The Common Beech

Written by Elizabeth Malone

Elizabeth is a Chartered Landscape Architect, passionate about creating sustainable landscapes. She is particularly interested in urban design, conservation and naturalistic planting design.

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Image credit: https://www.forestryengland.uk/west-woods

The Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) is one of the most iconic trees, particularly in the south of the UK, it is a common feature in the Somerset landscape and it is also currently under threat as a result of climate change.

The Common beech is considered to be one of Europe’s most ecological and economically valuable tree species, providing vital habitat for wildlife and contributing to the water and carbon cycle. It is one of the largest trees in Britain and can reach 130ft, often known as the ‘Queen of the Trees’. In Hagg Wood, Derbyshire, a beech tree was measured at 45m in 2018 and it is believed that this tree is the tallest native tree in England.

Reduced rainfall and higher temperatures predicted over the next 70 years could lead to conditions that might limit beech tree growth by up to 20-30% in central Europe and in southern Europe losses could be over 50%*. Such losses are an indicator for future dieback, signalling the potential death of vast areas of forest throughout the continent.  Mountainous regions on the other hand would see an increase in Beech tree planting, where conditions would become more suited to the species.

The main climate change impacts anticipated, include, drier and warmer summers (particularly in southern, central and eastern England) with an increase in severe soil moisture deficits – reducing tree growth; changes in the seasonality of rainfall, with wetter autumn and winter periods leading to greater water table fluctuations – limiting root depth and reducing tree stability; an increase in the risk of windthrow; an increase in the incidence and severity of tree disease and pest outbreaks due to warmer winters, allowing tree pest and pathogens to extend their range and a heightened risk of fire, as a result of drier and warmer summers.

It is therefore likely, that beech will become a less common occurrence here in Somerset, species-suitability will change – in order for our landscapes to adapt, woodland management should seek to increase habitat resilience. Lesser-known species, including those from other continents and climates similar to those projected for the south of England will become more prevalent due to their better adaptability to drier/warmer summers. Therefore, species will need to be matched carefully to site conditions. These are common principles to be applied in the management of our forests, identifying the most vulnerable sites first. As Landscape Architects, it is imperative that our selection of tree and shrub species is done in consideration of long-term climatic predictions, rather than as simply a response to a site’s baseline, existing conditions.

Young and newly established trees, together with street trees and trees in hedgerows are likely to be the first affected.

Our ancient and native woodlands will be impacted, with species composition altering – beech will see a range shift, becoming more prevalent in the north and west of England. There are also likely to be great changes in the vegetation community structure, because of altered plant competition, as a result of changes in light from increased leaf area and earlier leafing, changes in the growing season temperature and drier soil conditions. The age structure of tree stands will be affected by an increased frequency of natural disturbance events and the risk of fire damage may increase in woodlands that are heavily visited.

Management of our landscapes will need to be adaptive with measures taken on a site-specific basis. An increase in tree species diversity and enhanced monitoring and intervention where possible or appropriate, planting stock to be chosen with an origin up to 2 degrees latitude south of the site and up to 5 degrees south as a small component of mixed provenance stock in species of low-frost sensitivity. Enhanced pest and disease monitoring and intervention where appropriate, an increase in thinning to reduce moisture demand in open stands, increased species composition, increased public awareness and vigilance and to have in place contingency plans and regular training for fighting fire.

When managing ancient woodland or creating new native woodland, it is important to understand the local climate change pressures and constraints on component species, such as Beech, a dominant tree species within our Somerset woodlands. Woodland planting should be adapted with a proportion of non-local native material to increase the resilience of woodlands to climate change. In new native woodlands, a small proportion of species from hotter drier parts of continental Europe may enhance the resilience of woodlands in the long-term – however, species choice should be selected from regions and sites with a contemporary climate to that projected for England in the future and also consideration must be given to potential impacts on native biodiversity through competition and invasiveness. At least 80% of woodlands should be native, but a small proportion of non-native species may be beneficial if they are well-suited to site conditions and are not an invasive threat. Ongoing woodland management will involve natural regeneration and evolutionary adaptation. Expansion of invasive flora and fauna will be likely as warmer climates will expand their ranges/populations. Coppicing and traditional woodland management measures will improve resilience to drought as stools have deeper roots than regenerating seedlings and planted material. Expansion of ancient woodland pasture and parkland will also aid the dispersal of many woodland species.

It is important that long-term changes to our woodlands are monitored, recorded and reviewed at regular intervals. Extending existing areas of woodland and linking to existing semi-natural habitats may enhance the resilience of woodlands. Hedgerows and shelterbelts can also promote dispersal in agricultural landscapes and can create linkages between ancient woodlands. Widening riparian corridors and other linear semi-natural landscape features can also help to reduce fragmentation. Larger and less fragmented areas of woodland are likely to be more robust in the face of environmental issues and woodland networks will provide the opportunity for both native fauna and flora to migrate as climate change progresses.

Aside from the changes anticipated to species composition in our woodlands and landscapes, woodland planting is an important factor in also the fight against climate change, for instance, woodland planted in valley bottoms that are prone to flooding can attenuate high peak flow events downstream and reduce flooding in towns and cities. Trees also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon in solid form as wood. Wood products can also be used as an alternative to other materials that release greenhouse gases in their production.

Planting woodland in our urban landscapes will help in the reduction of stress, increased wellbeing, reduced noise, reduced air pollution, provide shelter and improve the visual quality of urban settings.

Planning for change in our landscapes will allow for the greatest rewards in the future, ensuring that our woodlands remain resilient and healthy.

Europe’s beech forests threatened by climate change (europa.eu)

*Martinez del Castillo, E., Zang, C.S., Buras, A. et al. (2022) Climate-change-driven growth decline of European beech forests. Communications Biology 5: 163

Climate change: impacts and adaptation in England’s woodlands (forestresearch.gov.uk)

Adapting Forest and woodland management to the changing climate – UK Forestry Standard Practice Guide (2022)