Seeing the Forest, Not the Trees

Since I wrote this article some years ago, the passion for re-wilding and planting forests has gathered pace, with the re-creating of forests seen as an essential component of replacing lost habitats and absorbing carbon.

My intention here is to provide information for readers to make more informed decisions on what is needed to allow wildlife to flourish in our depleted landscapes and how tree planting can better serve wildlife.

This article was first published in “The Land” magazine (see links for more info).

Tree planting and creating “new woodlands” have taken on an almost sacred status in Britain today, embracing both a desire to “do something for the future” and a Romantic ideal of recreating the ancient, or at least the pre-industrial; representative of a Britain unsullied by the hands of mankind. For many tree-planting has achieved a status close to the spiritual, reconnecting one with nature and re-establishing lost links with wildlife and landscape. For others, including politicians, tree planting is a seen as part of the mechanisms for tackling climate change and providing new amenity spaces. It is not my place, nor intention, to rubbish these well-founded motives, especially not an individual idea of the Romantic or spiritual; however, I do believe that these ideas could be broadened by a closer look at the history of the English landscape and by an improved understanding of the ecological processes at work in the British countryside today. I believe too that woodland planting can go further and encompass not only the part new woodlands play in landscape scale habitat restoration, but also at how this fits with sustainable, local economies.

Let us turn first to the past; many of us were raised on the idea that Britain was once covered with virgin woodland, possibly oak, but with a smattering of other species. Indeed, this story was told again, more than once, in the opening episode of the BBC’s “Secret Britain”, a recent sojourn into wild, rarely explored parts of our islands that barely paused for breath as it galloped through the history, landscapes and wildlife of southern England. In similar vein, George Peterken, in his seminal work Woodland Conservation & Management (Peterken, 1981), refers to “natural woodlands, that once covered most of Britain”; likewise, the ever eloquent Oliver Rackham, in The History of the Countryside, (Rackham, 1986) states: “in the beginning….the British Isles were covered with natural forest, collectively known as wildwood”. Interestingly, Peterken’s ideas have now evolved to embrace a more complicated picture, but more of that later, for now, let us follow the story: the wildwood spread out across the land after the last great glaciers retreated, about 12,500 to 10,500 years ago, tree seeds came from the scrub and tundra that clung on in peri-glacial areas and from the land bridge that connected us to mainland Europe. Across this land bridge too, before it sunk into the English Channel as melting ice raised sea levels, came most of our wildlife and eventually, Homo sapiens. The story goes that this forest was a “climax community”, an end point of ecological evolution and the ultimate vegetation that the land will support.

It is a lovely, compelling and simple story and I would not go so far as to say it is wholly wrong or without use; it is a good starting point for understanding some basic ecological processes, but, like so much else in life, the truth is so much more complicated. It is undeniable that in pre-history there were many more trees than now and that the landscape of the past would have frequently appeared dominated by trees, but the pre-historic landscape of our islands was much more diverse than we can imagine and an understanding of this is a good starting point for ecological restoration projects.

For ecologists, the story of the British wildwood has long presented a number of problems, the simplest being that a climax community has to sit alongside a number of completely natural forces that mean woodland is not likely to develop in a given location. Flood, fire, salt inundation and perhaps most significantly, the impact of large grazing mammals, means that many places woodland never develops, these are known in ecology as “seral” or “seres” (Green, 1985). Furthermore, a climax community requires a stable climate and in the last 10 000 years, Britain’s climate varied, even if not dramatically. In the Roman era, grape vines were grown far further north than today, but the subsequent “Dark Ages” were probably colder and wetter, whilst the late Medieval period possibly experienced a “Little Ice Age”. Further to that, some ecologists believe that there has not been sufficient time since the end of the last Ice Age for a true climax forest to exist and that oak, which can also be a good pioneer species (quickly moving into open land), may not always be a climax species; factors such as soil, aspect, location and so on further complicate this picture. On the chalk of the South Downs it is possible that yew woodland is the climax community, but other trees scarcely regenerate in the dense shade of yew, so when a yew woodland declines, open chalk grassland can quickly develop in its place. Maps of the historic locations of yew woods around Old Winchester Hill National Nature Reserve show yew woods evolving and collapsing, moving like amoebas, oozing across the chalk downs (M Finnemore, pers. comm.).

