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Call of the wild: can this song breathe life into our barren spruce plantations?

The UK’s conifer plantations are bereft of wildlife, but a new single aims to change that. Will it move the (pine) needle?

We heard a whisper, a rumour / While walking through a barren land / That one day a place of light and life will be / Where now a dark wood stands.  

So go the lyrics to a new single that’s making some noise about an environmental issue that often goes unheard: the chronic lack of biodiversity in UK conifer plantations.  

The UK’s densely planted timber forests are dark and eerie places, where wildlife struggles to thrive. Where Now A Dark Wood Stands – by Scottish composer Alexander Chapman Campbell and folk singer Julie Fowlis – is a rallying cry for these plantations to be reimagined so that nature can flourish in them.  

“My music is often inspired by the richness and beauty of nature, but for the first time, through this single and film, I’ve directly explored the relationship between humans and the natural world,” said Chapman Campbell, who wrote the music and lyrics.  

“Many UK woodlands, especially in Scotland, are intensely managed timber plantations. These densely planted conifers, where light struggles to reach the woodland floor, become dark, artificial forests that cannot support a broad range of life. Vast areas of land are still being planted with these ‘dark woods’.”  

But it doesn’t have to be this way, he said. “With many European countries demonstrating healthier ways of producing timber, and with nature struggling all around us, now is the time for the UK to create a new kind of wood – a place of light and life where now a dark wood stands.”  

The lyrics, sung by Fowlis in Scottish Gaelic, bear a simple message of hope for how plantations can be managed in future

Five things that give me hope when it comes to living with trees, by Alexander Chapman-Campbell

1. We’re not short of better ideas  

For decades alternative, healthier ways of producing timber have been explored. Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF), also known as Close to Nature Forest Management, is now being practised more widely. This more holistic approach has been included and defined in the EU Forest strategy for 2030, and the UK’s Forestry Commission now has a celebrating the multiple benefits CCF has on people and wildlife. With a by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published earlier this year, that calls on the Scottish Government to “discontinue subsidies for coniferous commercial tree planting”, there are signs that a sea change in our relationship with trees is under way.  

2. Change can happen quickly  

I recently returned to my childhood home in the Ochil Hills in central Scotland. The land rising behind my old house, once extensive grassland, had been newly planted with sitka spruce. The saplings covered thousands of acres with only a few deciduous trees visible at the margins. I noticed how the atmosphere of the place had changed; the hillside had been industrialised with an air of artificiality imposed upon it. How quickly our landscapes can change – but this is also something that gives me hope. A sitka spruce in itself is a wonderful tree: the issue is the way they’re planted and felled. A switch in forestry policy could drastically transform UK plantations within a generation.   


The single’s accompanying video was shot in a timber plantation near Chapman Campbell’s home in the north-east Scottish Highlands

3. The potential for nature recovery  

I often look at a plantation of sitka spruce trees and dream of how it could be transformed. From a monoculture of densely packed trees, where light struggles to reach its largely dead and dark understorey, and where the diversity of life is critically reduced, that wood could be transformed. It could be a forest with trees of different ages and species, with a thriving understorey and healthy, stable soils. It could be a wood that is not going to be cleared-felled – completely flattened as though it was a field of wheat. Nature was never a consideration when the UK began intensifying its timber production early in the 20th century, which means that the potential for nature recovery in these woods is immense.  

4. The divide is closing  

Many individuals and organisations are working to create healthy woodlands. Trees For Life, a pioneering charity based in the Highlands of Scotland, has been demonstrating the creation of heathy, diverse woodlands for decades. The challenge now is to bring these voices into the timber industry itself and to avoid the tendency to create two opposing types of woodland; one that is intensively managed for timber, and one that is wild, natural and diverse. There are signs that the divide is closing; forests that provide timber can also provide the complexity that nature needs to thrive. This is particularly vital in Scotland where around three-quarters of existing woodland cover is forestry plantations.  

5. People care  

People care about plantations. Often, someone who lives near a plantation, or who walks in one, will comment on how unnatural and unpleasant they are. We go into the woods for connection with something that inspires us. A forest in its natural state is incomparable to a plantation. If we go for a walk in the woods and don’t find the magical depths of nature, or encounter its beauty, then we have been deprived of something essential. We want to recover the beauty and health of our woods, and I believe there is enough will and knowledge to now make the transformation happen.

The is set for release on Thursday to mark the UN International Day of Forests.

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