An inspirational forester

| 14th May 2014
Talis Kalnars in 1999, in the Dinam Estate woodlands in mid-Wales. Photos: Oliver Tickell.
Talis Kalnars in 1999, in the Dinam Estate woodlands in mid-Wales. Photos: Oliver Tickell.
Talis Kalnars was a pioneer of 'continuous cover' forestry in Britain, writes Phil Morgan. His woodlands were not only beautiful but profitable, as he nurtured the 'natural capital' of the forest ecosystem, and only harvested the dividend of high value timber.
You could say that I am driven by greed and meanness. I am so greedy that I only harvest the trees that will make me money, and I am so mean that I do not want spend any money on planting trees, so I let them seed themselves.

"The productive capital of a forest is the forest itself. Clear fell the forest and you are destroying your own infrastructure that you have worked so hard to build up.

"Yes, you realise some money from the timber, but it's a one-off. And then you have to rebuild your capital from scratch. That's expensive and difficult because clearfelling has created a hostile environment for trees".

The speaker was Talis Kalnars MBE in an interview with Oliver Tickell in 1999, carried out for Forestry & British Timber magazine. His wise words are worth recalling for young foresters today.

Talis was one of Britain's most experienced and successful 'Continuous Cover' foresters, following a career as an independent forester in mid-Wales that started in 1959 with a close-knit circle of private and corporate clients.

Clear cutting destroys the forest capital

These included a dozen or so estates, many of whose woodlands he looked after for decades on end. "I believe", he said to Oliver, "we should maintain the standing forest as productive capital and treat only the increment as income.

"Plantation forestry based on planting and clear-felling successive pioneer crops is unprofitable because it destroys its own capital. Clear-cut, as it is practised in Britain must be one of the least economic of all forestry systems."

Following 'retirement' on his 70th birthday, he looked after six estates as well as his own mixed woodland of 24ha over the border in England - and another, Ridges, a tenth of the size, that belonged to his wife.

This small woodland won the Forestry Commission's Merit Award in 1998 for 'Imaginative forest management'. He described it to Oliver as "a very mixed, uneven-aged and uneven-structured woodland", packing 13 conifer and 14 broadleaf species into its few acres.

For Talis, forest economics had to come first. "Of course my clients care about the environment, but they also need a positive rate of return from their woodlands. If they can improve the environment at the same time, so much the better. But the most important thing about my methods is that they are profitable. All my forests make money - they have to, or I would lose my job."

The Dinam estate in mid-Wales

To demonstrate his methods, Talis took Oliver to a woodland that he had been managing for over 20 years, on a south-facing slope in the Dinam Estate in mid-Wales.

Oliver was immediately struck by the sheer profusion of natural regeneration taking place throughout the wood. Broadleaf and conifer together - Norway Spruce, European and Japanese Larch, Birch, Rowan, Beech, Ash and Hazel - and how every age was represented from the youngest sapling through to mature forest giants.

The contrast with other woodlands was stark. Most of Wales's commercial conifer plantations are dark, lifeless places, while in the typical Welsh oakwood hardly a single young tree can survive the combination of shade and sheep-grazing.

You could say that I am driven by greed and meanness. I am so greedy that I only harvest the trees that will make me money, and I am so mean that I do not want spend any money on planting trees, so I let them seed themselves.

But Talis's wood is positively exuberant. The visual effect, with the summer sun streaming through the canopy, was simply ... beautiful.

The subtle art of forest management

"Forestry is an art", Talis said. "Of course the art has to be informed by science - but science should never be allowed to prescribe. How you manage a forest comes down to personal judgement, based on your appreciation of the site and the trees that are growing there.

"I don't like terms like 'block' and 'compartment', because they sound so regimental and military - whereas you have to manage a wood holistically as everything in the forest has an impact somewhere else."

Part of the problem for forest science is that it cannot cope with the complexity of interactions in a multi-generational, multi-species woodland. Talis was convinced that Birch assisted the regeneration of other species.

"This idea is not supported by scientific trials, but my experience is that where there is Birch there is more natural regeneration of other trees, rather than of brambles and bracken. Maybe it's the dappled shade, or some chemical effect, or the mycorrhizal fungi around the roots, or some other reason I don't know ... "

Broadleaves and conifers make good neighbours

Talis was a great supporter of mixed forestry in general, as opposed to growing conifers and broadleaves separately. "Conifers and broadleaves help one another. In winter, conifers maintain shelter, for example, and they help to keep temperatures up in the autumn so that the leaves stay on the broadleaves later in the year and photosynthesis goes on for longer.

"Then you get birds nesting in the conifers early in the spring, so they are there to eat the caterpillars when the broadleaves come into leaf. You get better sanitary protection as the spread of insects and disease is limited.

"And the diverse needs of conifers and broadleaves make for better use of soil nutrients and leaf litter. Broadleaves in particular help to maintain soil fertility and seem to stabilise conifers, helping them to reach greater age and size. Norway Spruce and European Oak work especially well together."

