Tag Archives: woods

What bears do in the woods

Yesterday I watched brown bears hanging out in an English wood, doing the sorts of things bears like to do. One was using a tree trunk as a pillow. Another got in a large pond and messed about for some time. There was tree climbing, leaf eating, and sauntering about. At times, they were a matter of yards from me.

We haven’t had wild bears in the UK for more than a thousand years, and when people talk about re-wilding, they don’t tend to mention bears. We know bears in the Americas do all kinds of exciting things for trees –particularly because they feed salmon remains to them. We don’t know what UK bears did for trees and what we are missing, but maybe this project will help us find out.

The project in question is Bear Wood at The Wild Place near Bristol. The website – https://www.wildplace.org.uk/ much like the place itself is set up as a family attraction and there’s not much information I could easily find about what’s going on beneath the surface. I gleaned some details from boards at the site.

I have very mixed feelings about all this. For me, encountering bears in this way, was a powerful and moving experience. For some of the other people there, it was clearly the same, and the excitement of spotting creatures – bears, wolverine, lynx and wolves – in a woodland environment clearly had a high impact on some of the visitors. Seeing wolves appear and disappear amongst the undergrowth is a wonderful thing. As a setup, these larger spaces with humans at the margins and animals not so immediately available may help to de-comodify the creatures and return a sense of wonder to the people looking for them.

But at the same time, the play areas and activities here and at other wildlife attractions will encourage some people to see nature as toys for their amusement and creatures as amusements for their benefit. For many of the visitors, it was a place to run round and shout, with no care or respect and no parental guidance. There were plenty of parents who were noisy and who I found deeply annoying in their attitude. I go through this every time I visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site in Slimbridge as well. People who have no experience of nature are unlikely to cherish it, but people whose experience is of amusement and commodity probably won’t do much cherishing either, and I don’t know how you turn careless visitors into people who are awake to the wonder of what they’re seeing.

Exposing children to ‘nature’ does not automatically make them nature lovers. Not if they see it as stuff to break and trample on, throw things at, litter, damage and exploit. Without guidance, outside is just often just one big resource to use and wild things are just toys.

I’ve come away from this with a deep longing for bears. I had no real sense, until now, of what the absence of bears in woodland really looks like. Having seen bears, I will see where the bears are not in a way that is probably going to haunt me. I’m fine with that.

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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/ 


Trees and cultural heritage

Trees and woodlands are important in their own right, and important as habitats for other beings. They are also part of our cultural heritage in the UK. When it comes to cultural heritage protection, we seem to be better at protecting things humans have made, than the context in which history has happened. I could get into a long diversion here about what kind of human cultural heritage we protect and what we don’t, but today is all about the trees.

Trees and woods have a huge place in our history and culture. What is Robin Hood without Sherwood forest, or Macbeth without Birnam wood? Consider our green men and jack in the greens. The role of the greenwood, merry or otherwise in our folklore is massive. Our forests are the places we dream of when urban life is too much for us – whether that’s Shakespeare’s As you Like it in the forest of Arden (now gone) or Tolkien’s Mirkwood (aka the forest of Arden) our dreams and stories are full of trees.

The forestry history that produced wood for ships and made our navy possible is worth a thought. I’m no fan of warfare, but there’s no denying the role of wooden ships in our naval history. Look at any historic house, and you’ll be looking in part at wood from historic forests. The house has the better chance of being protected as heritage.

Every wood has its stories.

For more information on tree heritage, visit The Woodland Trust https://treecharter.uk/principles-protection.html


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


A sudden spring

Last Friday when we walked through the wood it was all much as it had been through the winter. There were buds fattening, but that was all. We walked through the same wood two days later, and everything had changed. The brown of dead leaves covering the ground had been replaced by green as the wild garlic had come through. Elder leaves were unfurling in earnest – they always are early in that spot. The wild plum had produced its first flowers.

This is a route I usually walk several times over a week, so I know its habits well and watch it for seasonal changes. Going from brown to green so quickly startled me. But then, the Friday had been warm enough to be without a coat and this had clearly affected the soil.

I read once that as trees feel the approach of spring and gear up, they put out heat – not a vast amount, but enough to give any plants at their base a head start, too.

Last week I blogged about spring walking, and the uncertainties of planning long wanders early in the season. I worried about the cold. What happened instead was that I was stripped down to bare arms at one point in the walk, with too much sun an unexpected issue. I’m not sure if it’s sun stroke or heat stroke that gets me, but I’ve never had to think about either in February before. March yes, but not February.

There were kingcups in flower, the celandines are out and I found some amazing snowdrop patches. I didn’t have a camera, but I plan to change that. I don’t want to spend my time looking at the world through one, but I would like to collect more images of plants through the seasons. More of that as it happens.


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.