Iceland, Trees and the North York Moors: a shamefaced blog post

Mark Antcliff – Woodland Officer

When people with only a fairly vague perception of the North York Moors ask me about my work they often wonder what a Woodland Officer can be doing here. Their confusion is of course based on their mental image of the Park based on its name i.e. famous open heather moorland and apparent lack of vegetation above head height.

I usually respond to these enquiries with an account of my daily workload – a trip up on to the moor to make a check for trees that may have escaped captivity, and are marauding across the heather landscape. After a cup of tea and a read of the newspaper in a local teashop I return to the office to make my report and fill out the required red tape forms. This is of course not true. I only do this four days a week!

The reality is that the North York Moors National Park is actually one of the more wooded National Parks in Britain. This is particularly significant because there are indeed substantial areas of the North York Moors with very few trees.Roseberry Topping, North York Moors - credit Phil West Photography

Thinking about this lead me to consider if there are other places with similar misconceptions of their dendrological interest. I immediately thought of Iceland. I have to admit I have never been there; I flew over it once at 30,000 feet and it looked as I expected it to, bereft of any arboricultural features.

By Alexandre Deschaumes www.demilked.comnordic-landscape-nature-photography-iceland

The reality for Iceland is that it is a lot less wooded than it is here, but trees do grow and there are even some woodlands. The long winters and harsh climate makes it a tough life for trees, but they do exist. The only native forest forming species is Downy Birch. Rowan is uncommon and Aspen is rare, being found naturally growing in only in six locations. There is also the Tea Leaved Willow but that’s more of a low shrub really.

Iceland does have a forest service (Skoraekt Rikisins) with a website which is really worth a look as there is a good English summary of their woodland resource.

Fossil evidence indicates tTypical Icelandic birch trees close up - by Josh von Staudach hat over 5 million years ago Iceland was covered in trees like

beech, redwood and magnolia. But successive glaciations and climate change have led to the birch woodlands now present.

Typical birch woodland in the North York Moors - NYMNPAAbout 1,100 years ago, when humans first inhabited the country, forest cover was estimated to be 25 – 40%. Timber and fuel use and animal grazing reduced tree cover down to less than 1% by 1950. Since then it has risen to 1.5% (1,530 km2) through the work of various initiatives and interested groups. Their aim is to reach 12% by 2100.

By contrast the National Park woodland cover is currently around 22% and we’re hoping to get to 30% in the same time frame.


I have to admit that this is a bit of a shameful blog post. It came out of the fact that our Blog is yet to naturally propagate a view from Iceland. We even had one from Mongolia recently (although that could have been by mistake). There is a token prize on offer for the writer who gets our Blog a view from the Mid Atlantic Trench – and I’m hoping that prize has my name on it.

However now I have considered the woodland of Iceland, regardless of my initial motivation, I’m thinking that I should go and have a look for myself.

9 thoughts on “Iceland, Trees and the North York Moors: a shamefaced blog post

  1. So the national park is plans to increase the woodland cover from 22% to 30%.

    Is it then going to help the moorlands regenerate into their true climax vegetation then which they would do, and are starting to do so, in many areas that are no longer grazed?.

    The largest area of natural regeneration is within Fylindales EWS.

    By the way, If you want somewhere within the Uk with less tree cover than Iceland try visiting Sheltlands.

  2. I found the analogy quite interesting. I think it sad that so much of the 22% cover is the ubiquitous conifer (as Wainwright said “..once you have seen a million Sitka Spruce, you have seen enough” – may not be 100% as I read that over 40 years ago – but close). I long to see more errant deciduous trees making a break for it over Blakey Rigg. If that is the way that the 30% figure is attained, then I am all for it. However, I suspect that the reality will be more ‘managed’ (manicured?).
    All in all, I love the NYM for its valley forests and its open tops. I spend most of my life in West Africa, where (almost everywhere) anything grows in no time at all, and therefore is cut and cleared and re-grown without any thought for the long term. People need to make a living from day to day, so there is virtually no thought of land management. NYMNP manages the trees for the long-term, and I like that.
    BTW – like Iceland, Orkney and Shetland are treeless its true (apart from a few cultivated clumps in some gardens) but no less beautiful for that. I have seen jungles and deserts, and all (except where the current hand of man is the cause of treelessness) have a charm. Nevertheless – give me the NYM any day.

  3. The National Park Authority considers that an additional 3,000 hectares of woodland could be accommodated in the National Park. This would be on land of low productivity such as bracken dominated slopes, gills and areas linking existing woodlands. It would be primarily broadleaved woodland adding to the qualities of the area. This would bring the total woodland cover to about 25%. If you add in the tree cover provided by field and hedgerow trees and small woods on farms, which also have great scope for an increase, I suspect the 30% figure will not be so far away. 30% Woodland cover is a sort of panacea for tree enthusiasts as it’s the level of cover, at least in theory, that woodlands become less ecologically isolated. Provided the woods are reasonably well distributed this means that woodland species are able to move around the landscape, and thus more likely to thrive. It’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The same effect is created by targeting new woodland creation to where it increases habitat connectivity or wildlife corridors as they are often called.


  4. So what about answering my question Mark?

    The park seems proud of its part in increasing several fold the number of juniper which mostly grow here on moorland/acid type soils. Most of the park encouraged planting of junipers is also on acid moorland. But I’ve also seen several parts of the moorland where native and natural spread trees have been cut and removed. Is there a fatwah on certain species? 😉

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