Backing up his experience, he recalled Professor Lahde's research in Finland, which showed that 15% Birch in Norway Spruce leaves the Spruce yield unchanged.

"You get 100% of your Spruce and you get the extra 15% of Birch as well. This is obviously a winning strategy. But we have been indoctrinated into the plantation mentality - for example, you get a set annual increment for an area, irrespective of the silvicultural system. This is only true in an even-aged monoculture.

"Factors such as light, temperature and moisture all affect productivity - and you can use all three in a mixed forest. Using its three-dimensional structure you can block off cooling winds, increase the effective area of sunlight, and increase the moisture in the air by recycling it through the leaves."

A forest is a complex, supportive community

"Another effect of a complex, mixed age forest structure is greater resilience against the wind. I have had one even-aged hectare plot completely demolished in a gale, when uneven-aged woods nearby were virtually unaffected.

"What it comes down to is that you have to see the forest as a community, complete with community support. That's why Spruce lives for 400 years in a natural forest, but only 120 or 150 years in a plantation, because it benefits from the support of the forest as a whole."

Talis warned Oliver that self-seeded trees performed better than transplants because they were "at home" in a way that planted trees never can be.

"Transplants are like orphans, deprived of family support - a forest should work like a community, not an orphanage, nor an army." Nonetheless he accepted that there is a place for "clear planting" in order to establish a forest ecosystem in the first place.

He showed Oliver an area of 20-year-old Douglas Fir, planted in monoculture to suppress a thick growth of bramble and bracken scrub. "Now it is ready to go through conversion to a mixed age, mixed species forest. The trees are already marked for thinning and soon we will have other trees seeding in from the forest around."

He pointed with pleasure to some Larch seedlings on the perimeter, hybrids between Japanese and European Larch, growing at different altitudes on the hill. "These are our very own hybrids and I am looking forward to seeing how they perform."

'I am driven by greed and meanness'

Selection of which trees to cut is always critical in guiding the long term future of the forest. One of Talis's principles was not to thin for its own sake or to "free up" good trees, but to remove stems that have poor form and which will never yield good timber.

Then he would allow the well-formed trees to grow on until they have reached their target diameter - even then, he said that it was important not to take out too many trees at a time for fear of shocking the woodland system or exposing the trees to windthrow.

He pointed to an area across the valley, whose canopy was dominated by Larch. "When we thin this Larch we will remove no more than 20% by volume of the standing wood. And no more than 60% of the target dimension timber (in this case 38cm dbh) so as not to over-expose the wood. We will not cut out trees just because they are small, because to do so runs up high costs and gives no financial return."

"You could say that I am driven by greed and meanness. I am so greedy that I only harvest the trees that will make me money, and I am so mean that I do not want spend any money on planting trees, so I let them seed themselves.

"I have got two things to worry about: cost and revenue. I maximise revenues by cutting trees when they are at their most valuable, and minimise cost by using natural regeneration instead of planting, followed by years of weeding and beating up. Put these two together and net returns can be staggeringly different."

Managing grey squirrels - the ecosystem approach

Further savings could be made by cutting down on other inputs. Talis never used herbicides or other chemicals, but the there was little use for herbicide under a continuous cover approach, in which weeds were controlled by keeping light levels too low for them to flourish. Nor did he use rodenticide to kill grey squirrels.

Instead, he tolerated some untidy scraps of Sycamore, whose bark made "good squirrel fodder" which is preferred by the greys above that of other species such as Beech and Ash. Add to that, the predations of Pine martens which flourished in his wildlife-rich woods and squirrels were not a problem.

Talis admitted that exceptions must sometimes be made to his approach - for example when existing trees are of the wrong species for the site.

"Sometimes you have to change species. I had to remove all the Sitka Spruce because it was not wet enough for it - and it was not wind firm. We also took out all the Grand Fir because it produced poor quality timber. This was annoying because we had to replant at high cost and weed for four years to get the new trees established. But we really had no choice."

Keeping the forest structure uneven and diverse

Talis then took Oliver to another woodland on the Dinam estate. When he began managing it 20 years ago, it comprised even-aged monocultures of European Larch and Douglas Fir, with a narrow strip of Scots Pine across the slope.

He began by transforming the Larch over to his uneven system and now there was a rich, mixed species understorey in which the Pine, Larch and Fir had been seeding prolifically along with Oak, Ash, Beech, Hazel and Sycamore. Only now was work beginning on the Douglas Fir, undergoing conversion to a mixed woodland.

Once again, trees were selected for felling either on the basis of poor form, or if they reached a target diameter - but ensuring that plenty of standing wood remained. "I never select for thinning by size, but by quality", said Talis.

"I take care to leave uneven sizes to prepare for future phases of target diameter felling. And I prefer not to take out too much at once. My motto is to make haste slowly, making steady improvements year by year. There is no point in being in a hurry to get the job done because you will only cause needless disruption and the job is never finished anyway."

