Phantoms of the wood

Sometimes I try to imagine how it was in the time when humans had very little impact on the landscape, when England was blanketed in mature, deciduous woodland. I see a small herd of aurochs browsing its way through our wood, stamping and blowing, hot breath moist in the air. Tails flick as they graze on the grass in woodland clearings or pull leaves from the branches of the trees. They chew at the trunks stripping bark and, as they meander along, they pause to scratch luxuriously against trees which occasionally give way with an initial cracking, then a final crash. The herd makes its way through the wood to the swish of vegetation, the clumping of cloven feet, a gentle lowing, leaving behind churned up soil, newly fertilised with droppings. Next the wild boar arrive, trotting along in a small family-group. They browse leaves with contented grunts and turn the ground snuffling out roots, nuts, fungi; they can reach food the aurochs have no need or taste for. In clearings the wild boar enjoy the sun, sit for a scratch, bathe in the mud; their sharp hooves dig into the ground that they too fertilise. They replace the lingering bovine smell with a sharp porcine tang before they move on. Throughout the day other browsers pass – hare, elk, roe and red deer – all move through keeping the clearings open as they browse leaves, small branches, grasses and herbs.

The scene so far is calm, but all is not idyllic – there is no chance of these herbivores overgrazing this woodland. Their numbers are limited by the creatures that follow behind the herds, silently, stealthily; sometimes it is a pack of wolves on their trail, hungry for meat, at other times a lone lynx pads in their wake hoping for a meal of young deer – though it would settle for hare. Brown bears too move through, opportunist, omnivorous, taking what they can find. Add in eagle, vole, hedgehog, pine marten, badger, wild cat, red fox… The circle is complete, the equilibrium perfect, the landscape a fluid tapestry of species and habitats maintained by the animals themselves. Trees fall through weather or action of the aurochs and wild boar. Clearings are created, soil aerated and fertilised, maintained by browsers. Wild flowers and grass grow, then thickets through which a small sapling, protected, will break for the sky to replace the tree once lost; for a while the clearing will be somewhere else. And so the habitats shift, in a continuous, seamless pattern.

I imagine this landscape, these species, this ‘Mesolithic biome’ because this is the time we find the tree species that live in our wood today in their most natural state. People often ask me why we aren’t just leaving the wood to its own devices – ‘surely the wood can look after itself?’. But this is the key. It can’t because the architects and the maintenance teams of this woodland are gone. They are gone because of the actions of humans – arguably in some cases and definitely in others. For a long time, rural industry worked the woodland, maintaining clearings and crudely mimicking the action of browsers and carnivores, albeit on a larger a scale so that the small woodland with moving clearings become a rotation of small woodlands, coppiced in a fifteen or so year cycle. But now even that is gone. And our wood is just not evolved to cope. The tree species that make it up – every single one of them – is adapted to grow in woodland pasture, a much more open mix of clearings and trees, not dense canopy. There are surprisingly few species that can survive in a closed canopy. Lichens, mosses, liverworts, grasses and wild flowers, all need the sunlight of the clearings or their edges, many insects and birds rely on it, a great many wild flowers need disturbed earth to germinate. In turn, all those species that rely on the trees, insects, flowering plants, grasses, mosses and lichens – they need the mosaic of habitats too.

Woodland is seen as static because it grows to a different timescale than humans, but it is not static. Our woodland is dying, its biodiversity is falling every year. I imagine the Mesolithic landscape so that we can try to plan for the wood’s future. Somehow the wood needs back the aurochs, the wild boar, the elk and the lynx; somehow our woodland management has to give the wood what it has lost. So I am left wondering the best tactic for mimicking the action of each of these species now wandering the wood only as phantoms of what is missing. How do we bring back these ghosts?