Can this song breathe new life into our barren spruce plantsations?

Mar 20, 2024 | News

A new single is aiming to change this. The UK’s conifer plants are devoid of wildlife. Will it move (pine needle)?

We heard a whisper or a rumour while walking through a barren landscape / That one of these days a place full of light and life would be / Where a dark forest now stands.

The lyrics of a new song are a loud warning about an environmental issue which is often ignored: the lack of biodiversity in UK plantations.

The densely planted forests of the UK are dark, eerie and hostile to wildlife. Where Now A Dark Wood stands, by Scottish composer Alexander Chapman Campbell & folk singer Julie Fowlis, is a rallying call for these plantations be reimagined to allow nature to flourish.

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Chapman Campbell wrote the music and lyrics. “My music often is inspired by the richness of nature. But for the first time I have directly explored the relationship between human beings and the natural world.”

“Many UK woods, particularly in Scotland, are intensively managed timber plantations. These densely planted conifers are dark, artificial forests where light struggles to reach woodland floors. “These ‘dark forests’ are still planted on vast areas of land.”

He said that it didn’t have to happen this way. “With many European nations demonstrating healthier ways to produce timber, and nature struggling all around, now is the right time for the UK create a new type of wood – an area of light and life, where a dark wood now stands.”


The lyrics sung in Scottish Gaelic by Fowlis carry a simple message that plantations will be managed better in the future

Alexander Chapman Campbell: Five things that make me hopeful about living with trees


1. We have many better ideas.

Since decades, alternative and healthier ways to produce timber have been explored. CCF, also known as Close to Nature Forest Management or Continuous Cover Forestry, is now more widely practiced. The EU Forest Strategy for 2030 includes and defines this more holistic approach. The UK’s Forestry Commission has now created a webpage that celebrates the multiple benefits CCF brings to people and wildlife. The Royal Society of Edinburgh published a report earlier this year that called on the Scottish Government “to discontinue subsidies for commercial coniferous tree planting”. This is a sign that a change in our relationship to trees is underway.


2. Change can happen quickly

Recently, I returned to my childhood home located in central Scotland’s Ochil Hills. The land behind my old home, which was once a vast grassland, has been newly planted with Sitka spruce. The saplings covered thousands and acres, with only a few deciduous tree at the edges. I noticed the change in atmosphere. The hillside was industrialised and had an artificial air imposed on it. It’s amazing how quickly our landscapes change. But this also gives me hope. A sitka is a beautiful tree, but the issue is how they are planted and cut down. A change in forestry policies could dramatically transform UK plantations in a generation.

The video for the single was shot on a wood plantation near Chapman Campbell’s home in the north east Scottish Highlands.


3. Nature recovery has the potential to be a success

I often dream about the transformation of a plantation made up of sitka spruce. This wood could be transformed from a monoculture with densely packed trees where light struggles to penetrate its mostly dead and dark understorey and where diversity of life has been severely reduced. It could be a forest of trees of various ages and species with a healthy, stable understorey. It could be that the wood is not going be cleared-felled, but instead completely flattened like a wheat field. The UK did not consider nature when it began to intensify its timber production in the early 20th century. This means that the potential of nature recovery in these forests is enormous.


4. The divide is closing

Many individuals and organizations are working to create healthy wooded areas. Trees For Life is a pioneering charity in the Highlands of Scotland that has been demonstrating how to create healthy, diverse woodlands since decades. The challenge is to bring these voices to the timber industry and avoid the tendency to create a two-sided woodland, one that is intensively logged for timber and another that is natural, diverse and wild. There are signs of a closing divide. Forests that provide timber also provide the complexity nature needs to thrive. This is especially important in Scotland, where three-quarters or the existing woodland cover is forestry.


5. People care

Plantations are important to people. People who live near plantations or who walk through them often comment on their unnatural and unpleasant nature. We go to the woods in order to connect with something that inspires. A forest in its original state is uncomparable to any plantation. If we walk through the woods but don’t see the magic of nature or its beauty, we are missing something essential. We want to restore the health and beauty of our forests, and I think there is enough knowledge and will to make it happen.


Hugh Carswell Images

The single will be released on Thursday in honor of the UN International Day of Forests.

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