Tag Archives: woodland

Druidry and the dormouse

I’ve never seen a dormouse in the wild – but that’s not unusual. They are shy creatures and they have an aversion to putting their feet on the ground. It means they are particularly affected by the presence or absence of green corridors connecting areas of woodland. Their cute, sleeping forms are, as a consequence, a popular image for the Woodland Trust and for other organisations trying to reconnect the fragments of our remaining wild places.

They have a great deal of power as an icon for vanishing wildlife, and as this is the way I have most experience of them, it’s the one I’m going to focus on. Activism on behalf of the natural world is something many Druids do. As individuals we may be enthused about all kinds of aspects of nature. However, most people are moved by cute things they can readily identify with.

The sleeping dormouse is adorable. Small, soft, furry, harmless, vulnerable – it pushes all the right buttons to get people caring about woods and trees. It can be difficult to get people to care, there are so many pressures to do that, and emotive content tends to have an impact. I don’t like approaches that over-play on your emotions because I think they just add to the problem. But, cute dormouse is cute and engages people without hurting them.

Dormice hibernate and my understanding is that their name comes from the Latin and that the Romans liked to eat them. However, our sense of them as sleepy creatures owes largely to Alice in Wonderland’s sleepy dormouse, and to mostly only seeing pictures of dormice having a kip. When they aren’t hibernating, they’re busily doing the things mice do, only inside hedges at night, so you won’t see them being active. The story about the dormouse is far more prominent than the reality of the creature itself.

Dormice are not available to most of us. To encounter them you’d likely need some training and the opportunity to participate in dormouse-specific projects. But, dormice are not commodities. They don’t exist to teach us, or for that matter to charm us. They may be good fluffy posterboys and girls for raising environmental awareness, but they do not exist for us. As most of us cannot engage with them directly they raise questions about the service we might unconsciously expect from nature, and our feelings of entitlement to have access to everything. Dormice owe us nothing, and perhaps the best way to honour them (aside from protecting their habitats) is actually to leave them in peace.


Woodland Revolution – a review

This may be exactly the right book to read at this point in time. Stephen Palmer’s Woodland Revolution starts out seeming very simple. The main characters are a young wolf, and an older dog who lives feral in the wood. It has a mythic feel, and reads like a classic fairy story.

As a consequence I found it easy to fall into and my tired, troubled mind was soothed by the mythic cadence. The story is set in The Wood which sometimes feels like a specific location, but mostly feels like the spirit of woodland and wildness. The Wood has rules. The two characters we follow are questioning those rules and want to at least understand life in The Wood. As they go along, they become ever more in conflict with the way the rules are interpreted, and the lack of clarity. What starts out as a simple, mythic quest becomes an epic philosophical journey.

The real genius of it is that the book acts on you, it happens to you and you end up being the creature who takes the journey, not simply a reader.

Anyone who has read other fiction by Stephen Palmer will be used to the way he puts stories within stories. The stories we use to inform and guide our lives are re-occurring themes in his work so it’s really interesting to see him take this on as the main thrust of the story, not the underpinning for something else.

A fascinating read, more information here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/


The Emergency Tree Plan

The Emergency Tree Plan is The Woodland Trust’s plan to increase tree cover across the UK and tackle the climate and nature crises. The Committee on Climate Change states that the UK needs 1.5 million hectares of additional woodland by 2050 to help hit the net zero carbon emissions target.

Trees and woods can help to fight climate change by storing carbon, keeping it locked up for centuries. The trouble with seeing trees as a ‘magic bullet’ for climate change is of course that we could end up with something fairly sterile designed to benefit humans, but no good to wildlife, nature, ecosystems or the complex wellbeing of life itself. This plan doesn’t simply see trees as a commodity for human benefit, but is about integrating climate action with nature recovery.

Happily, the first priority expressed in this plan is to protect and expand existing woodland. Without a doubt, saving existing trees and helping woods naturally regenerate are the most useful things we can do. But, that won’t work everywhere.

