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Why Native?

The healthy functioning of our ecosystems is dependent on the continued survival of native flora and fauna.  Natural life on Earth is composed of the following 5 taxonomic kingdoms: animalia, plantae, fungi, protista, prokaryota.  Each kingdom is dependent on the others, and together form the basis of all natural ecosystems.

As humans have evolved, particularly since they learnt to use tools, they have had an increasingly large effect on natural ecosystems.  In Britain, these changes are amongst the most extensive and earliest in historical terms.  Since late Neolithic times and the beginning of sedentary agriculture around 6,000 years ago, humans have had a huge impact on the natural ecosystems of Britain.  Since around 85% of the land mass was covered in woodland, this habitat type has suffered the greatest change, with only 9% of England now covered in woodland of any type.

None of the original native ‘wildwood' now exists since humans have inhabited and altered, to a greater or lesser extent, all areas of our woodland.  The closest habitat type that remains is ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW); these are our most important habitats in an ecological sense since they have naturally evolved over long periods of time (existing since at least 1600 AD).  Less than 2% of the land mass is now ancient woodland, and of this, more than 25% has been replanted with other species, often commercial non-native conifers.  This process occurred throughout the middle period of the 20th century and had a significant impact on the complex web of native species of flora and fauna.  These woodlands are known as plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS), with the plantation trees on many sites now ready to be felled for their timber.  In recent years, the management objectives of ancient woodlands have changed, with financial incentives now given to woodland owners who revert PAWS back to their original native species.  The creation of new native woodlands in England is also seen as a priority by the Forestry Commission, although the commercial growing of non-native conifers will continue to provide the vast majority of our home-grown timber.

The decision to revert PAWS back to ASNW will allow these ecosystems to recover much of their unique assemblages of plants and animals, although some species will colonise at much slower rates than others.  If, for example, all of the original mature trees have been removed, the vitally important deadwood habitats and their associated species of invertebrates and fungi will take many years to return.

British native plants have evolved to live in this region over thousands of years and so are better adapted to the local climate and soil conditions.  Local provenance zones have been established in order to allow foresters and land managers to plant trees, shrubs and wildflowers that most closely match the genetic make-up of the naturally regenerated plants within native woodlands (particularly ASNW).

In summary, native plants can be described as the backbone of our ecosystems. A huge array of microfauna, fungi, insects, birds and mammals are dependent on the food and shelter they provide throughout the year.  The disruption of foodchains by the introduction of alien species, together with the destruction and fragmentation of native habitats are the most serious threats that face the healthy functioning of ecosystems in Britain and globally.

Finally, our native plants provide an array of colour, texture and interest in the countryside all year round. Evergreen natives can provide ‘winter colour’ if this is considered a priority, for example holly, yew, juniper, box and wild privet.  This contrasts with the beautiful autumn colour produced by field maple, dogwood and wild cherry and the amazing delicate beauty of bare winter branches, including the reddish-purple hues of birch and alder.

 

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