This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of Birdwatching magazine
Does Akira Miyawaki mean anything to you? A sumo star perhaps, or maybe a character from the Lion King? It meant nothing to me until recently, which is so sad. Maybe, if someone listens locally, I might just about be able to see a woodland planted and mature before I shuffle off to make compost.
This visionary died in the middle of last year aged 93, twenty years my senior. But his name lives on as shorthand for a method of reforestation that could transform our cities, brownfields and unproductive agricultural desserts.
His is a very simple idea… sort of a no brainer really if you start with his first tenet, that you plant the sort of trees that are the most common, native species in any area. Sampling the soil to see what it might benefit you select the tree types that would generate if the land hadn’t been clear-felled by our Iron Age ancestors or Middle Ages landlords. In my corner of the UK that would probably be a mix of oak and ash, or maybe a stand of beech. A few places would favour wet woods of birch, alder and willow and the Welsh hanging valleys oak alone. None would favour introduced species like Lodge Pole Pine, Horse Chestnut or Sycamore.
Then you pick a bit of land we’ve thoroughly messed with, be it where heavy industry has fallen into ruin or some chemically scoured ‘field’ no longer of use to plant or beast.
Measure the plot and order your ‘whips’, but not at the rate of 1000 per hectare, but twenty or thirty times as many!
Plant your seedlings more densely than seems sensible! Why? Because that is how actual forests regenerate when storm felled trees or big beasts create sunlit clearings. There all the acorns germinate and grow, and, as they do, they shoot up competing for light, just like in the wild wood. The one helping hand that should be given is watering and weeding for a couple of years. Thereafter, the trees reach for the skies and the winners of the wacky race naturally thin out the rest.
A stable, multi-layered mature woodland is established in twenty or thirty years rather than hundreds of years! In such plantations trees grow ten times faster averaging an astounding one meter a year. Moreover, because they are faster to grow and there are many more of them they absorb much more carbon. They survive droughts better and deal with impoverished or polluted soils.
Of course, it is also more resilient and biodiverse because its what’s meant to be there, not a dark, dead plantation only good for grey squirrels. You can expect these woods to be full of song in the canopy and buzzing insects where light allows native flowers to regenerate too.
It’s not just a quick fix it’s a long-term one too, stabilising slopes, reducing pollutants, sequestering carbon and enriching all our lives.
It’s ideal for towns and cities where land is at a premium, awkward leftover plots, demolition sites and rusting industrial badlands can go from eyesore to urban micro-forests that become community assets in a couple of decades.
What is more, just a couple of years into their lives they require nothing more than what mother nature gifts them. No costly maintenance and chemical use. Of course some seedlings and saplings die, but the fittest survive at high densities quickly establishing functioning ecosystems that can cope with everything thrown at them from manmade pollution to climate change. Edged with ponds and meadows, they become bug and bird paradise.