A new economics of forestry

Oliver's curiosity about this lively engaging - and for his advanced years, an impressively fit man - grew. He pieced together some of his life story - beginning in 1945, when he left his native Latvia after being wounded on active wartime service at the age of 17, to study forestry at The Baltic University in Hamburg.

"I suppose I've always been something of a rebel, even at university", he recalled. "One thing I could never accept was the principle of discounted revenue applied to forest economics, based on the idea that you made your investment and then reaped your return in one fell swoop.

"I knew something was lacking and thought that there had to be a system of forest economics based on securing the forest in perpetuity - not always starting and stopping. The problem was that the formulas can only be applied to even-aged monocultures and they break down as soon as you mix species or rotation periods. They cannot account for how different species affect one another.

"I maintained instead that a forest should be seen as a production capital, and only the increment was the product. I am happy to say that they were very tolerant. I remember the professor saying: 'You are free to have your own thoughts but you also have to know that we are teaching you'."

Clearfelling: 'it just seemed so wrong and destructive'

Much of Talis's knowledge of continuous cover methods came, not from his formal education, but from work experience - in particular, working during his university vacations for the North German Timber Control in the Harz mountains, where timber was being secured for export to Britain for war reparations.

In 1949 Talis was offered a 'temporary assignment' by the Forestry Commission at its Kielder Forest Office acquisitions department. Here, his main task was to prepare plans for new acquisitions, assessing whether forestry was a viable option for a site and developing preliminary planting patterns, road design etc.

At first, he had no disagreement with the FC's plantation-based approach. "I thought, in my youthful exuberance and ignorance, that these pioneer crops we were planting would eventually be turned into forestry proper.

"But then I was disillusioned when I started to see the large clearfells. They disturbed me greatly - and still do. Partly, it is the sight of something devastated, that until that time had been working for you. It just seemed wrong and self-destructive."

To Windsor Great Park ...

As a small cog in a very large machine, he could have no influence on the FC's forest management. So, instead he looked for more congenial opportunities in the private sector. Still in his late twenties, he took employment with Baring Industries, a small independent firm that worked on the Crown Estate in Windsor.

Thus it was that the young Kalnars became Head Forester at Windsor Great Park where he put his experience from the Harz mountains into practice, implementing plans for selected thinning, natural regeneration and shelterwood systems.

After a trip to see the forests of Wales - which immediately struck him as "a fine country" - he was invited to manage a Welsh woodland owners co-operative, which he did from 1959 until it was wound up in 1966 because of disagreements amongst members.

Thereafter, he worked as an independent consultant forester, keeping many of the same clients from the co-op who were more than satisfied with his work. After friends set up the Shotton Pulp Mill, he was taken on as a consultant and retained the same role in Shotton Forest Management which he helped set up.

Talis was delighted that interest in his methods and Continuous Cover Forestry in general, was on the rise. He was surprised to find himself as one of the chief exponents of the art in Britain, leading to the high accolade bestowed upon him by The Forest Stewardship Council when they visited his woodlands in 1999 and discussed how his methods could be more widely applied.

Talis was honoured with an MBE for his services to Welsh forestry and was invited to Highgrove to contribute to discussions on forestry and land management.

Latvian roots

Talis took great pride at the end of his life in returning to his home country Latvia. Every year from 2001 he went back to teach forestry at the Forest Faculty at Jelgava, part of the University of Latvia.

Last year his wife Martha and two of their daughters joined him in visiting the country from which he came. The trip was unfortunately blighted by an illness Talis developed there, which marred the experience and from which he possibly did not truly recover.

Talis Kalnars, the foresters' forester, passed away in 2005. He was a colossus in the world of forestry and he is missed, and will continue to be missed, for a long time to come.

Tribute to Talis Kalnars

Talis was a great friend, an exceptional forester and had a major influence on the development of my professional career. I was always impressed by his remarkable life story that for me came to symbolise how the best ideas within the different forestry cultures in Europe could be shared. This was clearly demonstrated by his approach to managing ecosystems long before this was to be universally accepted.

Managing natural or 'close to nature forestry' had to be economic and his driver for this was quality timber production, always making use of the benefits of biological automation to optimise returns at minimum costs.

Talis will be best remembered for his thinning pattern 'Graduated Density' used in the initial stages of stand transformation which is now enshrined in the best practice guide of every continuous cover forester in Britain and Ireland. It is a fantastic adaptation to a windswept island but also provides a simple and direct route to transformation to irregular high forest.

This integrated approach where commercial, environmental and social benefits grow out of an adaptive and ever changing growing stock is the legacy of a great forester who, fortunately for us, made Britain his home.



Phil Morgan is President of Pro Silva Europe and co-founder of the charity Woodland Heritage - now in its 20th year.

Oliver Tickell, who carried out the original interview for Forestry & British Timber, is now editor of The Ecologist.

This article was originally published in Woodland Heritage 2014, based on Oliver's earlier interview for Forestry & British Timber magazine, since renamed Forestry Journal.