Rain lashes down on Devon’s green hills in waves. A lone ginkgo tree – a species so sacred it was adopted by Buddhist monks in Japan – stands watch over the forest below. Trees with superpowers are being grown here.
In the grounds of Perridge House, owned by Forestry Commission chair Sir Harry Studholme, is a 240-hectare woodland packed full of heat-resistant cedars and firs, and beetle-resistant elms. All are being grown in response to the threat of climate change.
A lot of how we talk about trees is tied up with a methodology. There is an inherent, deeper connection with us, as animals and beings, with forests.
“We’re at a really interesting moment, whether we like it or not,” says Studholme, whose 100-year-old organisation holds dominion over England’s publicly owned forests and regulates both public and private forestry.
Studholme sees the dangers of climate change from all directions. The changing climate could unleash pests and diseases from the US, Russia and Asia through global trade, while higher rainfall from the Atlantic could lead to waterlogged soils, he says. He adds that waterlogged soils could make trees more susceptible to mass uprooting by extreme winds, while many native trees will not be able to withstand droughts.
But there is hope.
Studholme and the Forestry Commission are experimenting with genetically diverse species as part of a programme designed to address potential threats over the next 50 years. Among these is a disease-resistant elm – Dutch elm disease has wiped out 17 million trees in the UK, almost three-quarters of the estimated population.
Meanwhile, alternative softwoods for the timber industry, such as the western red cedar, are being trialed here to pre-empt future threats such as the spruce-destroying Ips typographus, or eight-toothed spruce bark beetle. Studholme explains it has blitzed forests in Czechia, where thanks to global warming it is enjoying multiple reproductive cycles.
Climate change has forced the commission to think about different conservation approaches, including rewilding, says Studholme.
“The real value of rewilding is in the new ways of thinking in how we approach the landscape,” says Studholme. “We do need to learn to allow the magic of nature to happen.”
While there is not one single definition of rewilding, the charity Rewilding Britain defines it as the large-scale restoration of ecosystems through natural processes without human interference on a scale of 400ha or more. There are currently around 17 significant rewilding schemes in the UK, totalling more than 30,000ha.
One is Ennerdale, a 5,000ha site in the Lake District National Park, and Knepp Estate, a 1,400ha lowland project in West Sussex. Both have Forestry Commission involvement.
The concept has government backing – its 25-Year Environment Plan, published last year, was positive about the role rewilding could play in nature recovery. But Studholme has some reservations. In particular, he is concerned about the loss of productive agricultural land. He warns this could lead to higher carbon emissions from increased food imports.
“The Knepp Estate is great as it’s poor agricultural land,” he explains, “And rewilding presents an option for that, but we do need to think about what our footprint is on our planet... as we are then sucking our food in from elsewhere.”
The Forestry Commission has been involved with the reintroduction of smaller species, such as pine martens and beavers into the Forest of Dean, and most recently white-tailed sea eagles on the Isle of Wight. Studholme hopes that predators such as the pine marten will be able to reduce the numbers of problematic invasive species such as the grey squirrel.
“Grey squirrels are very damaging to trees, particularly when they ring-bark oak, beech and sycamore... which can easily kill it. They make the growing of broadleaf timber in the UK virtually impossible,” he says.
And if natural predators do not get the job done, Studholme has a different solution. Invasives, he suggests, could be served up as food, whether it be “grey squirrels in London restaurants” or eating more wild venison such as muntjac deer – another destructive non-native species.
While the commission continues its pioneering research it has also been getting on with the day job of fulfilling the government’s afforestation commitments to plant 11 million trees in England by 2020.
Planting trees in the UK is considered essential to combating climate change. In fact the government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, believe forest cover will need to jump from 13% of all UK land today up to 19% by 2050, saving 8-18 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2050.
But putting a value on England’s forests is not straightforward. The commission has created a set of natural capital accounts, which estimate that the natural capital worth of its land is £26bn, largely based on the carbon sequestration values ascribed from the carbon markets, the value of recreation and public access, as well as the value of the timber in the forest.
Studholme says the accounts have been a positive development. “They give us more of a methodology to make forestry decisions between differing pressures, natural capital accounts tells you most about things easiest to express in human financial terms,” he says.
But the concept is not without faults, Studholme believes.
“It’s quite difficult to compare the value of a curlew say with the value of a forest with a red squirrel in it... and the spiritual value of a forest is even harder to place,” says Studholme. “A lot of how we talk about trees is tied up with a methodology. There is an inherent, deeper connection with us, as animals and beings, with forests.”
- 1979 Engineering degree from University of Cambridge
- 1990 Took on ownership of the family’s Perridge Estate, a 240ha commercial forest
- 2001 Took on role as chair of the south-west committee of The Country Land and Business Association until 2003
- 2011 Chair and director of Phaunos Timber Fund, until 2017
- 2013 Became interim chair of the Forestry Commission, before position became permanent in 2014