A year in the woods

What I’ve learnt about nature, both human and ecological

by Joy Lo Dico

Photo: Russel Sach

For the past year, I’ve been living in a humming, vibrant place. There’s life in every corner, a chorus of noise from dawn to dusk. No day is ever the same, no walk without a new encounter.

I’ve been living in the same lockdown as you, except mine has been spent in my cottage in a hundred acres of woodland in Gloucestershire where the wildlife doesn’t observe the rules. After seven years of living in London’s West End, these woods, normally visited for a break from the city, became my natural habitat from March. And it has led to a year of thinking intensely about trees, how to manage them, and how we manage ourselves in relation to them. There is a continual agony in the UK about planting more trees. Firstly, the concern about our CO2 emissions. For all the high tech solutions to carbon storage, one of the most efficient methods remains in the trunk of a tree. One hectare of woodland stores, on average, five tonnes of carbon in an aesthetically pleasing way. The agony is also our guilt about a general degradation of nature. The woods represent a return, at least in our minds, to a place before the ravages of civilisation. But while there’s a big drive to replant we speak less of what one does with the woods that already exist. Mine was recorded in the Doomsday Book. What do you do with mature trees? How do you manage them? In fact, do you manage them at all? What are the ethics of cutting them, or not?

Only about 13 per cent of the UK is woodland, and Scotland takes the lion’s share. That’s not as bad as it sounds. It was estimated that we only had about 15 per cent tree cover in the medieval ages. The demands of energy and war meant we dipped to just five per cent a hundred years ago. (Germany – always better than us – is almost one third wooded).

Give those newly planted trees a century to grow and, lo, you end with a woods like mine. Much of it is mature: beech trees have flung their limbs out wide, oaks and cherries are becoming stout with age and there’s a lot of ash, which is suffering from ash dieback, the coronavirus of the tree world.

Beneath them is the understorey, the place where the less distinguished trees – hazel and hawthorns and field maples – grow, and the forest floor itself, which buzzes with life from the eye-catching bluebells of spring to the fungi, creepy crawlies and brambles acting as natural barbed wire. Most of us now live in cities and, accustomed to right angles and the rule of law, there’s something quite daunting about the woodlands. It is chaos. Left untended it is a jungle; creepers like Old Man’s Beard rising high into the trees remind you of the old black-and-white Tarzan films. And there’s fallen branches everywhere, and mud and more mud.

Only about 13 per cent of the UK is woodland, and Scotland takes the lion’s share. That’s not as bad as it sounds. It was estimated that we only had about 15 per cent tree cover in the medieval ages.

The instinct is to tidy up and rationalise, but part of the challenge that comes with being in the woods is to stop worrying so much, to stop being so “human” about it all: to just let nature be.

However, woods unmanaged are not always a good thing in themselves. While some areas thrive on just being left alone, others can begin to strangle themselves. Where there is too dense a canopy from mature trees or too many small trees growing close together, the forest becomes too dark for wildlife, for the flowers that are the sirens to the insects.

And too many of the same type of tree in proximity become vulnerable to disease. Witness the tragedy of the ash, which has become infected with a spore known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, formerly called as Chalara fraxinea, which blocks its water transportation arteries. It’s estimated only one in five will survive.

Commercial woodlands – those full of conifers like Douglas firs and spruce, which predominate in Scotland – are managed for production. There are mathematical formulas for calculating timber volumes and replanting schedules. Woods which are too dense and monocultural don’t harbour much life.

The native broadleaf woodlands like mine, and the sort which are being planted in the great rewilding drive and are now largely used for leisure and pleasure, are much better for biodiversity – but harder to quantify in a spreadsheet. Are they best left to themselves? This year, triggered by dieback that has taken hold across the West of England, and the space to think created by lockdown, benign neglect has not been such an easy option.

I, like many other broadleaf woodland owners in the UK, was suddenly making these life and death decisions about my sick ash. While some dead standing wood is good, so much in dense clusters is counterproductive, and in some cases dangerous. I had to take the decision to cull swathes of dying ash, with some regret. Like taking your dog on its final trip to the vet, you know it has to happen. But it has meant engaging in another form of sustainability in the woods: economic sustainability.

