Tag Archives: woodland

Community and woodland

A healthy community and a healthy woodland have a great deal in common. Neither does well for existing in total isolation; threads of connection with other communities or woods are really important. A good wood has some diversity in it – different kinds of trees, a variety of underwood and undergrowth. It has birds and creatures. Equally, a good human community has diversity inherent in it too, but all too often what we do is connect up with people who are much like us – same age and gender, same class and education background, same sort of earnings level. We could learn a lot from trees.

One of the problems with tree planting is that you often end up with a wood where all the trees are the same age, and will all start to die off at the same time. It is necessary to thin out planted woods and allow young trees to come up after the original planting. A wood that will endure, has young trees growing in it.

Communities are the same. From school age onwards we’re encouraged to associate with people the same age as us. It means we grow up without access to the knowledge and experience of older folk and once we get older we may have little sympathy for the struggles of younger folk. If we live in an age-segregated culture, we may even have a sense that there’s inter-generational conflict. Perhaps at the moment there is, there’s so much abuse heaped on millennials.

Age-based human communities don’t endure. The spaces I like most are all-age spaces. You can show up with a kid in a pushchair, you can show up as a teenager and young adult, you can be there when you’re middle aged, and when you’re old. I like the atmosphere of spaces that have a broad mix of people in them. It’s a significant part of the attraction of steampunk, for me.

I go to too many events where those present are retired and very middle class. Often my son is the only teenager in the room, having grown up being the only child in the room at many events. Some of it, no doubt, is about disposable income and spare time, but we should be making spaces more accessible for people who work, have children and/or have limited funds. If a space looks old and middle class, it can be immediately unattractive to people who don’t fit. It can be hard being the one visible oddity in a room.

I don’t know how trees feel about other trees. People seem to find comfort and solace by being around similar, likeminded people. As we huddle into spaces populated by people who seem a lot like us, what we fail to notice, is that a great many other people who don’t superficially match, are also a lot like us.


Seeing the trees as well as the wood

There’s good news and frustrating news on the tree protection front as I write this. After years of pressure and campaigning, the government is finally, finally (we hope) going to improve protection for ancient woodland in the National Planning Policy Framework. This will take out the loopholes that were allowing developers to destroy ancient woodland.

The bad news is that at the moment, the document isn’t recognising ancient trees and veteran trees, and this needs fixing. Ancient trees appearing as single features in our landscapes have massive environmental and heritage value. And also, they are ancient trees, and writing this blog primarily to Pagans, I don’t think I need to make any kind of heritage case to you for ancient trees.

Trees are amazing habitats themselves, and many insects can be quite tree-specific in their preferences. I’ve been on night-time moth hunts run by local environmentalists, where I saw firsthand how the presence of an unusual tree means the presence of unusual moths. I’ve also been into young woodlands that have been allowed to grow up, or been planted around existing ancient trees. I know where there are ancient trees standing in hedgerows, and alone in fields, and they can be found in urban environments, too. Ancient trees exist outside of ancient woodlands, and they need protecting too.

At this stage, it’s really important to have public support for the changes. You can bet that developers will be lobbying until the very end, trying to make it easier to cut down anything that gets in their way. So, if you’re in the UK, do please take a moment and comment, and encourage the government not only to stick to what they’ve said over protecting ancient woodland, but also to get protection in place for standalone ancient and veteran trees. Go here to have your say – http://bit.ly/ProtectAncients

Connecting up trees

One of the most important things we can do for landscapes and wildlife in the UK is to connect up trees. The other, I think is to reinstate wetland. When trees are in small, isolated groups, they’re much more vulnerable to natural setbacks and damage from humans. Everything living in the trees may be cut off in tiny islands, with unviable populations. The more scope there is for tree-dwellers to get around between trees, the better their prospects.

Children’s literature may have misled us a bit – Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood show creatures making long journeys to new homes when their old homes are threatened by human ‘development’. For many, there is no moving on. Dormice don’t like putting their little feet on the ground, for reasons best known to themselves. When the trees run out, a dormouse has nowhere to go. Bats are the same – I was involved in hedge replanting some years ago and part of the aim was to give bats a wider range and thus better prospects. Where the hedge stops, the bat stops.

Recently I wrote about plans to develop a Northern Forest, and I was sceptical about government involvement – because I always am. Politicians are prone to greenwash, and most seem to have no grasp of what a wood is or how it works. However, as The Woodland Trust are heavily involved in this project, there are things I feel confident will happen, because there are things The Woodland Trust normally does. I’ve been a supporter for more than a decade.

