Wildwood Nostalgia

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.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

9 thoughts on “Wildwood Nostalgia

  1. Worm
    February 15, 2012 at 14:49

    Hear Hear, I too was a bit mystified by all the outrage

    There are a number of good books about forestry – although I do recommend The Wood by John Stewart Collis (available for 1p over at amazon)

  2. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 15, 2012 at 14:59

    Thanks for the tipoff, Worm – I’ve snapped one up!

  3. Worm
    February 15, 2012 at 15:12

    Mon Plaisir, I’m pretty sure you’ll love it

    All my local forestry commission woods in Cornwall are in a right state – I don’t think they actually do any forestry in them any more do they? (apart from cutting down mature conifers)

    If I was really rich I’d love to own a large beech wood and be able to pay to have it properly managed

  4. ian.rose@rocketmail.com'
    February 15, 2012 at 15:35

    As a fan of Oliver Rackham, I would again like to plug his books – “Illustrated History of the Countryside” and “Trees & Woodland in the British Landscape” as definitive portraits of the “natural” Britain.

    They illustrate just how man has been the co-creator, along with Nature, of pretty much every square inch of our rural scenery.

  5. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 15, 2012 at 15:40

    Absolutely with you there, Bugs – those books are a revelation. If only more people read them before opining about ‘our precious woodland heritage’ etc…

  6. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 15, 2012 at 16:17

    Much of the blame rests upon the shoulders of Kenneth Grahame, his Photoshopping of things arboreal the equal of J.Austin’s happy dusting of Georgian England, long gone are the vast tracts of hardwood, the occasional clearing occupied by the occasional Celt.
    The economics of modern forestry are as much a mystery as those of modern banking, recently involved with a forestry ‘consultant’ contracted by Borders Council, owners of the common land part of our track runs across and whose trees line the track I innocently mouthed “profit margins ?” as we watched the Finnish machine (ca. cost £180,000) gobbling up the sitka, it’s operator, an independent contractor, paid the princely sum of £5.50 per tree, “it’s a loss-maker” replied the tree guy, not for you though, sunshine, I thought. The trees went for shredding, to be used as horse bedding. The council has apparently lost money on the project.
    Why not leave them in situ, I hear you ask. Health n’ safety dear boy, health n’ safety, one day they may fall down, upon someone’s napper

    Hopefully the consultant’s.

  7. russellworks@gmail.com'
    ian russell
    February 15, 2012 at 16:33

    It wasn’t the management of them but the threat of public access restrictions – too right, there’s plenty of barbed wire around private woodland here, and restrictions too: no dog walking, no bicycles, no admittance after sunset etc. And they belong to the nation not the government; they needed telling, and you can’t trust them.

  8. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    February 15, 2012 at 17:32

    The great Richard Mabey in Beechcombings – The Narratives of Trees (2007) almost drew tears in the Chapter: Vivat Regina in which he describes the mind-boggling vandalism of the period 1950s to 80s when, among other acts of lunacy, whole oakwoods were poisoned or clear-felled for conifers. He does, however, appear fairly optimistic that the Forestry Commission and the National Trust have learned important lessons from earlier disastrous strategies:

    ‘The coniferisation of these ancient woods has proved, in many places to be a costly failure. The conifers – not of much value at the best of times – haven’t always grown well. Many of the woods have been neglected or abandoned, and in some, the original trees have grown back from still-living stumps or seeds, and begun to overtake the conifers. In a few even the ground flora has begun to return in areas not entirely sterilised by conifer needles. In their new, ecologically responsible clothes, both the National Trust and the Forestry Commission have policies of returning as many ancient woods to their original state as is practicable.’

    Earlier in the chapter, Mabey had raised this reader’s hackles to unhealthy levels when he wrote of an act by the National Trust that seemed to border on utter mindlessness. The NT felled most of Frithsden Great Copse on the Ashridge estate and replanted it with conifers. It had been a beautiful wood of hornbeam, maple and beech, surrounded by medieval banks. It was ravaged to commemorate the current Queen’s accession. That couldn’t happen today – could it?

  9. Worm
    February 16, 2012 at 08:35

    I would really love to get hold of some more Oliver Rackham books – but have you seen the price of them on Amazon? Blimey

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