Thinking about our wood is tricky. You have to be in the right frame of mind. It’s all to do with perspective. In my everyday life, end points can seem far away. The struggles we have with Joe’s education seem never ending, the nights he spends away from home stretch for years ahead of me. I wonder if the children’s adventure book I have written will ever be published; I’m just starting the 6th draft – I may need to give up on that dream. Everyone has things they are striving to achieve; for me I want Joe home, my paperback in my hand. I may never get what I want, but I have an end goal in mind. With the wood, it is different. I have to start in the full and complete acknowledgment that I will not see an end point, that there is no outcome, that we are just next in a long line of people involved in the wood’s history and hopefully part of a line that will go far into the future. Instead of thinking in terms of a human life span, I need to think almost geologically. But have to be careful; feelings of futility, insignificance, mortality, of being overwhelmed – they are not welcome and not useful in a woodland custodian.
Trees are long lived. We must all have favourite trees that have been in our lives forever – Robin Hood’s tree, the tree we climbed on holiday, the tree on the street outside our home. It is hard to see trees as dynamic, moving populations. Because our lives are so much shorter than theirs, it is hard to visualise their flow through habitats, their response to change in our world. It all happens so slowly that it becomes imperceptible. In Bill Bryson’s book ‘A Walk in the Woods’, he explains how it came to be that the Rockies in America have such an abundance of plant life – 130 species of tree for example compared to only 85 in the whole of Europe. He talks about how, during the last ice age, as ice sheets spread from the arctic, Northern flora moved south to ensure it stayed in suitable habitat. In Europe, it could only move as far as the the alps where much of it was crushed into extinction. In Eastern North America, there was no such impediment and the plants made their way to the Smokies where they still remain. He notes, “When at last the ice sheets drew back, the native northern trees began the long process of returning to their former territories. Some, like the white cedar and rhododendron, are only now reaching home – a reminder that, geologically speaking, the ice sheets have only just gone.” So for the trees, a quick jaunt to get away from a chilly spell at home. For us, the fundamental development of humankind from Neolithic to the present day. That’s quite a difference in timescales…
And so in caring for the wood, we need to make plans based on a tree’s timescale. From this perspective, two things loom on the horizon. One is the lack of coppicing from 1939 after unbroken coppice management since at least the 1600’s and probably centuries before that. As I have written in a previous post, if we do not put coppice management back in place soon, the wood will change. Smaller coppice woodland species such as hazel will die, out-competed by the taller sycamore, oak, and beech. That is a change of character of the wood, and it would result in a loss of biodiversity, but some would say it was natural succession. What is not natural, is the second challenge the wood faces – climate change. When the climate altered because of the ice age, it happened very gradually. Plants were able to travel because the ice sheets move incredibly slowly, giving the flora time creep across the land, generation by generation. It seems obvious, but it is worth writing all the same – plants cannot walk. The only chance a plant normally gets to move is as a seed. If a tree takes seventy years to reach maturity and create seed, then an individual tree can only move the species through a habitat once every seventy years. That is a slow walk. Up until recently plants had the time to move around at this pace, but climate change is happening so rapidly now, that by the time a beech tree has reach maturity in the Chiltern’s, the best place for its seed to germinate has already moved hundreds of miles up the country to Scotland. How is its seed going to travel that far? And all the time, trees in their previously natural habitat are becoming so stressed by the unfavourable conditions they find themselves in, that they are in a very bad place from which to fight disease and pests; at the moment we have acute oak disease, ash dieback and horse chestnut canker to name but a few. On the timescale of a tree things are progressing very rapidly indeed.
I am trying not to become disheartened. After all, things have muddled along just fine (if not better) without human intervention for a long time. Nature will find a way, but it may be a very different way to the one we have been used to for a very long time. In a century, woodland habitat may look very different to how it does today, and somehow, we as a family have to manage our woodland in a way that it is best prepared for its uncertain future. No pressure then…. Good job we love a challenge!