Friday, May 27, 2016

Root and Branch Thinking

Well, spring is rapidly turning into summer here in west Cornwall and everything is flowering, growing leaves and shooting upwards as the race begins to grab as much sunlight as possible in the months ahead. Native bluebells carpet the woods and ferns are unfurling their tender shoots to reveal the delicate lacework beauty of their fronds. Bird song can be heard everywhere and the forest is all atwitter as they flit among the trees searching for food to feed their chicks. Foxes prowl, ducks sit of the pond and buzzards hover overhead on the lookout for baby rabbits. Everything is as it should be for this time of year.

I took the picture above yesterday as I was finishing off putting up 300m of rabbit-proof fencing. This old but not particularly big oak is probably my favourite tree in the whole seven acres of woodland. Originally a boundary tree atop a long-since collapsed Cornish hedge (i.e. a dry stone wall) the tree will have been here long before the surrounding woodland. In case you are new to this blog or just need a reminder, the woodland it an exceptionally young one, the eldest of the plantation trees having only been planted around 25-27 years ago. The land used to belong to the local stately home but was sold off in parcels in order to (unsuccessfully) stave off bankruptcy. Locals tell me that after a particularly scary tractor accident in which the gentleman farmer lost control and ended up in the brook at the bottom of the valley, it was decided to turn the steep section of land into a chestnut and oak coppice. What they planned to do with the resulting wood products is anyone's guess as cheap imported wood easily outcompetes the native variety, but they decided to plant it up anyway. Perhaps they were looking ahead to times when locally grown coppice products would be restored to their rightful place, or maybe they were just experimenting - who knows. Anyway, back when it was just fields of sheep and cows, the tree above would have stood proud in the hedge. Its prominent position meant it would have received the full blast of the southwesterly winds, which is why it is shaped as though it is bending backwards, but at least there wouldn't have been anything with which to compete for the light.

But disaster befell the poor tree when the land around it was abandoned to scrub and within a couple of decades it found itself choked by ivy and with the sun blocked out by a large goat willow that had seeded next to it. Hawthorn, too, grew up around it, and when I bought the land three years ago it was clearly on its last legs - I mean trunk. This was it a couple of years ago - struggling for light and growing ever more contorted twiggy branches to reach above the canopy.

So, anyway, I coppiced the neighbouring willow last winter, using the logs for mushrooms and firewood. It has already begun to grow back and there is now a sizeable forest clearing for light to get in. I also removed one of the hawthorns and trimmed back a holly, and now the tree - free of ivy as well - is bursting back to life.

To me, this is what woodland management is all about; tinkering with the natural processes of growth in order to achieve some aim (in this case restoring the beauty of a veteran tree, getting wood for fuel and mushrooms from a low-value pioneer tree, and enhancing the biodiversity (English oaks host more life forms than any other British tree)). I'm happy with the result and pleased that my act of judicious pruning hasn't killed anything but has created space and light for a banquet of flowers to spring up (with attendant bees).

But not everyone would agree that what I did was a good thing. I met a fellow a few weeks back who told me his mission in life was to save as many life forms as possible and "Do no damage". To that end he was a committed vegan and an activist against eco-crimes and the likes of Monsanto. His commitment to these causes was laudable but when I mentioned to him that I owned a woodland and undertook management practices within it he became a bit brittle. "Woodlands don't need our management," he said, "they did just fine before we came along - why shouldn't they do fine if we left them alone again?" He went on to opine that people who owned woodlands saw themselves as gods and clearly had problems with the size of their egos.

