The regeneration game

A programme of woodland regeneration to protect trees from a deadly disease has created a vibrant habitat for a wide range of animals and plants. Kim John reports

Back in 2012, Clinton Devon Estate was forced to fell 15 hectares of mature Japanese larch tree at Otterton Hill when the crop was threatened by a fungus-like pathogen.

The deadly air-borne tree disease Phytophthora ramorum had been identified nearby and had already decimated swathes of trees in the south west region. The estate forestry team, led by John Wilding, quickly sprang into action and secured a licence from the Forestry Commission.

In a race against time, the trees were harvested before they became infected. John, who has been Forester at the estate for more than 20 years, says: “We had no choice but to proactively remove the trees, and we did it in the nick of time.”

They managed to save a 50-year-old crop and protect further woodland from becoming infected by creating a ‘firebreak’ in the trees. The estate has been lucky to avoid the disease, despite neighbours being affected.

“It’s not often you’ll find larch looking sick, but when you see it, it can change rapidly,” John says. The harvest was followed by replanting a combination of Douglas fir and oak and allowing the natural regeneration of sycamore, silver birch and pine, letting the cycle begin again but with a wider range of species.

Image 2 - John Wilding assesses the young woodland on Otterton Hill.jpg
John Wilding assessing the young woodland

The estate manages 1,900ha of sustainable, high-quality, multipurpose woodlands that deliver biodiversity, recreational and landscape benefits. Managed woodland accounts for 17% of the estate area. The woodland comprises a mixture of commercial conifers and native broadleaves, which provide a wide range of habitats for many plants and animal species.

The estate is also involved in farming, deer management, residential property and has a portfolio of commercial properties across the south west. It is also home to one of the region’s best-equipped equestrian event venues at Bicton. The estate also owns commons at Woodbury, a major part of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths SSSI, which has just been made a National Nature Reserve.

Management success

John hopes that the success of the Otterton Hill woodland project highlights the estate’s commitment to forestry management and doing the right thing for the land and the environment. The estate highlighted the success seen at Otterton Hill to the press as part of a PR strategy to help the public understand that tree felling is sometimes necessary to protect future generations of woodland.

Ash dieback

Shortly after Phytophthora, ash dieback started to create issues, and the estate took the same proactive approach to manage the trees infected by the disease. Implementing the same process that was used on Otterton Hill, felled ash will be replaced with new species to provide commercial regeneration.

“Around five years ago, as we saw the disease advance, we began our ash felling plans,” John explains. “If the disease advances too far, the cost of removing it increases exponentially and is hugely dangerous. Next winter we will begin to replant with a mixture of broadleaf and conifer.”

There are no plans to replant with beech, as it will be destroyed by grey squirrels. “We need to bring the issue of grey squirrels into focus,” he says. “There needs to be a societal change in the view of the grey squirrel, and the public needs to be educated that this invasive species is destroying the nation’s native trees, making it difficult to plan for the future.” With science rapidly progressing, there are promising signs on the management of this pest, allowing the opportunity for red squirrels to be reintroduced back to UK woodlands without the threat posed by greys. John is passionate about the work he is doing now and what it will mean for future generations, but he also enjoys seeing the more immediate changes at the Otterton Hill site. Its ‘thicket stage’ offers the perfect habitat for the deer population, songbirds are nesting and chaffinch numbers have improved. In the early stages of the newly-felled woodland, nightjars were found across the site.

As the habitat emerges and changes, we’ll see a whole host of different plant and wildlife species at the site.

Vital work

It has been a busy year for the estate’s woodland team. Forestry workers were designated as key workers at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020.

“Our work never really stopped,” says John. “The pandemic highlighted the importance of the timber industry to our economy and society. Throughout the pandemic, demand was very high and pallet wood, in particular, was in huge demand. The demand for construction and fencing timber has been insatiable.”

The estate’s timber is used in many ways – supplying sawmills and manufacturers in wood processing industries, making products for construction, fencing and in agriculture, packaging and biomass fuels.

The estate introduced a biomass system in 2009, which powers its office and offers district family heating. Carbon accounting is hugely important to the estate, and it monitors what it is emitting throughout its activities.

Educating the public continues to be an important area. The team continues to make sure Clinton Devon Estate remains fully engaged, allowing the public to understand why certain trees might be felled, what the plans are for the future and how these changes help in terms of wildlife reintroduction.