Writing in 2003, in his Illustrated History of the Countryside (Rackham 2003), Oliver Rackham relates that the arrival of Homo sapiens led rapidly to the clearance of wildwood; however, he writes also that Mesolithic and Neolithic peoples lacked appropriate tools for large scale forest clearance and Rackham also questions “whether in prehistory there were enough livestock” to clear dense forest. These elements of doubt open the door to more recent theories of how our landscape was composed in pre-history.

In recent years, there has been much focus on the work of Franz Vera (Vera, 2000), whose research into landscape history has led him to propose that in prehistory wild grazing herds existed in sufficient quantity to create a mosaic of mature woodland and more open, seral habitats (scrub, grassland, heath etc.); these in turn shifting with time, much like the yew woods of the South Downs. Any reader who has visited the Bialowieza forest in Poland will recognise the broad landscape set out by Vera, where grazing herds of bison and pony maintain grasslands within a wooded landscape. The Bialowieza encompasses a range of natural habitats and the United Nations Bialowieza web site mentions 26 different major habitat types within the Bialowieza, including fen, grassland and scrub. A forest, seen from this angle, is very different from the ancient woods of Britain; the origin and meaning of the word “forest” is itself open to debate, especially as in Medieval England it referred to a royal hunting ground, but the most likely original meaning is unenclosed land with trees, rather than exclusively dense woodland.

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Wild cattle at Chillingham – a landscape managed mostly by grazing herbivores since Medieval times.  Photo J Volynchook

Vera’s theories are the source of much controversy and debate amongst British ecologists and landscape historians, much of it focused on the exact extent of the influence of grazing animals in Britain, as opposed to mainland Europe (British Wildlife: special supplement: 2, number 5). Debate aside, the theory seems sound: the primeval landscape was shaped by many natural forces, including that of wild herds; in the Illustrated History of Countryside (2003), Rackham echoes Vera by mentioning that the archaeological record demonstrates that aurochs, horses and other mammals were present in large herds and that these were not woodland creatures, so would have influenced the development of the landscape as the glaciers retreated.

The crucial point here is that it is a not a choice between trees and open habitats, but that the two are essential components of a landscape that, ecologically speaking, functions. Herbivores are essential to this function and Peter Taylor (Taylor 2005), defines forest as “more than trees: it is a dynamic relationship between vegetation and herbivory, with the latter influenced by predators”. Taylor is an avid exponent of the need to “re-wild” areas of the British Isles by creating large reserves with a suite of herbivores and predators such as lynx and wolf, his motivation includes the spiritual need for wilderness, but as an ecologist he recognizes that “simple tree planting …would not lead to a natural forest” and like me concludes that if we concentrate on trees alone, we run “the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees.”.

The ecologist Colin Tubbs, writing nearly a decade before Vera’s theories were published (Tubbs, 1993), questions heavily the “conventional view” that “the dominant process in the past 5000 or 6000 years has been the clearance by man of an unbroken primeval forest …… and an accompanying decline in biodiversity.” Tubbs, in common with many other ecologists, points to the simple fact that a high proportion of British fauna and flora are adapted to open habitats and “could hardly have survived in unbroken forest”. Similarly, the late and distinguished ecologist Francis Rose expressed doubts about the concept of dense, continuous, closed-canopy forests once extending across northern Europe as long ago as the 1960’s; this was based largely on his specialist knowledge of lichens and the habitat provided for them and other less visible biodiversity by old, open-grown trees (that is those that have grown up in open habitats, without extensive competition from other trees) (Green, 2010). It is worth reminding ourselves too that many of these species, including humans, did not cross the sea into a vast expanse of mature woodland, they were either here already, clinging on in the warmer corners of what was still a northern peninsular of Europe, or came, across the land-bridge, into a landscape still evolving in the face of the retreating ice. Colin Tubbs (British Wildlife, undated) asks us to re-consider the ecological history of Britain as a “panorama of continuous change” and, most poetically, as a “process in which man is a part of the ecosystem, not, as is commonly perceived, set aside as a predatory witness awaiting opportunities to exploit it”.