He had a point and it got me thinking. Having observed other woodland owners on social media I can certainly identify a certain type of person who likes to buy pieces of large machinery and then brag about how many mature trees it can fell in a day. But I certainly didn't see myself or any of my woodland friends fitting into that category. I explained to him that the vast majority of woodlands in Britain were, in fact, not natural at all, and that without some form of management they would quickly lose their raison d'ĂȘtre. True, they may contain a lot of trees and birds and animals, but they are, when all is said and done, human creations. My woodland, for example, contains probably around a thousand sweet chestnut trees - a tree whose native habitat is southern Italy. In the case of the relatively slow growing chestnut, left to its own devices it would mature and eventually fall over in a storm and die (assuming it had not until then succumbed to one of the many diseases currently at large). At this point it would have very little chance of re-establishing itself in the form of seedlings because a far more fast-growing tree would have swamped the entire woodland. Sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus) is native to central and southern Europe and it can easily overtake a southern British woodland. It's a remarkably 'lucky' tree in that rabbits won't touch it, it can grow in the shade and it shoots up very rapidly. If Fox Wood was left alone for fifty years I have no doubt that it would simply revert to a sea of sycamore trees standing over the rotting trunks of everything else. The canopy above would be dense and closed, darkening the forest floor and preventing much from growing. But given that I don't want sycamore trees everywhere I have to manage the woodland in such a way as to encourage certain species to thrive and discourage others.

This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if one takes a longer view. Nature, being nature, would eventually balance out such an abundance. Some short-lifecycle species or other - perhaps a beetle - would see all this sycamore and evolve ways of feeding off it. The beetle would experience a precipitous population explosion as it expanded its range to take advantage of the defenceless sycamores, killing them en masse as it gnawed and burrowed its way across the landscape. In a relatively short period of time the beetle would go into overshoot as it exhausted its food supply, thus figuratively chewing off the branch it was sitting on and going into a steep population decline. New sycamores would grow, but there would be a residual population of sycamore-eating beetles at the ready and the two species would dance their merry population explosion and crash dance in ever decreasing magnitude until a harmonious balance was reached. In the meantime the other species of tree, which had been waiting patiently in a few specialist ecological niches where sycamores couldn't reach, would seize their chance to move into the space left behind and diversity would once again bloom, although there would likely have been local extinctions of species along the way. All this might take a very tiny moment in evolutionary time - say 500 years.

I said all this to my friend and he seemed to take it all in, nodding wisely as I explained my rationale. "500 years, you say?"

"Give or take a few hundred," I said.

"So, basically you're impatient then?"

I had to laugh because yet again he was being perfectly correct. So, yes, maybe we appear impatient, but on the other hand I don't have 500 years, and so I have to manage the woodland and act like the keystone species mankind has been for the past several aeons. The sad truth is that the original forest that covered the entirety of the large island of Britain after the last ice age is now long gone. The incalculable complexity of that ecosystem has been lost in the inky depths of evolutionary time never to return and all we can do is make approximate pale imitations that can certainly be useful and rich in biodiversity and beauty but lacking a certain unseen richness. That's the hand we have been dealt with and there's no point feeling mournful about it. Instead, if we integrate ourselves into the natural rhythms of ecology we can quite easily create a patchwork of new forests and woodlands to offset the damage industrial man has done to the land. Land after all, in temperate places like Britain, wants to become a forest if you let it. And so, if with careful stewardship, we allow this to happen, and if we manage the result wisely, the land can provide us with food and fuel and medicine and building materials and spiritual nourishment, as well as being a home to countless other organisms. And if that weren't reason enough it will also suck carbon out of the atmosphere as the soils are replenished and enriched.

That is certainly my aim on my small patch of land, and in my next post I'll be talking about agroforestry and sharing some pictures of my newly-created forest garden (I bet you were wondering why I put up 300m of rabbit fencing weren't you?)


  1. Are those the bluebells in the bottom picture? They are beautiful!

    1. Indeed they are. The whole woodland is full of them right now - and they are English bluebells, as opposed to the new arrival the Spanish bluebell. The picture is actually just a closeup of underneath the oak in the top picture.

  2. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the story and history, it almost felt as if I were there wandering through your woods. That oak is stunning too. There are 150 year old oak trees up here too in the old hill station gardens. They’re big! I'm curious to hear how you removed the ivy without damaging the tree bark too much. That ivy plant has tremendously strong suckers and unfortunately can grow here as a nuisance, but is not present. I agree totally with your description of woodland management.

