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Bewdley Town Council

February in the Forest

By Town Clerk's Office Bewdley Town Council

Thursday, 12 January 2017

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It’s good for us to have preconceived notions fundamentally challenged now and then. For instance, we think we have a pretty good idea of the way the world works and then a new scientific discovery seems to indicate that we may have got it substantially wrong.

My subject (as usual) is the forest and a growing number of studies into what goes on in the soil, particularly the interaction between tree roots and the network of fungal threads (hyphae) called mycorrhiza. It appears that trees and many (all?) other woodland plants have an interdependent relationship with fungi, where trees benefit from the water and nutrients gathered by the smaller scale and more extensive mycorrhiza while bestowing benefits in the form of sugars made by photosynthesis. One conclusion from this is that plants (including trees) will thrive best where they can tap into the soil mycorrhiza. The studies go further, and suggest that the movement of various plant hormones and other chemicals via this underground transport system allows trees to communicate with each other. Examples include sending a warning that they are under attack by pests/herbivores thus allowing neighbouring trees of the same species to release chemical deterrents, or helping ailing individuals by sharing sugars with them.

Some studies of mixed birch and Douglas fir forests showed that each tree species helped the other by sharing the products of photosynthesis at times when it had an advantage, so that the forest was a partnership of the two. This is a direct challenge to conventional forestry which would see the self-seeded birch as a ‘weed’ species competing with the fir ‘crop’ and assumed that each individual behaved as if it were struggling for its own survival in isolation.

This knowledge has been around at least from the 1990s but takes time to filter down from the university to the classroom or workplace, and even longer to be digested by the rest of us so that it joins that understanding commonly called ‘general knowledge’. The fascinating work of scientists such as Dr Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, who published in Nature in 1997, eventually gets the attention of the Forestry Commission and reaches our bookshelves via the popular science of books such as The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (then comes to you via my rather poor attempt at explanation here!). I should also mention the good work of our local naturalists, both professionals and amateurs, and flag up John Bingham’s article on fungi in the current issue of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust magazine.

Meanwhile in our own Wyre Forest the regular forestry practice of thinning carries on in various locations including Coldharbour Coppice and Shelf Held Coppice. This is a traditional part of forest management, yielding useful timber for beams, furniture, fencing and firewood but also allowing more light into the wood for the benefit of the whole habitat. The new understanding of the minute interactions at root and hypha level will help to refine our ways of working so that we achieve the best outcomes for healthy, productive and wildlife-rich woodlands that we can all enjoy.

 

Linda Iles

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