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A story exists of the Oxford University college bursar who, faced with rot in the 16th century hammerbeam roof of the great hall, called in the head woodman of the college estates.
“I wondered whether I would ever hear from you in my lifetime,” said the woodman.
“You see, the founder of the college foresaw this event 500 years ago and planted a spinney of oaks specially to provide replacement timbers when needed.
“ We will have to fell the trees now and of course plant more in case this happens again during the next 500 years.”
But, according to Dr Gabriel Hemery, chief executive, of the Sylva Foundation, a charity founded in March this year and based at Little Wittenham to promote sustainable forest management, the importance of wood production for economic benefit is these days being too much overlooked in Britain.
He said: “The UK is the second least afforested country in Europe. It has only 12 per cent of its area covered in trees. England alone has even fewer, with nine per cent and Oxfordshire fewer still, with just six per cent. ”
Now the charity has launched its MyForest project to raise awareness among land owners and the public at large about the importance of well-managed woods for economic production and fighting climate change.
And Alistair Yeomans, director of forestry at the charity who is developing the project, added: “Obviously it would make huge economic and environmental sense to produce more wood here, reducing wood-miles, instead of importing it from the other side of the world. At the moment we import 90 per cent of the nation’s hard wood.
“We work closely with the Oxfordshire Woodland Project, funded by the local councils, to help owners of woodlands managed their resources properly — which at the moment they are not. Indeed we seem to like immediacy in Britain rather than the kind of long-term planning needed for woodland management.
“In France and Germany, for instance, they know more about stewardship of forests — managing now in order to obtain a reward perhaps in 100 years’ time — than we do here. France, for instance, is about 40 per cent covered in forest.”
Now the MyForest Project provides a free service (part of what Mr Yeomans calls ‘Free-conomics’) through an interactive website designed to help owners manage their woodlands effectively and to advise them about markets for their wood when trees are felled and their forests are brought back into economic productivity.
Mr Yeomans, who was educated at Oxford University’s Institute of Forestry and then at Harvard, acknowledges there is a great deal of emotion surrounding the idea of tree felling.
He said: “I don’t know where people think that the wood they see all around them comes from. But the fact is that good management involves a sustainable circle. Trees are grown and eventually felled, and other trees are planted to replace them.”
With a view to informing people at large about wood production, the Sylva Foundation has another project under way called OneOak (OneOak.com) which is focusing on a single 160 year-old oak tree that is due to be felled next year in Blenheim park.
OneOak will explain why its demise will benefit us all, make for a better environment in the long run, and provide beautiful wooden products without destroying rainforests far away.
Mr Yeomans said three considerations dominate the business of forest management: economic, social, and environmental, but that in recent years economics has been to some extent overlooked.
He said: “This needs rebalancing, because good economic management also provides healthy forests that constantly regenerate themselves.”
Historically, Oxfordshire was for centuries rich in royal forests including Wychwood and Shotover, which were constantly tended for animals and to provide fuel and building materials. Indeed, Wychwood (of which the present Blenheim park was a part) was only finally disafforested in the 19th century.
The importance of British forests was realised in the 17th Century when diarist John Evelyn came to Oxfordshire to secure the production of wood for ship building. Indeed the Sylva Foundation has been named after Evelyn’s book Sylva, of which Mr Yeomans has an early copy.
Mr Yeomans explained that he is not suggesting that we go back to former times, but that modern information technology innovations can be made to help owners supply home-grown wood in the future.
He said: “It is hard to expect developing countries to stop cutting down their forests when we have already cut ours down long ago. Again we need to rebalance.”
Name: Sylva Foundation Established: March 2009
Chief executive: Dr Gabriel Hemery Number of staff: Four Annual turnover: Confidential
Contact: 01865 408018 Web: www.sylva.org.uk