Kate Roach is an independent social scientist with a particular interest in how people relate to the natural world. Here she explores our relationships with woods and the need for a new narrative of “woodland restoration” if we are to overcome opposition to active management and reinvigorate our woodland culture.
In the spring of 2011 I started a small research project to explore why a successful woodland social enterprise that had transformed a local patch of dying woodland into a haven for people and wildlife continually met with resistance to any new plans even when they were clearly in the interests of the woods.
It turns out that this experience is familiar to a whole network of people who have started projects or wish to start projects in woods. Whether their aim is simple management, perhaps incorporating the extraction of coppice for charcoal, or whether it is a more complex community service that is housed in a wood: if it involves cutting down trees then there will be some members of the community, media or planning committee who will want to stop the project. This seems to be automatic reflex reaction even in cases when clearing 5% of trees might save 95% of the woodland. Trees are an emotive topic.
From my work talking to conservationists, foresters, community groups and dog walkers it seems that in general it is people who don’t work in woods who don’t like to see them clipped, cut or cultivated in any way. So perhaps the issue is one of communication, in which case it is important to get the story right, and to take the time and trouble to understand where the audience is coming from.
Woods are deeply rooted both in our nature and our culture and as such they provide a wealth of emotional sustenance. In fairy tales they are home to magical beings, witches, unicorns and enchanted fauns. Heroes and heroines often experience their most challenging trials after losing their way in the woods, and (usually) emerge changed for the better. Here the forest is a place of journey and self-discovery, a place where people and nature interact.
Woods are near religious. They hold our Druidic roots, and perversely it was the fruit from a tree that got us excluded from Eden while the tree remains in paradise. Trees represent our natural, edenic heart. WH Auden believes “a culture is no better than its woods” and laments “a small grove massacred to the last ash” and “An oak with heart-rot” that portends a society heading for a crash. Disturbing, doom-laden verse; if this is what trees can symbolise, no wonder felling them invokes such horror.
Yet, woods, or British woods at least, have probably always been subject to interference at points during their history.
Forest scientists tell two stories about the history of British woodland, which one actually happened is uncertain. The first story was used to great effect by conservation organisations in past years. It is an old story in which woods, a haven for wild, natural beings covered the land until violent, greedy humans cut them all down. Here nature is fragile, benign, and in need of protection.
The second story is one in which woodland spread and thrived in dynamic equilibrium with large herbivorous predators who ate, trampled and trashed it. They made clearings allowing light in and a scrub layer grew, bringing with it all kinds of smaller species and a robust, dynamic and shifting ecosystem evolved. In this scenario woodland is robust and resilient. These disturbances brought diversity to the forest flora and fauna in the same way that coppicing and selective felling do in effective woodland management.
Restoring our woods means bringing light and life back into them with a little judicial felling so that they can thrive again and any of us wishing to work in woodland need to take time to tell this story because trees carry the full weight of our cultural as well as our natural roots.