Friday, 18 February 2011

Woodlands or wildlands?

Within a mile or so of my house there are many fields that have been lost to cultivation during my lifetime. Most of them are now semi-mature secondary woodlands with a wide range of tree and shrub species all of which have arrived of their own accord. Why, I often wonder, is there a growing obsession with planting trees. Why not just buy a field and let nature fill it up?

Associated with this thought is a concern I have that woodlands take a disproportionate amount of conservation attention. We also need un-treed, open wildlands – meadows and pastures, heaths and moors, fens and marshes and the boundaries between them. If I had a choice of home I would go for a place where woodland, grassland and wetland meet, where there is a synergy between different habitats. Much as I love them, I would not choose to live in a woodland, ancient or modern, unless it was in a very large glade. I sometimes think it is a shame that the Woodland Trust did not set itself up as the Wildland Trust, thereby not constraining itself to look after woodlands alone (though, in fairness, they do look after many non-woodland acres).

We seem to have forgotten about the spaces in between the woods. Hopkins & Kirby (2007) wrote that George Peterken and Oliver Rackham both point out that prior to 1940 woods were closely linked to the rest of the landscape.

"Semi-natural habitats comprised a higher proportion of the landscape between the woods. Trees spread out into the surrounding countryside through hedges and areas of wood pasture. Grassland and heath came into the wood along rides and glades or at the boundaries.

During the 20th century much of the semi-natural habitat around and in between the woods was lost, particularly in the lowlands of Britain. Even where semi-natural vegetation survives between the woods its quality may have declined. Therefore, despite the increase in woodland area since 1947 changes in the nature of the landscape matrix may have affected the population dynamics of species within woods through an increase in their ecological isolation."

A forest, of course, has never been an area of closed canopy trees but a wildland with many different habitats, a fact that only seems occasionally acknowledged in the current woodland and forest debate. Robert Pogue Harrison (2007) in his book Forests. The Shadow of Civilization had some thought provoking ideas that seem particularly relevant in the light of the recently abandoned sell-off proposals:

“... who can put his impress on the forest? Who can impose a human or political will upon the will of nature? Who can force the forest into one’s service? .... Humankind is always “impressing” the forest in one way or another, stripping it, conquering it, cultivating it, conscripting it. Likewise the forest is always impressing those who lose their way in its labyrinth.” (Mrs Spelman please note).

“One of the ways in which this dream of mastery and possession becomes reality in the post-Christian era is through the rise of forest management during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Forests become the object of a new science of forestry, with the State assuming the role of Descartes’s thinking subject. Predictably enough, modern forestry reduces forests to their most literal of “objective” status: timber. A new “forest mathematics” goes so far as to measure them in terms of their volume of disposable wood. Method thus conspires with the laws of economy to reappropriate forests under the general concept of “utility”, even in those cases where utility is conceived in aesthetic terms: forests as recreational parks, for example, or as “museums” of original nature.”

“Recently we have come to learn a great deal about the ecology of forests. .... Given our increased knowledge of the many interdependencies that constitute such ecosystems, forests have come to assume a powerful symbolic status in the cultural imagination to the degree that they provide a compelling paradigm for the notion of the earth as a single, complex, integrated ecosystem. Ecological concern over forests goes beyond just the forests insofar as forests have now become metonymies for the earth as a whole. What is true for a particular forest’s ecosystem is true for the totality of the biosphere. Humanity begins to appear in a new light: as a species caught in the delicate and diverse web of a forestlike planetary environment. More precisely, we are beginning to appear to ourselves as a species of parasite which threatens to destroy the hosting organism as a whole.”

There is also a general misconception that all woods and forests need to be 'managed'. There are, in fact, many woodlands in England that now have minimum intervention or non-intervention policies and, of course, they are likely to remain wooded for the foreseeable future. Management, it seems to me, is largely to do with the production of wood/timber and sometimes to conserve species that need conditions that were once widespread in the countryside. But generally, woodland will look after itself as it did under the very different conditions prevailing before our own species arrived on these islands.


Harrison, Robert Pogue (1992) Forests. The Shadow of Civilization. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.

Hopkins, J. J. & Kirby, K. J. (2007) Ecological change in British broadleaved woodland since 1947. Natural England, Peterborough

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