Nige debunks the English myth of the wild wood…
I am, as readers of my blog will have noticed, a lover of woodland – but I really couldn’t see what last year’s fuss about the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land was all about [Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, called it “an unforgivable act of environmental vandalism” – Ed].
The Forestry Commission is, after all, the body that for decades disfigured, denatured and closed off vast swathes of the British landscape with its huge conifer plantations (on which they are barely able to turn a profit). I suspect that, so long as there’s some regulatory framework in place, almost any system of woodland ownership would be preferable to the Forestry Commission’s dead hand. And yet this sudddenly became the cause du jour of well-meaning, theoretically country-loving Middle England, seething with indignation as it envisaged wholesale deforestation by ruthless, cigar-chomping capitalists.
I fancy this was the latest manifestation of that strange English malaise, Wildwood Nostalgia, based in a myth of a lost woodland paradise, a sentimental notion that it’s somehow an offence against nature to cut down a tree, historical myths (like the wholesale loss of woodland to build the Tudor, then the Georgian fleet) and a fundamental ignorance of how woodlands work. They work – and become the kind of woodland we want – by being exploited and managed, not by being left alone. Leave a wood alone and you soon discover what wildwood is like – not the kind of place you’d care to take a walk in, even if you could penetrate it.
The things we value most about woodlands – the rides, the coppices, the coverts, the underbrush and standard trees, and all the wildlife that goes with them – are the products of the hand of man, not of unguided nature. Butterflies in particular have suffered steep decline in recent decades not because of more woodland management but because of less, resulting in loss of open space and sunlight at key stages in their development – a wildwood would have very few butterflies, if any.
Our woodlands need to be managed – and exploited (they are the ultimate sustainable resource) – not treated as a division of the leisure industry, artifically preserved as a kind of sylvan Disneyland.