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Kielder’s working forest and its silviculture story

A purpose-planted forest in England helps take the pressure off primary forests already teeming with rich biodiversity

Wildlife experts are working on the UK’s longest running study of birds in the Kielder Forest.
Wildlife experts are working on the UK’s longest running study of birds in the Kielder Forest. (Getty Images)

The little-known Kielder Forest is a haven tucked away in the north and centre of England, rubbing shoulders with Scotland. A swift train journey to Newcastle, followed by a cab ride over what once was Hadrian’s Wall, overlooking barley fields edged with wildflowers, brought us to northern Europe’s largest man-made forest, spanning 650,000 sq. km. It’s home to Kielder Lake, which has an inviting circular walking path of 44km dotted with soulful art installations.

The forest’s graceful contours appear to have been the handiwork of receding glaciers rather than earth-moving machinery and it has become a delightful destination for visitors who can come for the day, or tarry a while in the lakeside villas.

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Kielder Forest is like a swan, gliding serenely on the surface but paddling furiously underwater.

The lake is actually a reservoir built to store water and generate hydroelectricity, and the forest is a “working forest”. It was established after World War I by the freshly appointed forestry commission to overcome timber shortages but it went on to drive a countrywide boom in new plantations to provide wood for ships, mine-shafts, homes, biofuel, paper, etc. Back then, the government had acquired Kielder Estate as payment of the Duke of Northumberland’s death duties, and with amazing foresight, the notion of silviculture was put into practice.

Silviculture is the planting, tending, harvesting and replanting of saplings to maintain a sustainable supply of timber (silva in Latin is wood, and culture is cultivation). A purpose-planted forest takes the pressure away from valuable “old growth” and primary forests already teeming with rich biodiversity. It spares the countryside plantations that prevent floods and mudslides and those that shade highways and human habitation.

On our treks, my friend and I meandered through standing armies of tall Alaskan Sitka spruce trees, each one planted exactly 2.1m from the next one, with its branches held aloft like an acrobat balancing on a tight rope. Seventy-five per cent of Kielder Forest is made of these giants, which grow up to 100m tall and 5m wide. These evergreens are ideal for the impressive quantity of wood they yield and their ability to thrive in the cold and damp conditions of northern England. In many areas, the monoculture was interspersed with local species such as Scots pine, Douglas fir, birch, rowan, cherry, oak, beech and willow. Purple heather, yellow gorse, white daisies and pink clover daubed their colourful pigments atop the canvas of green woods and blue water.

Logger trucks in a snow-covered Kielder Forest, which accounts for 25% of England’s timber production.
Logger trucks in a snow-covered Kielder Forest, which accounts for 25% of England’s timber production. (Getty Images)

We kept a keen eye out for roe deer, hares, foxes, badgers, red squirrels and barn owls. There is some talk of releasing European lynxes into this wilderness, for they were naturally found here a few centuries ago.

From higher vantage points, the forest stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. Behind the scenes, harvesting machines were hard at work, felling, de-barking, loading and shipping up to 50 lorry-loads of timber a day. According to the forestry commission of England, half a million cubic metres of timber is harvested yearly from this forest and 3.5 million new saplings are planted each spring. Kielder Forest accounts for 25% of England’s timber production.

Once the ground has rested a bit, new saplings are planted with vigour and verve, with volunteers joining in. Tending, trimming, thinning, watching for pests, disease and fires is all part of growing a forest over and over again. The trees take around 40 years to mature, so they have already provided oxygen and moisture and sequestered carbon for four decades before they donate their timber. I am reminded of one of the most profound children’s picture books, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, where a tree loves a little boy. It gives the boy enormous joy as he plays with the leaves, swings from the branches, eats its apples and sleeps in its shade. When the boy grows up, he uses its branches to build a house and its trunk for a boat. The tree is happy to have given him everything it had. Eventually, as an old man, he tires and uses its stump to sit on and rest. And the tree is still happy to give him what it can.

It is vital that silviculture is practised wherever possible on our planet to take the pressure off existing woodlands and forests. Fifty-four per cent of the world’s forests are located in just five countries—Russia, Brazil, Canada, the US and China. According to a study by the US space agency Nasa, India’s forest cover has increased over the last 10 years. Beyond timber, our forests yield edible fruits and berries, tendu leaves, gums, resins, rattan and cane, spices, herbs, medicinal plants and a lot else. Our protected forests harbour epic biodiversity, including charismatic megafauna.

However, with the earth slated to heat further, it’s more urgent than ever to plant trees. India continues to import timber and shortages can turn to crisis overnight, especially with rampant illegal lopping and the timber mafia extracting wood day and night wherever possible, intimidating those who come in the way.

As individuals, we can take to silviculture on any unused land we might have, or plant on behalf of others. We can get involved with “amenity planting”. Look for any spaces where a tree might be able to exist and suggest planting a tree to the municipal or civic authority or the owner of the space. Sapling in hand, take to guerrilla planting in parks, on verges, outside homes, in parking lots, schools, supermarkets, and any unpaved areas. For there isn’t a person amongst us who doesn’t appreciate being immersed in the beauty and comfort of sylvan surrounds.

Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest.

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