So, what does this long, complicated and still much debated story have to do with planting trees? It is that we need to get away from the notion that tree planting is a pure way of re-instating the past and instead see all semi-natural habitats as having a value and a place. Two crucial questions in making decisions about planting woodland arise from this: they are asking what is there already and then considering the value of what is planted for wildlife, if, that is, we seek to improve the opportunities for wildlife in our landscape.

Bill Mollison, the father of the permaculture movement, urges his disciples to spend time, preferably a year, learning what is on the land already, before deciding what to do with it (Mollison, 1991), a charge re-iterated by Patrick Whitefield (Whitefield 2009). As my background is in surveying botany and herpetofauna, I cannot endorse this approach wholeheartedly enough; what you do with a piece of land has to be based heavily on what is there already and, to some extent, what was there in the past. The crucial point here is that “our ability to manage…. appropriately, may be critically dependent on the scale at which a system is studied” (Harvey 2001).

Many community woodland projects do employ species surveys to inform their planting plans and seek to avoid planting on other semi-natural habitats, such as fen, unimproved meadow, heath, moor or bog. However, it is also true that in the past some terrible schemes took place on these habitats and I still encounter people for whom it is incomprehensible that planting trees might be more detrimental to wildlife than not planting trees. The wildlife value of grasslands is particularly difficult to communicate and many persist in the idea that semi-natural grassland habitats are in someway still inferior to woodlands, as if these habitats are rendered invisible next to the splendour of trees.

It is worth pausing a moment to consider both the history and the wildlife value of grasslands, which come in a variety of types in the UK alone, from acid grasslands on sands and gravels, to chalk and limestone grasslands and a range of “neutral” meadows; the pH of the soil and how wet it is are amongst the key factors in determining vegetation type, affecting the plants that grow there and frequently the species that live on these plants; but perhaps the most essential feature, from a wildlife perspective, is the extent to which these grasslands have been affected by agricultural “improvement” – that is the addition of non-organic fertilisers, use of herbicides and seeding with high-yielding varieties of grass, most notably perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne). Green, glossy silage fields are not of huge value for wildlife, but the unimproved kinds, with their huge range of species and varied structure (bare soil, tall areas and tussocks) support masses of other species, from invertebrates that relish both the open, sunny conditions and the nectar plants to small mammals, birds and the creatures that prey on them.

To lie in a sunlit hay meadow on a summer’s day, with shrews squeaking and crickets chirping is one of the loveliest pleasures known; a kestrel might hover into view and myriad butterflies, like gatekeepers and meadow browns, rise off the flowers of scabious, knapweed and ox-eye daisy. Yet, there is still a feeling that persists in some quarters that such places are not “original” and not truly “wild”: hopefully the long argument on the pre-history of our landscapes has helped to dispel this. The grassy areas that existed before farming was truly established were soon exploited and expanded upon by pastoralists and early farmers; for them, grass was of supreme importance, the source of grazing for their herds and of hay for keeping domesticated animals alive in the winter. For century upon century, the cycles of cutting hay and grazing, frequently interspersed with shifting arable production, served to keep these wild grasslands poor in nutrient and thus ideal for wild plants. These cycles were explored in length by Andrew Jones (British Wildlife 21), who has studied ancient farming systems still surviving in Transylvania, with species-rich grasslands not dissimilar in species composition from our own, but still supporting flora rapidly disappearing from the British countryside. The farms seemed to survive with little or no agricultural chemical inputs and on a small scale, with a continued dependence on horses and manual labour; interestingly, shifting arable cultivation was part of the mix, with areas used for crops cultivated on a long rotation and continuing, in fallow years, to support a diversity of wild plants.


