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  • Writer's pictureJames Robertson (British Wildlife Magazine)

Why trees and big beasts belong together

I recently came across an article written 35 years ago, decrying tree planting and the ways in which nature is everywhere manipulated and controlled, even by conservation organisations. The author advocated the novel idea of setting land aside for nature: eliminate grazing animals, the argument went, and you would enable natural processes to move it towards high forest. It was an impassioned plea to let ‘wildwood’ rise up under its own momentum.

My reaction was – yes, but. This was already happening in my area when that article was written. Woods had arisen under their own momentum as farming difficult pieces of land became uneconomic in the early to mid-20th century. A kind of wilding by stealth had been going on unnoticed; unfarmed gristly bits of land, agricultural left-overs, had been quietly acquiring a clothing of trees. Over a dozen unofficial woods now occupy steep slopes, rock outcrops and marshy corners in a small part of Anglesey. A limestone quarry is now dense woodland; a ghost of its limestone flora takes the form of a hybrid between the locally rare limestone grassland specialist Hairy Violet and its cousin Sweet Violet.

(Image: Viola)

In a sense, land had been abandoned to nature, but the results were not that great. A thick canopy consisting of a few tree species over a carpet of ivy and brambles represented an impoverished version of nature: when ‘natural processes’ exclude herbivores and browsers, they aren’t exactly natural. Those open habitats which trees have replaced were an equally valid version of nature, but with many more different plants and insects.

I acquired one of these unofficial woods, along with a bunch of meadows, nearly three decades ago. It wasn’t the meadows which fired my imagination and took me to an auction room and landed me with the practicalities of land management, a joyous burden. It wasn’t the trees and scrub, either. It was the feel of the place. To access it, I had to crawl under thick blackthorn scrub. Once I stood up in a glade of bracken, I found I was in a magical place. Rock outcrops embraced a wet basin, trees and scrub partly concealed the next rock outcrop, another wet basin. Finally, a river flowed along the boundary. It was my idea of beauty.

It turns out that it’s not only my idea. Those who study the aesthetics of landscape have identified four qualities of particular appeal to people. The first is visual depth – detailed foregrounds set against engaging longer views. Then comes the appearance of naturalness. Third is sufficient complexity to interest but not overwhelm the eye. Fourth is the presence of life-giving water. These qualities have been skilfully replicated in designed parkland landscapes but they are found in many parts of the world, from African savannahs to Mediterranean garrigue and European wood-pastures. Examples include limestone woodlands in the Gargano, Italy, grazed by ancient Podolico cattle, and the dehesas of Extremadura in Spain.

(Image: Podolico Cattle)

The dehesas are not a natural landscape but they feel it. They have evolved alongside a system of farming which has used natural processes in a continuous cycle to feed a landscape and its people on these poor soils. Animals lightly graze pasture, shaded by a thick scatter of Holm and Cork Oaks; the pasture becomes a patchwork of short scrub; the scrub grows taller and thicker, adding fertility to the soils; then farmers clear the land for cereal cultivation, but leave shade-giving trees for the next stage of the cycle, when it will return to pasture. Everywhere, some land is being cropped, some land grazed, and some is home to a host of non-humans scrub-dwellers.

My unofficial woodland has been gently moving towards wood-pasture for more than a decade and the results have amazed me. Light cattle and pony grazing in winter rejuvenates and stimulates natural processes. Hooves stir up the seed bank, waking up the plants and animals which depend on a fair share of the sun’s direct energy. Leaves are turned and composted; dung helps break down the leaf litter and stimulates fungal growth; and gaps in the canopy bring in new life. Had I not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed that the composition of trees and shrubs would become so much more varied. A few years down the line, once holes had been punched in the canopy and animals had kicked their heels for a number of winters, trees that had been scarce, Rowan and Beech and Hazel, had become common, and new species, Hornbeam and Orange-fruited Whitebeam, had materialised.  

(Image: Ponies/Cattle in Wood Pasture)

I can now call this remote piece of tumbled-down wooded land wood-pasture. Livestock have gone by February, leaving bluebells to take over, along with much other detailed life. I’ll elaborate with a few plants, but I could equally enthuse about the insect or birdlife. Bell Heather, Ling, Western Gorse and Slender St. John’s-wort flourish beneath birch and oak. Wet basins, once thick with willow, are now filled with Bog Asphodel, Cross-leaved Heath, Lesser Skullcap and a dozen species of sedge. What was a small field a century ago, then became a Sycamore stand is now filled with light, along with Early Purple Orchids amongst the Bluebells, Sanicle, Moschatel or Townhall Clock and Cowslips. 

I no longer think of woodland as a fixed entity, a single habitat; for me, it includes any space where trees and shrubs are allowed to grow themselves, whether they dominate the canopy, are enriched with glades and openings or freckle pasture with shadows. They can be as open as a parkland or as richly treed as the New Forest (although without the forestry plantations which have brutalised that magical place.) They can use natural processes to produce food, favouring sunshine, fungi and nitrogen-fixation over bagged nitrogen, for example. They can produce timber and other products. Equally they can feed our need to connect with nature, and they can sustain nature in its own right. 

And so we come back to the article advocating setting aside land for nature, with which I began this blog. As you may have guessed, I was its author. Since then I’ve had half a lifetime to refine my thinking about how best to give nature space within a landscape dominated by one species – us. It has led me to be suspicious of the academic, departmental and financial structures which determine how land will be used - either for food production or for wood and timber products. Binary choices narrow options, reduce resilience and curb imagination and innovation. Much depends on the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme. Will it help people like me draw farmland and woods together, to heal the rift between the false choice of all-trees or none? The Scheme’s intentions are good. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

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