A small woodlot, overlooked science behind forest restoration and its lessons

- Lila Nath Sharma, Pokhara

     Lila Nath Sharma    
     Monday September 6, 2021

My beautiful village, some scattered trees and a woodlot

This year’s lock down to control the spread of Coronavirus became an opportunity for me to stay in my village, Sikhreuli- the village where I grew up and spent my childhood. I never stayed sedentary at home for such a long time, not even during my childhood.  When I was homebound for more than two months in the beautiful village, I recalled my childhood memories, observed nature from different perspectives and lenses. An insignificant and tiny woodlot of trees drew my attention more than anything else. The woodlot was just 10 meters away from my window and it consisted of just three planted trees; a 15 meters tall Jackfruit, a mango tree and a Litchi tree, each 7-8 meters tall. The area also had a bamboo bush and a few naturally grown Bakaina trees. I am not sure where the group of these trees fit in; a fruit orchard or a grove or nowhere at all

The trees in the woodlot, planted three decades ago never drew my attention before. This year gave me an opportunity to observe the changes that occurred in my village and to take notice of the woodlot.

A small woodlot in the farm, Chure Mountain in the back-right background

Catapults vanished and the birds come back

The change I noticed around the woodlot was probably directly linked to a traditional tool of hunting birds; catapult. As a kid, I had a catapult with me and so did most of my friends. We also used to keep a few stones in the pockets of our half pants to pelt at birds. Three decades ago, there used to be children climbing trees, collecting eggs and catching juveniles from nests in the village. However, things seem to have changed with time. I did not see a single kid carrying a catapult or indulged in killing birds. Catapults have almost vanished from the village. During my stay, I noticed a big difference from the past; the abundance of birds in our woodlot at present. Elderly/older people in the village confirmed my observation by agreeing to it.  These days, Children do not have time, company and the freedom my generation enjoyed which has both negative and positive aspects to it.

I could listen to the calls and songs of birds from my bed. There was a saga of courtship of birds of various colors, sizes and nature. Many were friendly while others were shy. Some of the birds, especially, Magpie Robin hit my window with its beak. One of the most vocal birds was Asian Koel (Koili in Nepali) that sings koho (Koo-Ooo), koho (Koo-Ooo).  Koel is a shy bird that mostly sits on densely foliated branches. Another bird which was heard often during March-April was Indian Cuckoo (Kafal Pakyo chari).  A pair of greater Coucals were seen in the woodlot most of the times. Common Myna, Asian Pied Starling, Black Drongo, spotted Dove, Rose-ringed parakeet, Red vented bulbul, Plain prinia, and Oriental magpie robin could be frequently seen too. Indian roller, Asian Paradise flycatcher, Rufous Treepie, Cattle egret, Baya Weaver, Green Bee Eater, and a species of raptor also visited the woodlot occasionally. Baya Weaver had an artistic nest made by connecting narrow and long threads of leaves of maize, beetle nut and broom grass. The bird also uses mud and water to prepare the nest.  These birds are not just hard working but are perfect engineers of the nature.

Many birds I observed during the home-bound period were also sighted during my childhood, almost three decades ago, but not in abundance like today. Their sighting was quite rare back in the days which is not the same now. Unlike before, Asian Koel is very commonly seen now. Different groups of paradise fly catchers were observed several times which used to be rare two decades ago. The change is not limited to birds but is common in vegetation as well. The most notable change is that two years ago, there was no Mikania micrantha. Lantana camera was also not found in the area. Both are obnoxious weeds highly spread during the last decade.

This small woodlot is not a mere group of trees, it is a breeding place and a resting place for several species of birds. There also were several birds I could not identify. A pair of small Asian mongoose was frequently observed below the woodlot. I also observed a juvenile of a Golden monitor lizard in the scene. My impression is that a small woodlot less than a quarter hectare in size has been a nesting and foraging space for over thirty species of birds in a season. 

Wonderful job underestimated

Having listed some of the birds observed, I am making an attempt to explain what those birds have done in the woodlot and what we can learn from that. The job done by the birds was clearly visible and it was incredible. The observation also refreshed my ecology classes from my graduate studies. The birds played a key role in establishing vegetation around the woodlot.  Ecologist have long ago coined a term ‘succession’  to refer to the stages of vegetation change in fallow lands, abandoned fields, degraded forests and areas previously not occupied by vegetation. A pair of Jamun (Syzygum cuminii) seedlings drew my attention. This forest species was brought to the farm by birds.  It was not the only one, there were many that were not initially the part of the farm. I could see Gayo (Bridelia stipularis), Sindure (Mallotus phillipensis), Asare (Murraya koenighii) and Dumri (Ficus racemosa), all species from nearby forest brought to the grove. Tote (Ficus hispida) and Kutmero (Litsea monopeta), both common farm trees were in abundance. Bakaino (Melia aziderach), Neem (Azaderacta india), Badahar (Artrocarpus lakoocha), Newaro (ficus auriculata), IpilIpil (Leucana leucosephala), Bakhre (Streblus asper), Gineri (Premna barbata), Simal (Bombax ceiba) and Kafal (Morus alba) were also growing below the canopy and around the grove.