Recently created wild flower grassland on Norfolk’s chalk hills; these have been sown by collecting seed by hand and in the form of seed hay from nearby old meadows.  Photo H Baczkowska

Writing in 2009, George Peterken (British Wildlife 20) urges conservationists and others to re-think the way that woodlands and meadows are always thought of as “distinct habitats, albeit with some species in common”. In the past, Peterken believes, the two were much more closely linked – not only were meadows a part of the prehistoric forest complex, but in farming, he believes, the two worked side by side, with wood-pasture systems (stock grazed under trees) and wood-meadow systems (hay and grazing under trees).   Peterken explores a number of such farming practices still extant in Sweden and the Pyrenees, as well as relicts of them in the Black Mountains, Pennines and Dales. Permaculturalists called such systems “stacked” and stress the energy-efficient, multi-land use aspects, but Peterken stresses the need to incorporate such systems into the planning of “forest-habitat networks”, explored later in this article, reminding his readers that “forests were traditionally and naturally mixtures of habitats, not wall to wall trees”.

By the late Twentieth Century, farming in the UK had all but stopped valuing unimproved grasslands, using instead high-yielding varieties of grass to produce grazing and with silage replacing hay as a winter fodder. Wild, or semi-wild grasslands have become something almost without a value, unless, like me, you spend your life revelling in the wildlife they support. From a deep ecological perspective, that would be enough and the protection of these wild places and species would be simply because they exist and because mankind would be diminished by their extinction. From a more anthropocentric point of view, it is worth reflecting that, as part of the great interconnectedness of all life, grasslands may well have a more tangible value, providing vital havens for diminishing invertebrates,  most notably bees

That woodland planting can do damage to semi-natural grassland is undisputed amongst ecologists. The example I look at everyday is here on my doorstep, where my local common was planted with an “off the peg” woodland mix some 20 years ago. The open common of my childhood had patches of gorse and bramble and a few mature oak, which spread like parkland trees in the sunlit conditions. The oak were stunted and grew poorly on land which lies like a swamp in the winter. The grass itself varies from chalky clay, supporting the nationally scarce sulphur clover (Trifolium ochleuron) to thin sands with heath bedstraw (Gallium saxatile) and heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis). Orchids and cowslips (Primula veris) grew here once too. Onto this, a local tree warden, funded by the local authority, planted oak and birch, bird cherry, Italian alder and hybrid aspen, all tightly packed and in nice straight rows with tree guards around them. In the shady conditions, the flowers of the open common died away, leaving bare soils and nettles; the orchids and cowslips have disappeared. The trees have never been thinned or coppiced, they are now all the same age and height, offering little low-growing cover for birds or mammals. The woodland planting also divides the common into smaller areas, rendering it harder to graze or cut for hay, thus, for many years, whole sections declined into rough tussocks of matted, dying grass. I will not dispute that some of the habitats created support some wildlife, but those habitats could have been created anywhere, even on chemically improved arable land, whereas unimproved grassland is a limited resource. In recent years, some of the damage to my common has been reversed with the resumption of hay cutting, funded by a Government agri-environment scheme and the revival of my common right to keep a pony there.

The example of my much-denuded common underlines Mollison’s charge: learn about your land before you decide what to do with it. As much as anything else, this means being prepared to accept that some places are better retained as they are, or that our preconceptions of what is “good for wildlife” sometimes need to be re-thought. Hopefully, such time for reflection will allow prospective tree planters to develop schemes that include more than trees, that are ecological appropriate, truly suited to their location and to what lives there already.

Time for reflection leads also to practical questions over what is possible on any given area of land: is it best to plant, or leave for natural regeneration? Can what is there already be enhanced by minor changes in management, rather than a wholesale change of habitat? Even if a scheme starts with improved grassland, or an arable field, it is vital to consider these questions and to consider how the scheme may benefit the wider area too.

At this point, there are a number of other arguments that come into play that are worth exploring before looking at the more practical ideas of planting design, the most crucial of these being the question “what is the wood for?”. Promotional material for woodland planting schemes frequently cites the main reasons for planting as being for wildlife, to help counteract climate change, for amenity use, sometimes for coppice produce and for protection of the soil. In many cases, these are valid enough reasons and planting a new wood can improve greatly upon what is there already, as long as what is there is not damaged.

