Where the Apples Come From

T.C. Smout

  • Woodlands by Oliver Rackham
    Collins, 609 pp, £25.00, September 2006, ISBN 0 00 720243 1
  • Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees by Richard Mabey
    Chatto, 289 pp, £20.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 85619 733 5
  • Wildwood: A Journey through Trees by Roger Deakin
    Hamish Hamilton, 391 pp, £20.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 241 14184 7
  • The Wild Trees: What if the Last Wilderness Is above Our Heads? by Richard Preston
    Allen Lane, 294 pp, £20.00, August 2007, ISBN 978 1 84614 023 5

Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands is Volume 100 of the New Naturalist series, started by Collins after the Second World War with the aim of making ecology accessible to the increasing numbers of people who visited the countryside and had a serious curiosity about what it contained. It included such early classics as R.S.R. Fitter on the natural history of London, and Frank Fraser Darling on the Scottish Highlands. Rackham has all their verve and learning, the same immediacy in the telling, but an even greater wish to involve the reader in a problem and its solving. It is, he says, a book more about questions than answers. It is certainly full of opinions.

Rackham begins by defining and describing woodlands and the way they behave. They are not mere agglomerations of trees that can be planted: plantations can never in centuries truly replicate woodlands. Woodlands are subtle and varied ecosystems that have evolved over millennia. Did some trees first spring from the coppice stool after being pushed over by mammoths in the last interglacial? How do our woods, and the ways we have used them, compare with woods in other countries, for example in Japan? The largest and oldest wooden buildings in the world are in the complexes of ancient Japanese temples around Nara.

Rackham is fascinating about British woodland history since Saxon times, and about all the different uses to which we have put timber in building, manufacture and shipping. He has a section on the documents and maps we can use to uncover the story of our own local woods. Why does Epping Forest look as it does? Is it true Burnham Beeches is dying of acid rain? Why is the history of the New Forest different from that of the Forest of Dean?

Don’t try to recreate the wildwood, he tells conservationists: we don’t even know what it was like. Concentrate on keeping what we have inherited in the form of the ancient woods that humanity and nature have shaped together, many of which date back to before Domesday. Don’t plant woods when they can be left to regenerate. The hurricane of 1987 was not a disaster for woods: storms are an ‘unmitigated benefit for wildlife’ and create gaps in which trees can regenerate by the million. This is not as universally true as he thinks – in some cases trees were left to regenerate but failed to do so. But as a generalisation, it is clearly true. He is scathing about the ‘locust years’ of the Forestry Commission and the damage inflicted on our woodlands between the mid-1950s and 1980s, supported by bogus objectives and unrealistic accounting in the dash for Sitka spruce. Now the Forestry Commission is reformed, but forestry remains, like much of agriculture, ‘a vested interest in search of a function’. Since the Year of the Tree in 1973 – remember ‘plant a tree in ’73, plant some more in ’74’? – conservationists have become avid tree planters; but, Rackham says, they can’t plant woods, only plantations.

Even under trees grown next to an existing ancient wood, plants such as oxlip spread by only about a metre a year, and then only if the right kind of ant is present to carry the seeds. There is no use thinking you can provide species that don’t like the heat with an escape from climate change by planting up corridors to join existing woods together, because (apart from birds) there is little evidence they can use them. As for planting trees in an attempt to stop climate change, given the size of Britain, ‘exhorting people to plant trees to sequester carbon dioxide is like telling them to drink more to hold down rising sea levels’. And genetically modified trees are just ‘a recipe for future disaster’, because their uniformity leaves them so open to disease.

Pause, Rackham says. Consider all you don’t know as well as all you do know before taking action. And then try to find out more. Plainly, he does not subscribe to the view that the day of the amateur naturalist is past. In a few lucid pages on the ‘anthropology of ecological science’ that should be read in the funding councils, he explains the damage done by the short-termism of modern universities in search of ratings, prodded into mutual competition instead of collaboration, demanding that academics publish quick results in journals instead of making long-term investigations. He sees amateurs as capable of undertaking more measured studies of long-lived organisms and ecosystems that cannot be comprehended in a three-year PhD or captured in a short article.

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