The promise of woodland

Woodland is vital

Every week I volunteer at one of my local woodlands and I reap the rewards of working with the natural environment. The skills I’ve gained from toiling with wood and earth will never be lost, the longer I can spend outside the more useful they will become. How have I learned the art of coppicing, dead-hedging, hedge-laying, tree identification and management? By working with people who know, people who can pass these skills on. We have worked this way for centuries, wood is a vital part of human existence, it gave us shelter when used for structure, warmth when burned for the fire, and fruit when the time came to pick. We built fences, bows and arrows, walking sticks, ships, wooden spoons, food bowls, huts and houses. Now our trees line the streets and sit evenly in our parkland, the idea of cutting a tree means death to us and we have no idea of why trees are here and how they have been used. The wood used for our desks and chairs (if wooden anymore) isn’t from the local woodland, nor is it really English, instead shipped from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and, most criminally, from the Amazon rainforest.

I see the potential in woodland. By investing in the natural environment our governments could satisfy the desire for ‘job creation’, and we’re talking real jobs, work where both the mind and the body are engaged. Woodland provides work for anyone and everyone – studying the ecosystem in detail for those of an intellectual or scientific mindset, surveying lichens, birdlife, insects and our declining woodland wildflowers. And for those who want physical work pure and simple, the wood offers that chance, felling trees, carrying timber, working with your hands and alleviating the weight of the mind. This is how our ancestors have survived and built communities, and it may be the answer to our loss of direction as individuals and as a society. Nature wants to work with us, the landscape is man-made, we haven’t stepped out from a wildwood in to pristine parkland. Many of the old species are gone, many are on their way out, much of what remains is being overrun by the shade of a closed canopy and the spread of invasive species, escaping from gardens and parks. All this goes without mentioning the importance of the wild, of the wild creatures which still live among us and treat our cities and towns, railway lines and airports, as wild places. The pigeon and the peregrine see our brick blocks as cliff faces, space to roost and raise young or to hunt from. We have not escaped the natural world, we are wildlife, too.

Working woodlands

The woodsman (or woodsperson!) is a job, a role, a way of life which has existed in some capacity since men and women walked the earth, either felling the primeval woodland for farmland or making a home and life from the woodland at the edge of the communal clearing. Woodland is for people and wildlife and we should invest in this resource, not merely our money but our time. Trees will always be growing as long as the earth is healthy. Trees are used to us working with them: ash, hazel, small-leaved lime, field maple and alder are all trees which thrive from coppicing, a schedule of felling the tree at its base every 7-12 years depending on species. Some species, if cut regularly and at the right time, will live indefinitely. So don’t scoff at the idea of woodland being an empty bet for giving people work. It might just be the very thing we’ve been looking for. Working woodlands for local people means freedom from the uncertainty of the global energy market, and the chance to take a part of our lives into our own hands. Woodlands need not be seen as a carbon sink, the idea should be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and engage with new technologies which will allow us to reduce our impact on biodiversity, air and water quality and soils. A wood-burning stove is a way of heating the home with local resources and our independence from wood fuel is new, it is not too late, by any means, to return to using wood again to fuel at least part of our lives.

But it’s not possible for everyone to grow willow or ash and fell it for themselves, not everyone has a garden, nor does everyone have a home. That’s why it’s important to make woodlands a publicly managed resource, the complete opposite to the notion of selling public woodland to the private sector. Instead we need to focus on three principles: protection, management and access. Protection for ancient woodland from short-term development and prestige infrastructure projects such as High Speed Rail 2, management of our closed-canopy woodland where the ground is shaded out and no new generation of trees able to grow, and reasonable access for the public, who depend on woodland to maintain a sense of well-being and a connection with the natural world, to forget about the industrial hubris of the age and revel in the tranquillity of the wild. Woodland is worth our time and money.

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