Planting trees as a future carbon sink is one of the most popular reasons given for tree planting at the moment, with climate change being the big environmental issue of the day. Certainly, mature trees are effective carbon sinks, but it is worth bearing in mind that most semi-natural habitats operate as carbon sinks too and that both peat-lands and permanent grassland are effective sinks on a global scale (British Wildlife 19 no. 1). It is also worth reflecting that trees take a long time to mature and what happens in the interim is important too. Further to this is the wider issue of the way we respond to climate change, which most ecologists agree needs to encompass more than creating and protecting carbon sinks. One of the most useful actions we can take is to build resilience into the landscape and this concept, although fraught with difficulties, sits behind much conservation action today, including some of the European and UK Government’s grant schemes to farmers, like Environment Stewardship. A resilient landscape is one that is easily permeable to wildlife, so that as habitats across the globe change, in response to altering climatic conditions, species are able to move to new areas. The alternative for many species is, simply, extinction.

Resilience can be created by both protection and management of those highly biodiverse habitats we have already and by ensuring those that remain are linked. Currently much of England, especially the lowlands, is a fragmented landscape, with areas of high biodiversity separated by areas that are hostile to many species – not just roads, industry and housing, but areas of industrial farming too. Those familiar with the concept of island biogeography will recognise this; the smaller and more isolated a habitat is the fewer species it will support and the smaller the amount of individuals of a given a species it will support, so that eventually some populations will become unviable and species will be lost (MacArthur & Wilson, 1967). Planting new woodlands maybe an important part of creating a landscape that is resilient to climate change, but, creating a network of a wider range of semi-natural habitats and incorporating a range of ecological process will be immeasurable better in terms of species diversity and the sustainability of populations.

The subject of resilience links climate change with wildlife and the creation of a place for wildlife is a major driver for woodland planting. As mentioned above, a new wood might be better for wildlife than what was there before, but by taking a wider ecological view, I believe that we can improve greatly on the current situation. In over 20 years of looking at newly planted woods, some of which have trees that are now edging towards maturity, I have some to the conclusion that planted woods are on the whole, just that – a plantation of trees. The trees are often dense and uniform in age and structure, sometimes with the tussocky remnants of grassland underneath. Without greater consideration of their design and species, the wildlife value of such plantations is limited; the most biologically diverse areas are usually where there is an “edge effect” – around rides and clearings, where there is more light and where wild flowers may grow.

In contrast to recent plantations, ancient and semi-natural woods, or even old secondary woods, support a wide range of wildlife because they contain a huge diversity of structure: trees of different heights, scrub and shrubs, fallen deadwood, standing deadwood, old pollards (manmade or naturally occurring) and often remnant coppice. Species within such woods sort themselves out happily according to soil type, light and aspect, as well as previous human uses; in my local woods, you enter via a dense blackthorn thicket (where the wood was once open and grazed as wood pasture), progress through old hazel coppice on the drier soils, into alder on the wettest areas, encountering ancient pollards and coppice of hornbeam, unusual hawthorn pollards (once used for firewood), holly pollards (once used for winter fodder where the wood was grazed) and a stand of the rare small-leaved lime, once prized by wood-carvers and turners. The skeletons of huge dead oaks, killed by honey fungus, teem with insects and woodpeckers and off the path, you pick your way carefully over fallen logs and branches, each covered with moss, fungi and lichen. Such diversity must have taken thousands of years to develop, but in here are ideas for creating new woodlands that I have seen only the bravest put into action – starting coppicing and pollarding on young trees, not just for produce, but to create a more diverse habitat, leaving fallen deadwood for fungi and insects, ring-barking trees to create standing deadwood, planting thickets of unpopular species like blackthorn and tolerating dense scrub as well as tall, slender trees.