I think there’s a great deal of good to be done here with urban tree planting. How many ‘parks’ are little more than big empty areas of grass? Good perhaps for the odd football game, but utterly boring and featureless the rest of the time. Not only would more trees help store carbon, but they would enrich such urban spaces with beauty and interest, and create urban habitats for wildlife.

The plan varies depending on which country you are in within the UK – here are the links.

Wales http://www.woodlandtru.st/jBtws

Northern Ireland http://www.woodlandtru.st/H2D33

England http://www.woodlandtru.st/dUfva

Scotland http://www.woodlandtru.st/qvqKE

 


Returning to the Earth

If you live with deciduous trees, then late autumn is a time of shifting energy. When there are buds, leaves and other growth, trees are very sky orientated. Being amongst trees will tend to take your attention up into the canopy. What you see of trees from a distance will be dominated by their furthest reaches into the air. In summer, leaves are drawing energy from the sun, the tree is interacting with this energy in very literal ways.

Once the leaves start falling, that process will take your attention downwards. That might be in watching leaves come from the treetops and head for the soil. If you walk in fallen leaves, then the sound and texture of them may draw your attention downwards. Also, given how good fallen leaves are at hiding surprise poo, puddles and potholes looking down carefully is often a good idea! As the leaves come down, energy from the tree – energy that was in the sky – held in leaves grown from sunlight – is returning to the earth, where that energy will be released into the soil.

Winter exposes the roots. With undergrowth tending to die back, it can be a good deal easier to see the base of a tree in winter. Again, this shift tends to draw our attention and we may become more aware of trees as rooted beings, going down deep into the soil.

Autumn tends to be fungus season. In woodland this means that we get to see something of the life beneath the soil. Fungi live in vast networks, interacting with tree roots. Much of the life of a wood happens beneath the surface, where we can’t see it. The appearance of fungi in the autumn is a reminder of what’s there all year round. It’s easier to think about things and be aware of them when there’s some more tangible sign of them, and the fungi give us that.

It’s normal to talk about life pulling down into the Earth during the winter, but important to have a more specific awareness of what that means. Tree life certainly is more earth orientated at this time of year. Each living thing responds to the seasons in its own way. For the migrating swans, early winter is all about the skies and making huge journeys guided by the stars. For amphibians, the season can be all about retreating into water to hibernate. There is no one single, simple energy narrative for any given season.


Trains and trees – action needed

Generally speaking I think trains are a good idea and I’m broadly in favour of developing more train infrastructure.  What I’m not in favour of is the HS2 project which is going to cost a fortune and will trash irreplaceable ancient woodland.

I’ve run into this before – where apparently green solutions aren’t properly green because it’s not been thought through properly. Yes, tidal energy is clean, but getting it by ruining the unique habitat that is The River Severn is not the right answer. Yes, wind power is good, but not if you stick massive turbines in the paths of migrating birds, or destroy a unique habitat with them.

The living environment is not some kind of luxury bonus when we’re thinking about green projects. One of the problems with reducing things to their carbon impact is that we lose the more complex, nuanced truth of the real value in our landscape. Yes, in carbon terms you can just plant more trees, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that harm has been offset. Ancient woodland cannot be replaced.

We’ve played fast and loose with our ecosystems for too long. Anything that we can’t see an immediate use for, we treat as having little or no value.  As we become more carbon aware, this may not improve things. How do you value an ancient oak, an owl or a curlew if you’re just calculating the carbon implications? It leads us to poor choices and to continue failing to understand that ecosystems are complex, delicate things. We treat a species as irrelevant at our peril.

A sustainable future means preserving as much wildness as we can. Sacrificing unique habitats for the sake of projects that claim to be green isn’t going to save us. Offsetting is often nonsense, and proposed offsetting plans seldom get close to recognising the harm done, much less mitigating successfully against it.

Find out more about HS2’s ancient woodland impact here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/hs2-rail-link/

Take action here – https://campaigns.woodlandtrust.org.uk/page/46290/action/1


The right tree in the right place

I’ve been saying for a while now that trees have the potential to save us from ourselves. Their ability to lock down carbon, stabilise soil, control water flow in heavy rain and keep soil moist in drought makes them singularly well placed to help us tackle climate change. But of course, it’s more nuanced than that. Planting trees is good – but only if you have the right tree in the right place.