    Ah well, everyone has an opinion and I suffer from that particular opinion more than I'd care to hear. The underlying assumption that is clearly not true in their thinking is that the woodlands did fine without us. Down here that has patently not be the case for tens of thousands of years. And unfortunately, us humans ate the megafauna many tens of thousands of years ago that actually did that job and then we found ourselves in the rather uncomfortable position of having to replicate those animals efforts in the woodlands and forests. And most forests are re-growth forests here due to logging and elsewhere nowadays and do not support a full compliment of birds, animals, soil life etc. Down here additionally the oldest trees are the only ones that provide hollows for the many forest denizens to live in. Apologies for my rant, but people are just basically bonkers about this subject and it is really hard to show them otherwise.

    I totally 100% agree with everything that you wrote because that is basically how it plays out in the real world. Somewhere in the distant past I read that trees have a special place in the mind of the environmental activist in that they represent a win among the many losses. And they hold on too tightly, because not every tree is precious and is growing where it should be. Some are just wrong and sometimes the competition for space, light, minerals and water is too intense in the forest and overall the forest suffers.

    You may be interested to know that the Sycamores grow here too and they are a bit weedy, but are mostly under-story trees and usually in the mountain ash forests which are subject to semi-regular (every four decades or so) extreme fires.

    Thanks for the awesome photos. I wish some of those people with their opinions would instead come up here and give me a hand and create something amazing, but then that is one point of their argument too.



    1. Hi Chris,

      The ivy isn't too much of a problem as the stems are so thick you can cut through them easily with a saw. Perhaps it's a different species to the one you are used to. Incidentally, I leave a lot of the ivy on other trees as it's great bee fodder during the winter, and it also is a great place for small critters to live out their lives. But again - too much ivy overwhelms the trees and makes them susceptible to blowing over during the increasingly common winter storms (it acts as a sail).

      As for people and their opinions - well, in *my* opinion I'm quite happy to have these kinds of conversations with people who say they are environmentalists (whatever that term may mean these days). I think we're all on the same side and having a robust conversation about something important is a good way of keeping one's knowledge of the issue. I myself would have probably agreed with him a few years back, before I got more deeply into the sylvan life. I don't even like chainsaws - although I can appreciate that they are a very useful tool.

      Thanks for the explanation vis a vis the extinction of Australian megafauna. I remember once seeing a documentary about how introduced rats had wiped out a once common bird that was a keystone species for tree regeneration in the outback (if memory serves). We really have shuffled the pack as far as nature is concerned, and there's no going back.



    2. Hi Jason,

      Thanks for the info about the ivy. Perhaps it is a different species down here? Dunno. Clematis is the local creeper here and it twines around plants - actually it is incredibly common and self seeds prolifically. The funny thing is that it is hard to spot in the forests as the various grasses have out-competed it. And yes, the forests here are changing and adapting as the climate goes a bit wacky.

      Up north in the tropics where they have a defined wet and dry season, it has been so hot this dry season that mango trees are failing to flower.

      Thanks for the correction, of course engagement is always best. I do love my chainsaw as it saves a lot of work. Clearly, it is not a long term option and over a longer time frame coppicing of trees is the way to go.

      Oh yeah, the Diprotodons were some fearsome beasties!!! ;-)! Imagine a hugely large wombat clearing trails through the forest. I've seen their preserved bones in the caves at Naracoorte where they unfortunately fell into.



  3. Jason- I really like your updates on fox wood. Yes, impatient is one way to frame the way I am rushing the natural succession going on here in Wisconsin. I know that given enough time, the sumacs, prickly ash, other quick spreading pioneer plants will eventually make way for the oaks, maples, and a more diverse assemblage, but it takes sooooo long. In a way, even those of us trying to heal the land and return it to a "preEuropean" state are acting with a bit of hubris. From reading and learning from others, I think I know what the stable, original plant communities best suit this land, but there may well be things we didn't notice, and even then, as you note, paleoIndians and other prehistoric humans were modifying the land for thousands of years. What is "natural"?

    Sorry to hear about the tree disease near you, and potentially wiping out your awesome chestnuts. Our proclivity to move organisms all over the planet ( intentionally and unintentionally) and disrupt stable ecosystems is just one more thing that will make the descent more miserable than it needs to be.

    Regardless, I am very sure that what I do is an improvement on the deforestation and conventional agriculture that was here for really only a couple hundred years. I agree that we are a keystone species, just run amok. I did a short blog entry on that a while back.