James Merryweather, an ecologist with a special interest in symbiosis, has written an almost savage and uniquely subterranean attack on tree planting (Merryweather, British Wildlife, 2007). Starting with the viewpoint that new woodlands are, ecologically speaking, “nonsense”, Merryweather goes on to explore the complicated inter-relations (or symbiosis) of soil mycorrhiza, explaining, in great detail, how farming practice ruins the mycorrhiza of woodlands beyond repair. Native woodland, Merryweather believes, may be “mostly man-modified, but has not been rendered dysfunctional”. In contrast, plantations begin with the planting of trees, not with any attempt to consider how the life of the damaged soil might begin to repair itself. The result, as I have noted from a floral and woodland structure perspective, is that what is created is a plantation, not a woodland. In true outspoken fashion, Merryweather stresses again and again the time needed to make a wood, citing the 1000 years it took for deciduous woodland to become established after the end of the last Ice Age; he urges us to learn from nature and to understand that “only nature (God if you are believer) can” create woodland, to believe that we can create woods (as opposed to plantations), is, he suggests, pure arrogance.

In the past, new woodlands often followed prescribed planting schemes, sometimes dictated by grant agencies, which failed to reflect local conditions and variations. Many conservationists have done good work in recent years to promote the importance of native, local provenance seed, but this time consuming and the quick-fix of bought trees (even if from a UK source) raises many questions for ecologists. Such trees will not ensure the survival of truly local genetic strains and the variations in timings of fruiting, budding and so on, which allow survival in a variable climate and endless assualts from parasites and disease. Furthermore, new woods acquire, almost immediately, an aura of untouchability; this is not only unnatural, but also counter-productive, creating a less diverse, less resilient habitat.

Arguably, as both Merryweather and I have asserted, the best way to create new woodland is through natural re-generation and some organisations have gone a long way to not only collect and use local seed, but to encourage natural re-generation. Merryweather, a resident of the Scottish Highlands, is rather scathing about attempts to “reproduce the old Caledonian forest”, believing that the long centuries of moorland management may have damaged soil biota almost irrevocably. However, I have seen work by both Trees for Life and the Forestry Commission in Scotland that focuses on re-generating woods, rather than purely re-planting and that seems worthy of further investigations. In these projects, sheep and where possible deer are excluded from exclosures within or close to existing woodland and seedlings consequently allowed to flourish, often augmented by planting with locally gathered seed. These locations, where there is a hope that soil biota, fungi and other species can spread more easily and where existing woods are augmented, seem a good choice for woodland regeneration. Grazing animals and deer are later permitted into the exclosures at low levels of intensity, which will result in the loss a few young trees, but the processes of nibbling, poaching soil, compacting soil and grazing open areas will create structural diversity and micro-habitats (often vital for invertebrates); excluding grazing animals or denying any disturbance is frankly unnatural and puts these crucial ecological processes on hold.

As well as more natural processes, such as browsing and grazing, management for woodland products can greatly enhance woodland structure and in many nature reserves, traditional management is mimicked, often with the products wasted or used for nothing more than firewood, just to maintain a diverse structure. Similarly, the managers of grass and heathland nature reserves frequently struggle to maintain their sites due to a lack of a use for hay or shortage of grazing stock. Mimicking traditionally productive woods by planting a higher than natural component of coppice (hazel, ash and so on) and well-spaced future standards, is an obvious response to this, as is creating the wood-meadow systems advocated by Peterken. As mentioned earlier, permaculturalists refer to these systems as “stacked”; in the past, permaculture in the UK has focussed largely on forest gardening and paid less attention to the role of livestock (S Fairlie, pers comm.). If we put together the role of livestock in prehistoric and traditional farming systems with the possible damage to soil biota and the need to create diverse, multi-structured habitats, then maybe these systems offer more potential than the traditional “plantation in rough grassland” model of woodland planting and are a vital addition to permaculture thinking in the UK.