First up – no guerrilla planting. It may seem tempting, subversive, radical, and easier than getting permission, but, a tree that isn’t wanted will probably die. If the land owner doesn’t want the tree, they may take it out. Trees need care, an untended tree is more likely to die. You may not know what’s going on with the land in question and you may harm a vulnerable species if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Know your trees. If you are planting non-native species, you are probably causing more harm than good in a wild environment. Know what belongs in the landscape. If you are planting fruit or nut trees, that’s great – but only in the right environments – farms, orchards, urban spaces, gardens etc.

Know your landscape. Trees do better when the land suits them. Alder and willow don’t mind having wet feet, the same conditions do not work well for silver birch. Hawthorn and blackthorn are great in hedges, ash and sycamore are not because they grow too quickly.

You may need faster growing trees – for example in a park, and might put a few slow growers in amongst them for longevity. You might not want to put spiky trees in a play area. Or yew trees for that matter – which are poisonous and have pretty red fruit. Elms have a nasty habit of dropping branches so maybe don’t plant them next to the footpath. Lime trees drop sticky stuff and make car owners grumpy so if you plant them where people park, there will be pressure to cut them down. That’s just a small selection of possible issues.

There are some places we shouldn’t plant trees at all – places with thriving eco-systems that don’t work if you add trees to them. Flower meadows, grasslands with orchids and larks in them, former bogs that need restoring… there are places it is best not to add trees.

There’s a lot to be said for taking it slowly. Find the land to plant on first. Then do the research to find out what should go there. Then plant trees.


The invisible trees

It’s amazing what people don’t see. In cities, not seeing is an essential survival tool – this is why I don’t cope well in cities. I can spot a mouse in woodland undergrowth. I do not have the means to tune out a relentless stream of noise, cars, people, adverts and all the rest, so cities rapidly overwhelm me. To survive in a city, you clearly have to be able to tune out much of your surroundings.

One of the consequences may be that people don’t see the trees around them. Woodland Trust research found that when asked about their local street trees only 23% of people think that we need more trees on our streets. This is a pretty depressing statistic, especially when you consider how much good urban trees do. The shade and cool provided by urban trees saves people a fortune in hot weather and protects us from skin cancer. Trees improve our environments, but all too often, we don’t see them, much less what they do for us.

According to The Woodland Trust, when you get people talking and thus thinking about their trees, they become more aware of them at which point people do turn out to care. It also happens when trees are removed –in the loss of trees people may well become able to appreciate the value of what they had, but it’s a terrible time to wake up to the true value of something.  77% say they would miss their street trees.

We don’t protect what we don’t notice. We don’t value what we tuned out. No doubt most city dwellers would be very aware of the change if all the people and vehicles they routinely ignore suddenly weren’t there. The same goes for trees. It’s no good only recognising the value of things we have lost.

I will leave you with Joni Mitchell…

 


Your favourite tree

Do you have a favourite tree? Do you have a favourite species? The second question is easier for me because that’s beech. I like all trees, I’ve never met a tree I didn’t appreciate. Beech trees are the dominant tree of my landscape and I love them dearly.

There are many individual trees I know to look out for when walking. Larger, older, more dramatic, or inhabited in certain ways… and of course I have particular fondness for the trees closest to my home.

The single tree that looms largest for me is not the biggest, though. It’s probably old because the species is slow growing, and by hawthorn standards, it is an unusually large one. The tree in question is in a field, just over the other side of the fence from a cycle path. There’s a spring that emerges somewhere around its roots. It has presence. It is a definite candidate for being the sort of folkloric hawthorn that fairies might frequent.

There’s a fence between the path and the tree, so I’ve never been right up to it, but usually when passing, I stop there briefly to listen to the spring and look at the tree.