One of the surprising things I’ve learned from following the work of The Woodland Trust is how long you get to restore ancient woodlands. If land can be re-treed within fifty years, there’s enough surviving material in the soil for ancient woodland to re-establish itself. That makes a world of difference. No doubt sites where this could happen will be a real consideration for the Northern Forest.

Woods are pretty good at extending themselves if they are allowed to get on with it. One of the things The Woodland Trust normally does is to buy land next to ancient woodlands and just allows the wood to come back in. Given half a chance, nature reasserts itself, often what we need is to just stop messing with a landscape and let it return to how it should be.

Connecting up small patches of woodland creates more scope for resident populations to spread out. Again, it’s often just a case of getting things started and letting wild things sort themselves out. Tree planting can be a great way to jump-start this, and trees planted to connect existing, established woods won’t take long to develop the true diversity of woodland.

Over on The Woodland Trust website there’s an article that it makes it clear the forest will develop with this kind of thinking in mind. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/a-new-northern-forest-beyond-the-headlines/


The Northern Forest

The Woodland Trust, alongside The Community Forest Trust are undertaking to plant 50 million trees over 25 years to create a forest in the North of England. There’s details and a map on this website – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/new-northern-forest/

The government are investing £5.7 million in this scheme. However, it doesn’t let them off the hook for loss of ancient forests elsewhere. It concerns me that politicians don’t seem to grasp what a wood actually is. A wood is more than just planting some trees. If you plant trees in what was previously a field, unless that field was itself ancient woodland within the last fifty years, you probably just get trees in a field. You don’t get a wood. If your field is right next to an established wood, this can also work. A woodland is also the low to the ground plants, the fungi in the soil, the birds, insects, animals. You can’t offset the cutting down of ancient woodland.

I’ve seen trees planted in fields, and they do not feel like woods. They are missing much of what makes a wood into a wood.

Given the scale of The Northern Forest it is clearly going to have sections next to existing woods, allowing the expansion of habitat for woodland plants and creatures. With the twenty five year time scale, there’s every reason to think this can be done in a way that expands existing woodland, rather than just sticking trees in fields.

I’m excited to see people in the UK talking about tree planting as a way to deal with flooding. We send experts to developing countries to tell them to grow trees on high ground to better manage rainwater, but in the UK too much of our high ground has grouse moors on it. I wonder how much land currently wasted as grouse moors will be allowed to return to a more natural condition in the areas where this is happening. The forest will surround Manchester, location of the infamous grouse moor in protest song ‘I’m a rambler’.

Articles about the project talk about improvements to air quality and to the mental health of people living in cities that the forest will embrace. This is good in many ways, but it is not the answer to either air quality or the current crisis in mental health. We need to cut pollution to improve air quality. We need to deal with causes of anxiety and stress to solve mental health problems (excellent article here – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections) And yes, tree planting is a good answer to excess rain, but we need to do more than tree planting to deal with the climate crisis causing the excess rain in the first place.

While I am always going to be in favour of tree planting, my worry is that this will be used by politicians as a way of saying they are dealing with issues. It could be a big PR and greenwashing exercise if we aren’t careful. It does not substitute for affordable public transport, reducing air pollution, dealing with an increasingly toxic work culture or tackling the root causes of climate change. Even planting 50 million trees in the UK (which sounds like a lot, I know) does not give us the freedom to carry on exactly as we are.

Protecting ancient trees

Right now in the UK, the government is considering a change to the law that would see ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees added to the list of the nation’s assets that should be explicitly protected from development. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these unique and precious woodlands would already be protected, but they aren’t, and there’s been a dramatic increase in threatened loss of ancient woodland from development in recent years. Four hundred woods in England are under threat as I write this, which is a devastating number.

 Any loss of ancient woodland or aged and veteran trees should be viewed as unacceptable, to my mind. This is not an infinite resource and we simply can’t replace it or offset the loss. Planting some new trees some other place does not offset what’s destroyed when we sacrifice ancient woodland in the name of profit. The subtle interplay of landscape and trees, plants and soil, and all the other inhabitants of ancient woodland can’t be magically re-created. We need to recognise the cultural and historical value of ancient woodlands as ‘heritage assets’.  I’d go further and say that we need to stop assuming that every other living thing on this planet is fair game for death and exploitation if someone can make a fast buck out of it.

