Many of us will soon be putting up our Christmas trees for the festive season. Decorated trees are a tradition imported from Germany by the royal family in the 19th Century. For me, the traditional species is Norway Spruce, but that has gradually been replaced by the Nordman Fir, which loses its needles less quickly. They are generally around 10 years old when cut and, with 6-8 million trees sold in Britain each year, most of which are grown here, their plantations cover a considerable land area.
Conifer plantations have had a bad press. There was a drive to create a national reserve of timber, after woodland cover reached an all-time low after the First World War. This resulted in large-scale afforestation of areas where soils were poor, often in ugly rectilinear blocks of single species. While young plantations had a short-lived boost in biodiversity, as the canopy closed, these woodlands often became lifeless. As conifers produce an economic yield up to 6 times faster than deciduous trees, and as the softwood they produce is in high demand for a huge number of uses, we do need these trees. However, management is very different today, large monocultural blocks are a thing of the past. More diverse mixes of species, planting which takes more account of drainage and landform, and the retention or creation of open habitat areas within the forest have become the norm. A number of conifer stands in an existing deciduous wood may increase diversity, while improving commercial viability. Many ancient woods have survived on this basis which might otherwise have been lost as woodland habitat.
More forests are now being managed on a continuous cover approach. This seeks to avoid extensive clear felling – taking out all the trees in an area at once – but to create more structurally diverse forests with a greater range of species under a continuous canopy. This avoids sudden changes in habitat conditions, to which wildlife finds it difficult to adapt, reduces erosion and could make the forest more resilient to risks from disease and changes in climate.
Obviously, this approach cannot be applied to the Christmas Tree plantations. However, as the trees are spaced to let the light get in, to create the conical trees we love, they can still provide a home for wildlife, especially if pesticides are avoided.
It is estimated that artificial trees generate 7 - 20x more carbon than a natural tree. So, if you do have one, it is essential to reuse it as many times as possible. But those of us sticking with natural trees can reduce the carbon footprint by sourcing it locally to keep down the tree miles and by disposing of it thoughtfully. A tree bought from a superstore may have been brought all the way from Scotland (and might have been felled weeks ago and so be ready to drop its needles as soon as you decorate it). The worst option for disposal is to send it to landfill; chipping, burning, or composting all result in lower carbon emissions. Wiltshire County Council will collect old trees from residents with green bins and compost them, or there are charities which collect them for recycling in return for a small donation.
Photo: Avocets (Izzy Fry)
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