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A win-win chance for Yorkshire Dales willows?

Friday 20 July 2007

As the demand for biofuel crops soars, as we reported in this column last week, our countryside commentator John Sheard ponders on this new threat to wildlife but suggests it could bring back the trees to the Yorkshire Dales

IT IS no secret that in the past 50 years Britain has made some mighty mistakes in our efforts to squeeze even more productivity out of the countryside. These include grubbing up thousands of miles of hedgerows, intensive farming with pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and the draining hundreds of square miles of peat bog for intensive conifer plantations.

All these had tragic consequences for our wildlife and, sometimes, for we humans: many experts believe that the flooding which has hit Yorkshire towns this summer has been exacerbated by large-scale drainage of the peat uplands some 40 years ago by the Forestry Commission.

Yorkshire Dales copse
Could Biofuel bring more trees to the dales
Photo: Chris Foster

Those vast areas of peat once soaked up excess rain like a sponge, allowing it to seep into the headwaters of our great rivers slowly over long periods. Now, some of those shallow drainage channels are great scars on the landscape, scoured out by decades of rain and snow-melt, so that water hurtles through them faster than the rivers can take, causing disastrous flooding lower down.

This thought came to mind this week when a consortium of some of Britain's best known conservation bodies issued a joint statement pleading with the Government to think long and hard before it promotes wide scale planting of bio-fuel crops like oilseed rape, willow and - something new to me - elephant grass (See News, Wednesday).

They want safeguards so that our countryside does not become a prairie of monoculture which would damage ever further our wildlife which has suffered greatly in the past in the hedgerow fiasco and pesticide excess (and, presumably, in the floods - birds, mammals and insects in the river valleys have surely been hit harder than humans).

This plea for caution is good news. Although I am a great supporter of biofuels, I would rather the experts be consulted before Government rushes into yet more panic measures that could have long-term disaster in store. But one of the plants involved struck a chord: the beautiful, and very useful, willow tree.

Few readers will know that, officially, the Yorkshire Dales are one of the least forested areas on the United Kingdom. A survey carried out for the Yorkshire Dales National Park a couple of years ago showed that only 1.6% of the land area is covered with woodland, as against an estimated 80% a couple of centuries ago before thousands of acres of trees were felled to make room for sheep pasture.

This figure was so disconcerting that the park authority set up a 15 year programme, assisted by several local conservation groups, to double this feeble total. They would like to do more but, as always, financial strictures limit their operations.

officially, the Yorkshire Dales are one of the least forested areas on the United Kingdom

And that's where the willow comes in. This fast growing tree is one of the few plant specimens in Britain dubbed suitable as a biofuel crop. There have already been experiments with it in the East Riding as a possible fuel to fire small local power stations, although I have not heard of any reported successes as yet (the first efforts some years ago were pooh-poohed in some quarters).

But as the world's oil and natural gas supplies are increasingly threatened by political turmoil, it would appear that the willow is back on board as a promising biofuel source. So could it be that here is a new opportunity for cash-strapped Dales farmers?

As everyone knows, the willow loves water and there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rivers and becks in the Dales which have virtually no trees on their banks: I know this from fly wishing on the Aire, Ribble, Ure and Wharfe.

No-one wants to obscure the great sweeping fells of the Dales under a carpet of trees (as the Forestry Commission once did) but to line the valley bottoms with strands of weeping willows would, in many cases, be an asset to the landscape. If the farmers and landowners could poll such trees (you don't have to fell them completely to harvest them) as a new source of income, could this be a rare win-win opportunity?

Your views:

  • It makes a nice change to read an uplifting and positive view on how we can proceed with replacing oil and gas with something locally produced and environmentally friendly. I look forward to seeing more of those sweeping willows in the Dales and elsewhere. Perhaps Gordon Brown should change his speech from 3 million new homes in the south to 3 million new willow trees.

    Marion Armstrong - Settle, North Yorkshire

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