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Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Woodland Management: Not without its red tape (Felling Licences)

An adapted version of this post will also appear on the NEW Riddy Wood Project blog 
- if you've not seen it already check it out HERE!

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I will happily tell anyone who asks why I decided to work in the conservation sector that it was to allow me to play with chainsaws, 4x4's and fire for the rest of my career. So far that plan is working out fairly well. I've got those all important felling tools and a vehicle to get me into the woods, often the fire burns through the day to help reduce the sheer quantity of brash being generated by the thinning and coppicing and, most importantly, the tranquillity that comes from being the only person in the wood (often) and all the wildlife which goes with it. Wonderful! 

I have realised by now of course that it isn't all fun and games! The insects in the woods in the summer for example, are merciless. For us on the edge of the Fens its Mosquito's, I know in other places it is other species, midges perhaps, but they are ... unpleasant! It is hard work, but I can live with that, it helps me sleep at night. The safety gear makes me sweat like a woolly pig in a heatwave! - but better safe than sorry. The financial side of things is less than ideal, especially to begin with while firewood is seasoning: nothing is life is free! I'm certainly not in it for the money at present let's put it that way.

On a more serious and informative note, another facet of woodland management, and to a certain extent other conservation activities, I hadn't put too much thought into when I embarked on my chosen career path was the associated paper work. With my work in Riddy Wood, and our other woodlands too, we had to bite the bullet and look into the legal conditions of felling licences to ensure our project was all above board and correct. Here I'll try to give a brief but broad run down on felling licence legislation, how it applies to our work, why its there and the benefits to woodland management as an industry.

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First it is worth stating for the record that at present we at Riddy Wood DO NOT have a felling licence. Second it is certainly worth explaining that at present all our work is performed legally within the exemptions of felling licence conditions. The general rule is that a felling licence applies to all felling, but with exemptions. These exemptions include certain locations where permission is not required, certain situations under which a licence is not required but the relevant portion to our work currently is in regard to 1) the size of the trees we are felling and why we are felling them and 2) the quantity of trees, or more specifically the volume of timber, we fell per calender quarter. 

The majority of the felling we are carrying out at present is either thinning or coppicing

Thinning involves felling selected trees to reduce the density of trees in a given area allowing the remaining trees 'growing room' to establish and to reduce the density of the leaf canopy. When thinning, trees under 10 cm (4 inches) diameter at chest height (1.3 m above ground level) do not count towards the quarterly timber quota (more on that in a minute). 

Coppicing involves felling a broad leaved tree at ground level with the intention of allowing it to regrow, allowing regrown material to be harvested from it in a regular cycle. For coppicing trees under 15 cm (6 inches) in diameter at chest height are not counted in the quota. 

Another type of felling, Pollarding, is similar in principle to coppicing but trees are cut off above ground level to prevent regrowth being browsed, or eaten, by mammals such as rabbits or deer. This type of felling does not count towards the quota regardless of size. Our pollarding at present is limited but we may explore increasing the number of trees we pollard due to the heavy toll deer browsing has on regrowth in Riddy Wood. 

When trees to be thinned or coppiced are above the size limits described above a total of 5 cubic meters can be felled per calender quarter (Jan - Mar, Apr - June, July - Sept, Oct - Dec) before a licence is required. Therefore when we are felling if we encounter larger trees which are planned to be felled we keep track of both diameter and height to allow us to calculate what volume of timber we have felled,  ensuring we remain within the quota. At present, the woods having been unmanaged for so long, there are a some trees which are within our management plans which exceed this size, although so far not so many that we have had to delay any felling to keep within our legal limitations. 

A large proportion of the larger timber we have on the ground in the wood at present actually fell down of its own accord and we have simply processed it along with the other timber. Our first few work trips to the wood after we first took on the management were taken up largely with processing fallen trees, and several more have fallen down since then. This obviously doesn't apply to felling licence conditions as it is outside of our control. As I write this Storm Barney is moving across the UK in the footsteps of Storm Abigail (I think that was her name): when I arrive in the woods next week I wouldn't be surprised to find another one or two trees have been blown over or least damaged by the high winds. 

The video below is me clearing up one of the last trees to fall. Another has come down since!

Felling licences also do not apply to dead standing timber which allows us to remove some of the standing dead wood we have. We would never remove all of these trees because standing deadwood is an importance ecological resource for species living in the woods and is often in short supply in managed woodland: we plan to buck the trend in this regard by retaining plenty of deadwood, both standing and lying, for those species which utilise it. 

To this point the red tape component has been fairly easy going. We simply have to be aware of the limitations within which we are working, keep track of volumes felled on applicable trees and ensure we plan our work effectively so at not to risk pushing the boundaries. The time may well come when we do need to apply for a licence because working within the exemptions will be too restricting. When this time comes we have already got the ground work in place. 

For a start, a check with the local district council confirmed that no TPO's (Tree Preservation Orders) apply to any of the woodlands which we have taken on. This is good news for us because of the potential limitations placed on woodland management where these do apply. Further none of the land has any statutory protection or conservation designation (e.g. SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), NNR (National Nature Reserve) etc). Land so designated has management restrictions placed upon it to protect either species or habitat features found in or on that site. That's not to say that woodland management WOULD NOT be allowed, because it is very beneficial to a wide range of species and in fact it may even be legally REQUIRED in certain areas depending on the reason for the site designation. 

We also have a general management plan in place already (you can read it here), but it needs to be updated and expanded with regards to the spatial specifics; details such as exact coup sizes and boundaries, rotation patterns etc. to make it as comprehensive as we would like it to be. This is something which is ongoing - a habitat management plan is a working document, it should not be static but dynamic allowing changes to be made even after it is 'completed'. The principles we have laid down will not change, except in very specific circumstances for carefully considered reasons, but the spatial application may be altered to suit depending on the woodlands themselves. This is one of the things which makes practical habitat management so fascinating to me, it cannot be done effectively without intimate knowledge of the area the plan is written for! Gaining that knowledge is the process which keeps me on the edge of my seat so to speak. 

A habitat management plan would be essential were we to be applying for a felling licence. It would document for example details and locations of trees to be felled and why, but a felling licence goes beyond that. It is a legislative tool to protect woodlands. For example a felling licence places ongoing conditions upon the land where the felling takes place including restocking provision, timing of felling adjacent areas and others. 

I am confident that our plans would be in keeping with the guidelines the Forestry Commission (who grant felling licences in England and Scotland - in Wales it is now the remit of Natural Resources Wales) having discussed them with a FC representative a few months ago. An example would be the replanting of areas where natural regrowth isn't successful - with Ash Dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus formerly known as Chalara fraxinea) already confirmed in our woods and surrounding woodland there is a very real chance that the Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) we are coppicing will die in its early stages of regrowth. If this does happen we will replant these areas with different species, probably Hazel (Corylus avellana) to ensure that tree cover is not lost. Another condition mentioned to me was relating to the proportion of the woodland to be managed in any one year: it should not be above 20% of total area; our plan involves managing perhaps 5 - 7.5% maximum of any of our woodlands in anyone one year. 

We could discuss further the details of this application process but I think we have covered the basics and hopefully given you readers who may not have had similar experience a taste of what is required in managing a woodland legally. While it is red-tape, paper work, and even requires working with computers and in a office, it doesn't take away from the job satisfaction for me because it confirms that work is being carried out sensitively and appropriately and that the woodland habitat won't suffer as a result.  


NB: all details on Felling Licence applications can be accessed online through the Forestry Commission website (for England) -

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