My list included 15 tree species growing below the canopy of woodlot and there were several shrubs too. None of those were ever planted by humans in that spot. While walking through the village, I noticed many trees regenerating naturally, assuring that my observation from the woodlot was happening in other places too. In the above mentioned list of birds, many of them are fruit-eating. Fruit eating birds carry and drop seeds from the forest, nearby woodlots and lone trees to the agricultural field. The fallen seeds are then moved in the soil by resident rodents. Germinated seeds are protected by lantana and other shrubs.

Big lesson from a simple natural process

Currently, there is a global campaign for plantation to increase forests and trees. If we go deeper into the plantation campaign, it is not simply to increase the number of trees but to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide into biomass so that the severity of impending crises of climate change could be averted. Critics have suggested that plantation campaigns should not be taken as substitute of meaningful reduction in fossil fuel consumption in mitigating climate change. However plantation, if done correctly has multiple benefits. Plantation has now also been framed within a broader concept of restoration. Planting millions of trees is a very local target, big targets aim for trillion not even billion trees.  Following the world, Nepali professionals and technocrats are also continuing and arguing for plantation including exotic trees in the forest with tremendous natural regeneration and re-wilding potential. For the past forty years or so, we have been investing regularly in plantation. Plantation in public lands and degraded forests are routine activities to showcase environmental responsibility and sensitivity of NGOs, INGOs and government agencies. With a few exceptions, a large number of plantation events go in vain and are a mere formality. The investment, outcome and accountability of plantation in Nepal is topic of separate discussion.

While continuing such plantation with investment of money and labor, we have gross underestimation of nature’s simple rule i.e. its ability to return to the forest.  We have not looked closely and attentively into the nature. It has been witnessed that naturally regenerating seedlings in forests are cleared for plantation. What I observed in the woodlot; plantation by birds, natural regeneration of trees and secondary succession in a small grove is neither a new observation nor a novel process. Pramod Parajuli, an ecologist working in Chitwan, in his essay has mentioned that an ordinary farmer has wonderful understanding of how succession works and a few standing trees and birds help bringing the jungle back in the farms. Ecologists around the world are explaining science behind this for more than a century. Forests in marginal mountains and abandoned pastures and farms are coming back globally. Even in Nepal, forests are returning in mountain areas including the abandoned fields and pastures. Plantation movements have been criticized for not appreciating the natural potential of forest regeneration which has substantive biodiversity, climate and social benefits over plantations. Nevertheless, priority and urgency of plantation could be high in some areas like tropics where deforestation rate is high.

Naturally regenerating woodlots and succession in abandoned fields can demonstrate us how to restore degraded forest. From under a single tree, we can collect hundreds of tree seedlings every year. Collecting seedlings from tree shade would localize plantation, save money spent in nurseries and reduce carbon footprint of seedlings transport. If we learn to capitalize the tree regeneration in woodlots, we can shorten the long process and skip several steps of plantation which starts from seed collection to transporting and sowing seedlings. 

 If a major disturbance is avoided, vegetation gradually develops around standing lone trees and degraded forests. We need not worry about source of seeds; birds know where to get them from.   In general, natural processes are dynamic and they work very well, while in some cases we may need some intervention to reinstate the stalled succession or to enhance successional speed to meet some societal aspirations. 

The process occurring in the woodlot also occurs in degraded forests. Maintaining scattered trees will increase the rate of natural regeneration. Every tree is a habitat, a resting and breeding place for birds. If the tree does not act as a seed source, birds will do that. Microenvironments created by lone trees, be in the farms or in the forests, create conducive environment for germination and growth of diverse species of trees, herbs and shrubs.  In a degraded forest, where trees are sparse, each tree can serve as tree regeneration hub.  Scattered trees can be connected by other trees simply without plantation.

In a nutshell, if we are serious about restoration we can learn and appreciate the simple, yet effective process of natural succession.  Restoration of degraded ecosystems naturally or with a minimal input makes it sustainable and cost effective, enhances biodiversity, assures vivid ecosystem services and makes ecosystem resilient at the face of unprecedented anthropogenic climate and biodiversity breakdown.

(Mr. Sharma works at Forest Action Nepal and carries out action research for evidence based forest management.)