among the pines.
Therefore, the following broadleaves arrived with the pine:
30 Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
178 Grey willow (Salix cinerea)
249 Aspen (Populus tremula)
30 Common hazel (Corylus avellana)
628 Downy birch (Betula pubescens)
47 Silver birch (Betula pendula)
I won’t write much here about the species choice, other than to say that aspen trees happen to have been a popular preference in forestry circles for several years. This interest is well deserved as the species supports a unique fauna and has an interesting autocology in many ways.
What's more, they also look fantastic with their leaves gently quaking in the breeze and their handsome autumn colour.
My client, the farmer, knows his trees well and we both thought that some substantial stands of aspen would make a great contribution to the ecological benefits of the new woodland while adding some nice visual amenity to this part of the farm, which lies between the more gentle lower ground and the more rugged bog and moorland habitats on the highest ground within the land holding.
The ability of new woodlands to deliver such multi faceted benefits - environmental, visual amenity, recreation - is a significant reason for providing land owners with access to grant supported forestry in my opinion. Planting new woodlands is to everyone’s benefit and not just the owner of the land on which the trees are planted.
What’s more, the owner may even make a little surplus money from the work, although this depends on the scale of the project.
I should also add at this stage that, while there is nothing stopping landowners from developing a woodland planting plan and nudging it through the grant approval process without the assistance of a forester (and thus saving on some expenditure) I do think that the cost of professional input is worth it in the long run - particularly if those costs can be minimised wherever possible by sharing the workload between client and forester, as I did in this particular case a Brora.
Getting back to the site itself and my reason for being there, my work for the day was actually fairly straightforward: I was to see the contractor for a pre start meeting, ensure that he had access to all the trees and any other materials that he required, and then walk around the planting area with him to identify where each particular tree species was to go.
Of course, I produced a map for that purpose, but nothing beats a quick stroll with the main planting guy to make it come to life and increase the chances of the right tree going in the right place.
Sometimes, if the project warrants it, I will also physically mark out the areas for each species with bamboo canes or other markers. That can help a lot on larger projects where there are not so many landmarks or distinguishing features than can be used by the planters to orientate themselves with the printed map.
I know the contractor well (John McNally of Boreal Forestry), so I was able to quickly work through the formalities necessary at the start of a new planting job and leave him and his squad to it, although not before giving them a hand with moving some of those several thousand trees around the site, ready for planting.
At times like that, the cost of a winter spent sitting in front of the computer is all too apparent: I contributed little and sweated much!
I returned home to start working on the grant claim, confident that the planting work would be finished within a few days.
In the future, I intend to write a little more about the workings of the Forestry Grant Scheme and the wider Scotland Rural Development Programme.
In that regard, I don't suppose everyone reading this will know how it works and what can - or cannot - be done with grant support. The timings too, from inception to grant approval to planting the trees, is not always easy to understand for those that have not done this before and I think some explanations would help the uninitiated.
Also, perhaps, a little more information on what those grant rates are, what the costs are likely to be, and what, as a forestry consultant, you should expect me - or anyone else - to bring to the party.
On that note I should conclude what has been a fairly lengthy post.
“Well done” if you made it to the end. “Tsk tsk” if you skipped most of it (now go back and read it!).
However you arrived at these final few paragraphs, I wish to say 'thanks' for reading as much as you did. I hope this have provided a little insight into tree planting in the Scottish Uplands.
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