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Plastic's fantastic when it comes to saving our trees; Plastic forests may not sound like the most desirable way to combat global warming. But, as Sally Williams discovers, they stand the best chance of surviving climate change.

Byline: Sally Williams

LUSH Welsh hillsides covered in artificial trees and plant life sounds a pretty grim image of a future damaged by global warming.

But "plastic forestry" is the latest buzzword among climate experts for a technique that could help woodlands survive the impacts of climate change and the diseases it might bring.

Forest plasticity is defined as a woodland's flexibility and its ability to alter its structure under changing conditions - such as rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns - while still maintaining its function.

German foresters have found that their new-look forests, featuring a wider range of species than just acres of lonesome pine, will be better prepared to cope with climate change.

And Wales looks set to benefit from the results of millions of pounds' worth of research conducted at hi-tech facilities across Brandenburg to discover just how changing weather patterns are affecting forests in general after a visit to the region by a team of Aberystwyth-based researchers working on the Future Forest project.

The acquired information could result in the invigoration of the Welsh hills, with a richer diversity of species such as wild cherry and the wildlife they attract.

According to the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Muncheburg, the objective of their research was to create a plastic forest which will change and adapt to conditions, rather than be static and prone to disease.

Future Forest's project manager, Dr Helen Cariss, said: "Simply, by putting all your eggs into one basket, single-species forests could be lost completely through climate change.

"But by hedging their bets - mixing different types of conifer and deciduous trees - researchers are convinced that they can create this so-called plastic forest which can adapt to climate change more readily."

The Forestry Commission Wales team, which is responsible for Future Forest in Wales, will be using these best management techniques to help guide the nation's policymakers and stakeholders as they face up to climate change.

German researchers are convinced that their new plastic mixed woodlands can play a key part in groundwater restoration, carbon sequestration and in improving habitat quality.

At the Britz Ecological Research Station near Potsdam they have been studying the water consumption of trees and their influence on ground water since 1974.

And their findings support the view that mixed woodlands, containing a variety of different species, need to replace the vast monoculture forests of pine or beech, which are at risk from climate change.

Research elsewhere in the Brandenburg region seems to back that up.

Drought conditions have put nearby pine stands under severe stress and have opened up an opportunity for the Nun moth (Lymantria monacha) to wreck at least half the forest.

The knock-on effect of that has been to allow more light into the stands, affecting the nutrient balance and reducing ground vegetation as the range of forest species has reduced.

Soil moisture levels have changed and the whole forest floor has become drier, making replanting more difficult.

The forestry sector in Brandenburg is working hard to find solutions, namely by replacing single-species woodland in trial areas to see if the concept actually works.

"Their plan is to create climate plasticity by planting with a high diversity of tree species - beech, hornbeam, oak, linden, ash, maple and wild cherry," said Dr Cariss.

"In this way, the forest will always have some species which will be capable of thriving, whatever the change in the prevailing weather conditions.

"And it will be fascinating to see how this ground-breaking research develops, and what lessons we shall be able to learn in Wales from them." Future Forest is a three-year programme funded by the EU and the Welsh Assembly Government.

It aims to identify the threats, weaknesses and strengths of Europe's forest as they face up to climate change, developing best management techniques to guide policymakers and stakeholders.

It also aims to improve and adapt regional and local forest management policies and practices focusing on water balance, soil, biodiversity, timber and non-timber forest products, air quality including carbon sequestration, and natural risk like fires, pests and pathogens..


BRANCHING OUT: German foresters have found their new-look forests, featuring a wider range of species, will be better prepared to cope with climate change
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 21, 2009
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