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The Sefton Coast Woodlands Forest PlanBackground
The pinewoods on the Sefton Coast are a key feature within the coastal landscape and are the home to an increasingly rare population of red squirrels, a fact so significant that the woodlands have recently been designated as one of a number of national refuges.
The woodlands, largely established in the late 1800s and early 1900s, have suffered from a lack of management over the more recent decades with the result that they have aged and begun to suffer incursion from opportunistic species such as sycamore, poplar and even sea buckthorn. The aging will lead to a reduction in the amount of pine seed available to the red squirrel as a food source and the establishment of the opportunistic species will lead to a habitat more suited to the grey squirrel.
It is almost unanimously accepted that a major change in character is undesirable given the importance of the woodlands. In 2000 a number of owners and managers of the pinewoods together with key stakeholders such as the Forestry Commission and local interest groups met to try to rectify the situation. They formed a unique and very effective partnership catalysed by the Forestry Commission, sustained through support from The Mersey Forest and under the overall umbrella of the Sefton Coast Partnership. A Forest Plan was written, consulted on and approved for implementation by February 20031. Since then the land owners and site managers have been working hard to take the Plan forward.
The Sefton Coast Woodlands Forest Plan
The Plan was written for a 20 year period, 2003 to 2023, with 10 years of activities detailed, 2003 to 2013. The long term objectives for the pine woods have been stated in the management plan: To maintain an historically important landscape; to provide a suitable habitat for rare and important species; to provide people with the opportunity for the quiet enjoyment of the countryside; and to provide an opportunity for businesses in the area to thrive, all of this within the context of a partnership that is striving towards the high quality management of the landscape.
The immediate objectives are more tangible and are to: maintain the area of woodland at its current level; to involve additional landowners in the planting and management of trees; to create woodlands with trees of all ages; to maintain the pine trees as a source of food for the red squirrel and to keep the existing character of the woodlands; to keep about 10% of the total woodland area as broadleaf; to maintain a patchwork within the woodlands that includes everything from grass to mature trees; to provide places within the woodlands for plants and animals to survive, especially those designated as ‘Priority Species’; to ensure an income from the woodland where possible; to work together to check progress and ensure quality of work.
The activities that flow out of the objectives are those forest operations which will ensure success: These include tree planting, thinning, felling, coppicing, cleaning, brashing (cutting off lower branches), weeding, beating up (replacing dead saplings), fencing, natural regeneration and will include activities promoting the non-tree habitats (such as the wet slacks and marram grass sward) and controlling undesirable species (plants such as sycamore and animals such as the grey squirrel).
First and foremost a major achievement has been the partnership that has formed between land owners and managers and other stakeholders and interest groups. There are now 21 land owners active in the Plan, which represents 410.05 hectares out of a potential 420.95 hectares. The partnership meets at least three times a year to monitor progress and provide support to individual owners with The Mersey Forest providing a backstopping role through the deployment of a part time Forest Plan Officer.
The management of the woodlands represents a significant input from the landowners as it is an investment equivalent to about £2,114 per hectare of land managed, averaged out across the pinewoods. About £350 per hectare is management time and £1,764 cash cost, some of which can be offset through the input of volunteers and staff diverted into woodland management tasks. A considerable amount of the recent planting work carried out by the Sefton Leisure Services Department, Coast and Countryside Service was undertaken by trainees, children and adults with learning difficulties under the Biodiversity and Access ILM Project. Whatever angle the figures are looked at from, this is an impressive testimony to how people are working together to improve the condition of the woodlands.
In terms of forest operations, the following table, reported in hectares, gives an indication of major activities carried out in the first two years (the current year’s work has not been completed at the time that this is being written and cannot be included):
The main area of underachievement has been in the expensive operation of thinning where it has not been possible to offset costs through sales of timber. Although it is an underachievement, it is not critical in working towards the overall goal for the woodlands as it is about good silviculture and condition rather than improving habitat. The landowners have invested instead in opening up areas for planting and the subsequent planting of those areas which has been a priority to ensure that the aging woodlands are being given a new lease of life.
However, it is hoped that through grant application some of the financial short fall can be met to enable a thinning ‘catch up’ period over this winter. Certainly the landowners with larger areas of woodland are planning to undertake significant thinning work.
The vast majority of active land owners have obtained grants, either from the Forestry Commission or from the Objective 1 funding mechanism of the Integrated Countryside and Environment Programme (ICEP) – in the region of £1,709 per hectare over the pinewoods.
Timber and Timber Prices
The context within which the work of the Forest Plan is undertaken is that of a declining potential income from timber sales, the following graph taken from the UK Forestry Commission statistics shows how timber prices have fluctuated dramatically over the past 20 years, but generally fallen significantly from an already low level:
The Red Squirrel
The following graph is taken from Red Squirrel Monitoring, a report produced in September 2005 by Fiona Robertson, Red Squirrel Officer with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. It shows the numbers of red squirrels seen in the refuge and in the buffer zone based on the monitoring figures from 2002 onwards:
The frequency of sighting is increasing in the buffer zone where red squirrels are still present and every outbreak of parapox will further weaken the effectiveness of the buffer zone and endanger the population in the refuge. Control of the grey in the buffer zone becomes critical to the success of the management programme in the core pinewoods.
Reviewing the Forest Plan
When the Forest Plan was written and consulted on, there was an undertaking to review it at year 5 (2007 / 2008). The achievements, problems and issues all need to be evaluated in the light of whether the forest operations are helping to work towards the short term objectives and whether there are any gaps or weaknesses in implementation.
The schedule for review and revision is built into the structure of the Plan and in order that changes emanating from the review can be incorporated into the second cycle of operation, then the review will have to be completed well before December 2007. It is proposed that the review process kick off at the annual Forum meeting for the Sefton Coast Partnership in February 2006. Different media will be used in the period between February 2006 and July 2007 to solicit response from owners and the public. The outcome will be reported in a final form by issuing an update to the Sefton Coast Forest Plan.
Although this will not be the time for major changes to the Forest Plan (an enormous investment was made to public consultation between 2000 and 2002 to ensure that it reflect the interests and aspirations of most people), it will be an opportunity to make adjustments, fine tune aspects of operation across the Forest Plan area.
The Forest Plan has provided a framework enabling the landowners and interest groups to make significant progress in managing the pinewoods. There are issues and gaps which will need to be addressed and the review scheduled before the end of 2007 will provide an opportunity to adjust the Plan for the second cycle of management between 2008 and 2013.