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 We need a culture shift, internationally. We need to stop seeing everything in terms of human profit and human loss – where loss and profit are purely economic words. If we could see loss of habitat and loss of beauty as just as important, even, I dare to venture more important than loss of money, we’d be better citizens of the world. If we could collectively see the gains to be had by protecting biodiversity, that would be good. We need to wake up to the fact that the human-made built environment is not our natural habitat and makes us ill. We need trees, and trees urgently need us to realise this.

Wildlife encounters

I regularly walk a route that takes me down a cycle path and through a narrow strip of woods. Like many of the cycle paths round here, it’s a former train line, so the trees and undergrowth have probably reasserted themselves. The size of the trees suggests they are largely the same age, and while my tree-aging skills are not what they could be, I think 30-50 is probable. Interestingly though, the undergrowth includes a lot of the plant types you’d expect to see in ancient woodland. There’s far more to woodland than just the trees, and there’s estimated to be a fifty year window after the trees go in which you have a fighting chance of restoring the diversity of ancient woodland.

So I have this corridor of wood where the trees are clearly not ancient, but the woodland effectively is. Even though it is a very small wood, it is home to at least three deer. I only ever see them in ones or twos, but having seen two females together recently and a male on his own, three at least. I watch other path users pass by without registering their presence. The deer are wary, but not fearful, so on a number of occasions I’ve been able to stop a matter of yards away, and make eye contact with them, and have a few moments.

Today walking down the towpath (strip of path alongside a canal, originally for the men or horses who were pulling the first boats at the very beginning of the industrial revolution) I met a frog. It was a tiny frog, no bigger than a fingertip, and I stopped to ush it out of the path and into the safety of the undergrowth.

I have a knack for finding the wildlife. It’s not about keen eyesight. Today’s frog was no bigger than the many small stones on the path, and wasn’t moving. I had a moment of awareness and doubled back to check. Only when I bent right down could I make out the legs. I often know the deer are around before I see them. It is not something I can easily explain, but it makes for reliably interesting walks.

The thing about trees

The whole Druids-trees thing is undoubtedly my favourite available Druid cliché. I don’t do white robes, am notably lacking in the beard department and am very seldom at Stonehenge, but trees, absolutely. Any chance I get. One of the problems with the last few years of boat life, is that trees have been in short supply. There are some willows, ash, and even hawthorn along my stretch of canal, but only on one side. Being near trees is nice, but it’s not the same as under them. There’s evidence that time under trees – just 5 minutes a day, improves mental health. I find that very easy to believe.

I like willow a lot, its resilience and utility make it deeply appealing to work with. However, I’m also very partial to beech trees, and un-shockingly, I like oak, hazel and yew as well. Hey don’t grow around here much. I didn’t used to get on with yew trees, but we seem to have reached an understanding now.
Being amongst trees is very different from being near a few trees. Ancient woodland is a whole other thing again. This is more than just trees, it’s about the fungi in the soil, the undergrowth and other denizens. A proper wood is far more than just trees. This is something that bothers me with tree planting, because while, yes, you can plant trees, if you don’t have the rest of the community, it’s not a wood, just a big clump of planted trees.

If a place has been wooded in the last fifty years, a surprising amount of what it takes to really make a woodland can be sat there in the soil, waiting for the trees to show up. This awes me.
The air is different, under trees. You can smell it, and that means, as you inhale woodland air, you are also inhaling something that is of the trees. I’m not sure what it is, but I do know how much it calms and settles me, how much cleaner and more whole I feel for getting to do this. I am also affected by the softness of light in woods, especially in summer. I’ve read a lot of tree related science (Colin Tudge, The Secret Life of Trees, Diana Beresford-Kroeger The Global Forest, assorted articles). Enough to know that from a scientific perspective, the impact of trees on people is huge, and often to our benefit. Enough that, if you did not have a handle on the science, you’d have to call the power of trees magical.

I have a very keen sense that my ancestors evolved to live in close proximity with trees. I like open spaces, hill tops, open sky, but not all the time. I crave the dappled light and greenish air, the companionable rustling and the sense of peace. My absolute favourite is woodland that has water running through it. Happily, I found some of that this morning. Leaving the canal will not be hard, because I know where to find the things I need.
The ancient Druids did not have a sacred book. They had trees. Individual trees. Groves of trees. Woodlands. There are things to be learned in the company of trees that one human cannot hope to write down for the benefit of another. It’s something you breathe in, I suspect.