As we replant the UK, we should also begin to think how, in a hundred years time, we want to use this wood. As much as there is a lifecycle in trees, there is an economic cycle too that we’ve left to rot.

I’ve long held the opinion that woods have been over-sanctified. Up until the 1950s or 60s the raison d’etre of my woods was timber production. Sections were felled regularly (in later years for the paper pulp market). But even before that the tree was not an object of beauty and respect, but of utility. The wood was used for stuff. For centuries you’d look after the beech because the pigs fed on its mast. The hazel, cut back to its base, will send up a whole bunch of new shoots over ten years that can be easily managed on rotation for firewood. Wood itself was a renewable building and construction resource.

But as agriculture and coniferous forestry produced more income per acre, broadleaf woods fell out of use other than for dog walking. They became soaked in grants to keep them going. There’s a new round of them being planned, post-EU exit, called ELMs where money is funnelled into biodiversity. A good thing, but is sympathy in the form of cheques enough? In 2019, the UK harvested just under ten tonnes of softwood – conifers – and one tonne of hardwood. We import 80 per cent of the timber we use. As highlighted in a recent article in The Guardian, our sudden hunger for biomass fuels has those countries supplying it – Estonia is named in the article – plundering their ancient woods. Importing tropical hardwoods from developing countries? Well you know how that story ends.

As we replant the UK, we should also begin to think how, in a hundred years time, we want to use this wood. As much as there is a lifecycle in trees, there is an economic cycle too that we’ve left to rot.

That does not mean we should start felling everything in sight, but I’ve learnt a lesson or two from taking down the ash. First, we’ve opened up areas of woodland to new light, which means flourishing of biodiversity in those gaps as new trees establish themselves; secondly, the wood produced has been sold locally for firewood and has been put through a sawmill and sold as boards and posts. And that is its own form of natural regeneration: the money made is reinvested to manage the next section of woods that need attention, to plant and to tend.

Just to be clear: this isn’t the gold rush, folks. But it is enough to sustain a healthy broadleaf woodland, along with the people who work in it with chainsaws, with coppicing, producing timber as well as crafts. Those who are invested in its future for livelihood, as well as sentiment. And the more our woodland economy grows, the greater the potential for a greener, leafier Britain.

Our complex relationship with woodlands

The Amazon rainforest spans 6.7 million square kilometres, which is twice the size of India. It has lost 17 per cent of its forest cover in the last 50 years.

Woodland contributes to the biodiversity of the planet: it’s home to many varieties of fungi, fauna and flora that make an enormous impact on other components of the ecosystem and climate.

Each oak tree supports up to 5,000 different species of insects, spiders and arthropods that form the foundations of a nutritious food chain for birds and mammals.

Woodland cleans the air we live in: land conversion and deforestation in the Amazon release up to 0.5 billion metric tons of carbon per year and that does not even include emissions from forest fires.

An area of woodland the size of a football pitch removes the equivalent of the weight of one sack of potatoes of carbon from the atmosphere, which is about 25 kilograms.

Humans cut down around 15 billion trees per year. With fewer trees to absorb the carbon in the atmosphere, the temperature of the earth has increased with the Arctic, one of the coldest and most remote places on Earth, seeing a reduction in summer sea ice of 40 per cent over 40 years.

Deforestation has directly affected fish populations: with fewer leaves sinking to the bottoms of riverbeds, there is less food for invertebrates at the bottom of the food chain. Consequently, fewer fish make it to adulthood, which has led to an 80 per cent plus decline in freshwater fish numbers.

It is estimated that woodland in the UK accounted for a saving of £938 million in health costs by removing air pollution in 2017.

Woodland across the UK has increased by 4.4 per cent from 3.05 million hectares in 2009 to 3.19 million hectares in 2019.

Almost 40 per cent of the UK’s ancient woodland has been replanted with dense non-native trees, causing deep shade across the woodland floor. Non-native plants like rhododendron, Himalayan balsam and snowberry are also encroaching into our woodlands, competing with native plants.

Joy Lo Dico is a columnist for the Financial Times and owner of Voltaire’s Wood, a 120 acre wood in Gloucestershire that she bought in 2015 in a moment of madness. It was the best decision she ever made


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