I’m not going to nominate it for Tree of the Year – the location means I have little hope of getting a photo that would do it justice. It’s not a tree you can easily see in one look/photo. You, however, may have a favourite tree that photographs well and could therefore be nominated. If you’ve got a tree in your life you’d like to celebrate, have a look at http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/tree-of-the-year-2019/ and for more information about Tree of the Year nominations, go here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/press-centre/2019/05/tree-of-the-year-nominations/

 


Flowers, margins and trees

Where I live, we’re now at the point in the year when the summer flowering has begun in earnest. Many of the spring flowers appear in the woodlands – getting in before the canopies closer over. The summer flowers can generally be found at the margins – woodland edges, alongside hedges and on road verges. My locality is blessed with some large open commons where orchids and cowslips bloom in profusion at this time of year. We also have a lot of fields that are rich in wildflowers.

There’s been a great deal of intense growth in recent weeks. The cowparsley now comes up to my waist. The cleavers are, where they can lean on anything, about the same height. Ragged Robins, campions, great hairy willowherb, tall grasses and all manner of other wild flowers abound. Beautiful to look at, sometimes challenging for the nose and eyes!

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Margins tend to be the places with most biodiversity. The edges of woodlands are especially lively places. What ideally we need are large woodlands with plenty of room for open glades, thus maximising the scope for life. Butterflies especially like this kind of habitat. One of the reasons cutting small areas of woodland in cycles is good, is that you open up more margins.

Of course to many people this seems unnatural – humans manipulating nature. However, you have to consider what is no longer in most of our woods. We don’t have wild cows, let alone giant aurochs. We don’t have wild boar in most woods, or wild horses or ponies or anything else that might clear out areas of low growth. We used to have these larger mammals. We also used to have beavers.  It is their activity, in the past, that would have created clearings, and in the case of beavers, would have created pools as well.

The other major mechanism for naturally creating clearings is the death of old, massive trees. For this, you have to have a steady supply of massive ancient trees. We don’t have those. There are no giants whose falling will open up a large area – certainly not in most smaller woodlands. We’ve got hundreds of years of work to do if we want to restore them.

Our woodland ecosystems are damaged. If we want the best woodland we can have – and by best I mean most diverse and able to support the most life – we have to help. At least for now. Perhaps one day we’ll have enough woodland to have room to support the boar again. Perhaps the European program to recreate aurochs from what’s left in the DNA of domestic herds will work out… perhaps we’ll have our beavers back to manage water systems and thin out trees. If we get there, we won’t need people to do the work, but in the meantime, people are needed to make up for what’s missing. We have to compensate for the mistakes our ancestors made.

The image in this blog came from The Woodland Trust (with permission) and you can find out more about how The Woodland Trust takes care of woods here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/why-is-ancient-woodland-special/ 


Managed Woodland

When we think about ‘nature’ it is so often with the idea that ‘nature’ means not touched by humans. If you want nature, you leave things alone to take their natural course. In the case of a wood, leaving it alone often means you get a lot of brambles and if you don’t know what a wood can do, that might look persuasively natural.

Here in the UK, we’re missing our large wild mammals and have been for some time. Our woods have evolved with humans as the large wild mammals in chief. A managed wood will often have far more biodiversity than a wood that has been left to its own devices. Particularly if there’s a history of human involvement. If you look at the history of most woods in the UK, you’ll find human involvement over the last few thousand years.

There is a Woodland Trust wood not far from where I live, and I’ve walked through it a couple of times a year for some years. When I was first walking here, work was being done to clear areas, coppicing trees and building up dead hedges of the cut material. A dead hedge of twigs provides homes for insects, and for pretty much anything else that lives in a wood. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to watch how the coppiced areas have developed. It is noticeable this year that this is where the most woodland spring flowers are growing. Beautiful carpets of wood anemones in particular. I also noticed an intensity of bird song around the coppiced patches, and vibrant new growth on the trees coming up into the space.

If human intervention means tidying up nature and making it into a garden or a park, then of course a wood won’t thrive. However, when people look after woods for the wellbeing of the wood, with an underlying and evidenced understanding of how that might work, the results are impressive. If we get our interventions right, then human activity can increase the health of a woodland and increase the diversity of life within it.

Human intervention need not be a bad thing. We do not have to see ourselves as a life form that can only harm the living world. We can also support the living things around us. We can nurture life, and we can act in ways that are restorative and regenerative.