Up to this point, I have been writing almost solely as an ecologist and as someone for whom the restoration of our landscape to one that can support greater biodiversity is a heart-felt cause. However, as an environmentalist, I also feel compelled to look wider and to ask what else are new woods for? They may contribute to carbon sinks, they may be part of the need to link, buffer and enhance existing habitats, but are they to be solely land taken out of production? This is a prescient question at a time when, for so many reasons, many of us feel that we need to be looking at reducing our imports of vital crops. In the past, woodlands were of immense use to local people: the source of building wood, small timber, coppice products, pannage (beechnuts and acorn for pigs) and so on. Peterken’s reflections on wood-meadows are worth remembering here too, for in the past, the boundaries between wood, pasture and meadow were more blurred, but all of these habitats, diverse and intermingled, were also of use to the people who lived amongst them.

In reflecting on this, I have no desire to romanticise the past, but rather to ask questions about how we live in our landscape and how we impact upon it. Never have so many of this island’s people been so cut-off from the places that produce food, timber and fuel and never has the need to address the use and sourcing of these seemed so crucial.

If we seek to produce more goods locally, we will need to consider how this fits with land-use and what this means for local habitats.   At present, agricultural subsidies and the continuing trend for large, mono-cultural production over sustainable, low-input, low-output, high biodiversity farmers means that much practical action on this front is stifled. However, we do still need to consider the point and whilst the vision for the future of biodiversity and sustainability can never realistically rely on the faithful re-creation of the past, it is worth looking to the past for lessons; surprisingly, in relfecting on the same point, Tubbs (Tubbs 1993) suggests that in Hampshire “the period of maximum biodiversity was around the middle of the 18th century, rather than at some more remote period.” This is a time before the first wave of industrialism hit farming, before the use of large machines, inorganic fertilisers and chemical pesticides.

The modes of farming considered by Tubbs contain much that would be unacceptable today – hard work for labourers who often lived in appalling conditions and relatively low yields with a lot of crop failure from weather, disease and pests. Yet, it has within it something compelling, an idea that at a time when local produce and local self-sufficiency were crucial, many semi-natural habitats had a tangible economic value and their maintenance, based on this, had the potential at least to be of great value to wildlife. The crucial element, as Tubbs himself saw plainly, were that high-biodiversity rural land uses were and are characterized by low inputs of external energy. Looking back to this past might not give us a plan of how to build self-reliance into our landscape, but allows us to see what may be achievable.

To return to the original question of how semi-natural habitats sit alongside more sustainable resource production, it is not hard to consider what a self-reliant landscape might comprise: grazing land, with low inputs of fertiliser, producing a relatively low yield of healthy, free-range produce from habitats that would the imitate meadow and pasture management of the Transylvanian grasslands mentioned at the beginning of this article; wood pasture and wood meadow would form part of this complex too, providing small timber and fruit as well as grazing and hay products. Tubbs and others concerned about the lack of joined-up thinking on agriculture, sustainability and wildlife set up the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, a network that still exists ( to promote the value of low-input, extensive grazing systems as productive for both humans and wildlife. This is not a vision that denies intensive

This article began with a questioning of the myth of the British wildwood, followed by hasty coverage of the research of Franz Vera, George Peterken, Oliver Rackham and other historians of our ancient landscape. This led, equally hastily, onto both a look at the woodlands we have created in recent years and a reflection on those woods and other habitats we may wish to create in the future. During the writing of this article, news stories and publications with a bearing it on seemed a weekly occurrence – climate change, the loss of bees and wildflowers, the planting of new urban “forests”, the proposed sell-off of Forest Commission land and so on, yet, seldom did it seem as if the commentators could link one to another and even more seldom link these to the wider environmental issues and the supply of resources.

My hopes, at the end of this article, are that the wide-ranging arguments presented will help readers think more creatively when managing land; to think more about the wider needs of wildlife, about the ecological processes at work in our landscape and about building micro-habitats and diversity into more of what we do, as well as cherishing existing grasslands and understanding the value of creating new ones.   Ultimately, I hope it will add to the debate on how we meet future resource needs on our islands and help to bridge debates around sustainability and biodiversity.


Ancient hedge with mature trees.  Photo J Volynchook


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