Future Green Networks and the Importance of Native Woodlands

John Walls reports on a RTPI West of Scotland Chapter event

Given that most planners are urban planners, there was a good turn out of West of Scotland Chapter planners in March to hear Dr John Tullis, Forestry Commission and Ally Corbett, Glasgow & Clyde Valley Green Network Partnership talk on the importance of native woodlands as part of Scotland’s ‘natural capital’. John provided members with a full outline of the recently completed survey of Scottish Woodlands and, Ally, on how this survey material could be applied and of continuing use in the future.

John set out to give us the what, why and how of the survey which had taken up to 34 surveyors seven years to carry out. He started out defining what a native tree is; ie any tree which has rooted and grown without any human assistance; eg seeds could still be windborne or deposited in bird droppings from far away. The four main native trees are the Scots Pine (recently made our National Tree), Birch, Ash and Oak.

Native trees are an important resource because they are rich in biodiversity and priority habitats for conservation. They make a big contribution to ecosystems (supporting a wide range of wildlife, insects, fungi, etc) not to mention help mitigate climate change and floods. The lack of robust native woodland data for stakeholders in the field has been a long term deficiency for planning purposes. Woodlands, especially native ones, have a high conservation value. They also have a high cultural and heritage value, increasingly recognized in our green space, recreational and tourist planning and strategies. Consequently the availability of this new baseline material will be a valuable resource to many organisations in terms of woodland management, policy development (both National and local) and prioritizing grant aid.

Prior to actual survey work, aerial photos were used to identify potential native woodlands judged by the canopy. The survey fieldwork started in 2006. Only areas of 0.5 hectares or larger were included. Overall some 850,000 hectares of land were visited, of which 40% was surveyed in detail. This resulted in the identification of some 311,000 hectares of native woodland being identified. One of the key aims was to identify native woodlands, whether ancient or modern in origin (ie plantations of native woodlands within ancient woodlands), planted on ancient woodland sites (PAWS). This survey work was subject to rigorous quality assurance checking to ensure the survey content’s robustness.

The survey work was hi-tech and made use of waterproof computers (nothing like being prepared for the Scottish weather!). The surveyors did a rapid walkthrough of the woodlands taking notes as they went. The computers had GPS locating software which meant that the findings could be accurately plotted. The survey also included woodland areas where the proportion of native trees was high (ie 40-50%) and had potential to be increased in the future as part of a management strategy.

The NWSS provides us with a unique dataset and a firm baseline for monitoring change to the area, composition or condition of Scotland’s native woodlands. The results are now accessible online through the survey material and report and, because of their digital nature, lend themselves to GIS use. Results are available at local authority level, the national parks and Central Scotland Green Network with a finer grain down to polygon level for those who want local detail. The data available includes the area (ha), the mix of trees, age/ maturity, habitat types, herbivore impact (by deer, etc) and other miscellaneous information such as ash die-back, fly-tipping, etc. The six main habitat types where our surviving native woodlands are found are Upland Birchwoods, Native Pine Woods, Lowland Mixed Deciduous Woodland, Wet Woodland, Upland Mixed Ashwoods and Upland Oakwoods. The Forestry Commission is happy to talk to anyone who plans to use the information.

As the survey has just been put to bed, the means and manner of monitoring future change hasn’t been considered in depth. However, the Forestry Commission do track grants and tree planting information, allowing for informal updates. John Tullis believed there may be a possibility of a further tree census in about 10 years time.

Ally Corbett, Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network

Ally took the floor after John and focused on the practical side of green planning policy. He started out noting that one of the 14 National Projects in the National Planning Framework, is the Central Scotland Green Network spread across 19 authorities in the Central Belt. This national project, in one step, has raised the status of Green Networks to a new level.

The Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network first appeared in the 2006 GCV Structure Plan although it had roots reaching back to the River Valleys Strategy and Urban Fringe Projects which preceded it. The Green Network Partnership comprises the 8 Glasgow and Clyde Valley local authorities plus 5 government agencies. Ally explained that this partnership is replicated in Lothian and Ayrshire regions.

Going back to 2006-07 the focus was less on delivery but more about managing and coordinating activities. It is only more recently that the GCV Network Partnership have been taking on the challenge of moving forward to the delivery of integrated green networks which make positive contributions to walking, cycling and the permeability of areas generally.

There were two key elements in the GCV Team’s approach –

  • opportunities mapping (ie where opportunities existed, where there are opportunities to expand and in areas of land use change where opportunities might be created) and
  • spatial analysis (ie a sieve map approach using GIS technology identifying habitats, footpaths/ accessibility, land use changes, etc).

This process resulted in the identification of 14 ‘hot spots’; ie areas where there was a strong correlation of opportunities for building and developing a green network.

The GCV team focused on Ecological Connectivity as a basis for developing their Green Network plans. This included identifying core habitat areas, ‘intelligent buffers’ (areas with the potential to link urban areas and habitats which can contribute to larger eco-systems) and potential functional links such as streams, culverts and railways which when stitched together result in a green network.

Ally then used slides of the Bishop Loch area to illustrate his points. His emphasis was on the multi- functional needs that can be served with green network investment. He was able to illustrate the concept being identified at a strategic level cascading through LDP’s to delivery on the ground. In the case of Bishop’s Loch his team used an Integrated Habitat Network Model identifying habitats, assessing Intelligent Buffers and their capability of providing permeability, identifying opportunities to enhance or reinforce planting, perhaps seeking to have such planting incorporated into proposed developments along the edges of the green network. The outcome is a balance with nature which adjoining residents can enjoy with the new permeability provided by paths which can be used for walking or cycling.

The budgets available for green network delivery are modest when considered against other infrastructure investment. This, however, highlights a need to work in partnership to maximise the benefits which can be derived from the expenditure that is available. It also emphasises the need for partnerships to be clear where priorities lie and where their expenditure will have the greatest return on their investment. So progress is slow but positive. As a result of the gradualism of GCV’s and other local authorities’ work across the Central Belt, Ally believes that the vision of the Central Scotland Green Network is now becoming achievable.

Ally’s team’s work was incorporated into the GCV Main Issues Report (MIR) and subsequently now forms part of the current Strategic Development Plan. The regional methodology developed by the GCV Partnership has since been adopted and adapted by 7 out of the 8 local authorities in the Clyde Valley for their Local Development Plans which is a good track record.

This was an enlightening evening and the lively question and answer session demonstrated a deeply engaged audience. Thanks are due to John Tullis, Ally Corbett and John Esslemont who organised the evening

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