Felling trees for conservation

In recent articles there has been much debate and discussion around whether shooting animals for conservation purposes is right or wrong.

Is shooting animals right, in the name of conservation, to preferentially help another species survive?

It is surprising but this same question needs considering for another debate; conserving woodlands. Extreme conservationists have applied this same principle to saving specific species of tree, in short reducing one species to make room for another.

When talking about an invasive species, or simply an over population of a native species, its suggested that culling is an appropriate method of maintaining populations. For example, the grey squirrel has taken habitat and food away from the red squirrel. High quantities of deer can also cause destruction of natural habitats. In these situations selective culling is a method of maintaining a manageable level.

Whether this is a successful or even ethical strategy, isn’t for discussion here ( Shooting for conservation ? ). However, many would argue that the principal of conservation is that you should never harm wildlife. While I tend to agree with this concept of conservation, it is not always as straight forward.

Ideologies of Greenpeace and other well-known charities make us imagine people chained to trees, camping up in the canopies or blocking any form of construction from infringing on any tree! But we must acknowledge that the removal of swathes of trees across the country to achieve a positive outcome.

Yes, if trees removed for the purpose of construction and I completely condemn this act. The environmental compensation offered by companies is severely lacking and mostly consists of planting new for old. Replacing the trees removed has little or no initial benefit for wildlife, especially when replaced with a differing species of tree and placed in inappropriate areas/spacing. However, replacing with shrubs and flowers can significantly benefit to the wildlife that the replacement of simple mono tree woodland lacks.

You may ask: Is this type of conservation a misguided attempt to save what we see as the most important, pretty or useful of the species, with little regard for the natural progression of wildlife and the environment?

In answering this we must consider how this method attempts to restore balance within the environment, not just allowing the survival of the fittest and fastest to adapt, but of a well-rounded spread of species that all rely on each other for survival, including us!

Balanced Woodland

The natural balancing of our woodlands was successfully maintained by the varying mammals that once roamed freely in the United Kingdom. Obviously, many of these mammals no longer exist / lack the freedom they once had (as discussed before Where are the mammals? ). Years ago larger animals would naturally fell trees, eat specific varieties of tree and vegetation, helping to keep habitats varied and dynamic. However, since the inevitable intervention of the human species, specific native and non-native species now dominate woodlands.

To counter act this domination of specific species, conservation groups have started to remove areas of dense woodland, replacing it with wildflowers, heather and other different species. This strategy has had a significant and positive impact on woodland ecosystems.

On the outset it seems incredibly destructive, cutting down a 2-year-old oak or birch, but limited biodiversity results in fewer habitats for wildlife. Blue tits, dunnocks, nightingales are commonly found around thickets that have few trees; this allows the birds to get access to their food source, insects/berries.

Dense woodland prevents sunlight hitting the woodland floor which reduces the variety of vegetation that can grow and survive in such conditions. It is this vegetation that allows a habitat for insects and subsequently birds to thrive. For example, dense silver birch woodland provides nesting habitat for long-tailed tits and food for greenfinches. However, silver birch self-seeds very efficiently which causes overcrowding and competition for sun and nutrition. Ultimately, without wildlife eating the seeds, the birch is left to overtake woodland areas creating a dense over population of taller, thinner trees.

Species variation helps to create differently shaped and sized trees within a woodland area. The advantage of a variety of sizing is in the sun’s opportunity to enter the forest and reach the forest floor, allowing the growth of vegetation. Instances of a single species ultimately blocking out sunlight to prevent shrubs and flowers from surviving, is seen in pine forests. You may have noticed that in dense pine woodland you will rarely see daffodils or blue bells; there is simply not enough sunlight.



Example of pine woodland in my local reserve, which lets no light to the forest floor. These are left as different habitats interact to make it more productive.


I myself try to add some diversity to these areas of densely populated woodland by volunteering as a ranger. Our aim is to effect change that will achieve what mammals, birds and insects managed to do naturally years ago.

The reserve in Sussex where I volunteer, a small-scale park, run both as a public space and nature reserve. Like you, at first I had my reservations about this method and on the outset it seemed destructive. However, after gaining further experience and insight I realised that when you initially look at woodland everything looks wonderful, but on closer inspection, you notice that certain species dominate and I could find little evidence of diverse wildlife. This is in part because many woodlands are in fact planted by man, dominated by a single species harvested for fuel, where now it’s for to nature. By clearing areas to plant a heathland ecosystem, including wild flowers or grassland, we are creating a variety of habitats.



Beautiful area in the reserve that used to be dominated by invasive species such as rhododendron and birch. Now huge swathes are covered in heather, rimmed by birch still an important habitat.

Coppicing is the method used to remove large trees. The different types of tree is cut to ground level which increases the amount of sun and warmth to the forest floor. Different areas are coppiced at different times to enable different sizes and ages of trees in varying parts of the reserve to exist. The coppiced trees encourage brambles and other fruit bearing plants to accumulate and grow. Flowers such as wild garlic, daffodils, thistles and others offer a source of food for birds and insects. The grassland provides wonderful materials for bird nests and homes for a variety of small mammals and insects. The heather provide a great source of pollen for a range of insects, most crucially bees, and thus give food for a variety of  birds. Lizards enjoy heathland areas, the open air and sunlight allows them to bask in the sun. Lizards  and nesting birds are in turn preyed upon by buzzards, which we are lucky to have in our reserve. The high concentration and biodiversity of food in the habitat encourages buzzards and other wildlife to nest and breed successfully.


An example from the reserve of open areas with selected trees left behind. Heather and other small shrubs can grow with the sunlight creating habitats and a source of food for a range of wildlife.

Unfortunately it is not a case of removing high concentrations of trees and then watching the grassland and heathland grow. Both the heather and grasses are low growing ground plants and quickly swamped by birch and other fast growing trees. Therefore, it is important that we continue to monitor and encourage the growth of smaller plants. This is ultimately the reason for the decline of heathland and wild flower habitats as it requires significant upkeep to maintain that habitat and is much easier to plant a woodland as it will quickly grow.

To me the advantage of cutting and coppicing trees has a far greater benefit on wildlife diversity as  well as providing a source of industry and income. The coppiced tree will usually grow back and in doing so will require regular trimming to help maintain the heathland and grassland areas. This provides a constant supply of natural firewood. The selling of large tree stumps can offer a significant income to my local reserve. This income can then fund outreach events and other conservation tools.

I am not suggesting that trees need harvesting just for fuel, I am suggesting that areas require careful management to increase biodiversity. With this type of management would see significant increases in available habitat which will, in turn, encourage a plethora of species. A lot is already done, but as always more should.

With humans taking over much of the countryside there are fewer habitats of heathland and wildflower meadows. We are the main catalyst of negative change within the environment as we turn countryside into rural communities and replace what was once thriving habitat with new trees.

Humans now need to step up and be a source of positive change. We need to complete the process that was once fulfilled by nature. Join your local volunteering group its amazing what you can do. Help wildlife to combat the many obstacles we have created.


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I am a trained geologist who has a passion for conservation and working with wildlife. I write articles that interest me and that I am passionate about using skills and knowledge to highlight issues related to climate change. I don’t write articles for views, I write them to change views.

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