Last month (March) I was able to visit Walden Pond in Massachusetts and the site of Thoreau’s hut in the woods from 1845 to 7. I’ve posted about it in detail over on the Centurywood.uk blog. (I went back in September, and took more photos and videos of the pond, hut reconstruction and the wider area.)
I’ve posted to the Century Wood blog about a five day stay in the log cabin this month to start on the drying barn, which might be of interest to some hutters: https://centurywood.uk/2018/06/18/five-days-at-the-wood/
I’m going to start posting more about my own wood at https://centurywood.uk and probably most of the forestry and rewilding posts I make in the future will be there too. The first post I’ve made is about ride rewidening and a bit about coppicing by hazel and poplar.
Story in the Guardian today about people buying woodplots and doing interesting things with them:
If you go down to the woods today … you might find a school, a photographer’s studio, or a carpenter’s workshop. Britain’s forests are getting a new lease of life
After a morning spent at Allan Bank by Grasmere, I spent an afternoon at the Forestry Commission’s Dodd Wood and Whinlatter Forest Park sites either side of Bassenthwaite Lake. Again I was mainly looking for red squirrels, but didn’t have as much success as at Allan Bank.
Dodd Wood is a smaller site and is notable for having osprey viewing platforms manned by volunteers in the summer. It’s possible to see down to the osprey nest and watch the adults swooping down to pluck fish from the lake. Red squirrel feeders are also visible from the viewing station, but I didn’t see any signs of feed when I visited.
However I did get some blurry pictures of squirrels scampering around. Like at Allan Bank, they seemed to be spending as much time on the ground as up trees. Even when aware of me and heading off, they didn’t take the opportunity to climb the nearest tree and then move around in the canopy.
One of the proposed reasons why red squirrels are helped by the presence of pine martens, is that grey squirrels spend more time on the ground than reds and so get preferentially eaten by pine martens, letting the reds recolonise the area. Perhaps the scent of pine martens prompts reds to keep off the ground more? Nuts tend to fall to the ground so if it is safe to come down from the trees then it might be worth having both behaviour patterns in their repertoire.
Whinlatter Forest Park is much larger and billed as England’s only true Mountain Forest. The staff in the visitors’ centre were up front about the low chance of seeing reds as the site was quite busy. I headed off on the Seat How Summit Trail, and didn’t see any other walkers all afternoon – just a few mountain bikers. This trail gets up to 520m where the trees give out to heather and includes Seat How, a rocky outcrop with astonishing views across the forest and over to the mountains and Derwentwater. It feels like an island in a sea of trees. These two photos give you a hint of all that.
As a working forest some areas were entirely closed off for felling. You can see evidence of clear felling in the left hand picture above. Some of the other forest roads had warning signs – particularly about the danger of climbing stacks of logs. Quite a sobering thought.
Despite the lack of red squirrels, I did manage to see deer.
And toadstools. And sycamore beside a roadway at about 300m.
Allan Bank above Grasmere in the Lake District is an unusual National Trust house: unfurnished and deliberately informal in a way that puts some NT properties to shame. You won’t find volunteers telling you off for getting a smartphone out to look something up (“No phones here young man!”) or even worse a camera (viral marketing by happy visitors passes them by…) No, at Allan Bank you can pull up a chair, get one of the board games out, try the paints, help yourself to coffee. When you arrive they really do tell you to make yourself at home. Which is nice, because it’s in area with active red squirrel conservation and the animals are easy to see at the feeders on the lawn and in the surrounding woods.
William Wordsworth lived in the house in 1808-10, and while he condemned its exterior, he loved its views over Grasmere and up to the surrounding hills and mountains. You can see Grasmere in this picture, along with some of those paints I mentioned. There’s plenty of paper too.
The house was severely damaged by fire in 2011 but restored and opened to the public by the National Trust for the first time a year later. The walls are bare plaster and there’s donated furniture, an informal cafe, a self service shop upstairs (pay at the till on the ground floor if you want to buy anything), a small mountaineering library, a room full of toys and dressing up outfits for children, and lots of places to enjoy the views.
That last picture shows the view out on to the lawn where bird and squirrel feeders are set up. At the opening time of 10am it was very quiet and squirrels were helping themselves. (It was also no surprise that a selection of binoculars were provided by the house.) I took several batches of photos but this sequence starts with a view of one of the feeders taken from the far side, well behind the bushes and trees.
The reds are there because of the hard work of the volunteers of the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group in controlling grey squirrel numbers. And yes, that does mean trapping and killing them. Greys suppress red squirrel numbers by competition, but they also carry the Squirrel Pox virus which almost eliminated the red population in 2002. Another outbreak started in 2015 and the public’s help is needed again. Longer term I think pine martens will be a big part of suppressing the North American grey squirrel in favour of the native red, but we have to keep the current population of reds going until that time comes.
I also spotted squirrels on the steep walk up through the woodland that surrounds the house, which has same excellent views too. This panorama from a stone viewing platform at the top of the walk, shows the view into the next valley and an almost canopy-level view of the trees.
The house also has a kitchen garden, which was given a Beatrix Potter flavour as Mr MacGregor’s garden this year. Work is ongoing to restore it, and there’s a newly built gardener’s bothy with a verandah where you are invited to sit and enjoy the view.
Allan Bank really is a gem of a house, as well as great place to see red squirrels. Just don’t tell everyone else, ok?
Yesterday I was at the Hay Festival and went to sessions about rewilding and permaculture. This was my first time at the festival, although I’ve been going to Hay-on-Wye’s second hand bookshops since I was young. The annual book festival is about ten days long and takes place in tents and covered walkways in a field outside of town. There is an official book shop and some stalls, but it’s mostly discussion sessions and talks. Some of these are plugging someone’s new book, but others are about other interesting topics.
After a bit of an explore, the first session I went to was also the first of the festival and was entitled
“Elements of re-wilding: perceptions and prejudices”. It took the form of a panel discussion led by Rob Yorke, with Sophie Wynne-Jones of Wales Wild Land Foundation and Bangor University, Julia Aglionby of the Foundation for Common Land (i.e. land with commoners who have a right to use it), and Minette Batters the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union.
I’m interested in rewilding for several reasons. It includes reforesting land. The likely missing, native species we’re talking about have intrinsic value, like restoring a painted-over fresco. Keystone species can dramatically improve natural checks and balances, such as beavers building dams which mitigate flash floods downstream. Three species may be significantly reduced which are bad for saplings and suppress the natural regeneration of native trees from seed, either in re-established forests or to replace felling in existing woods: pine martens control grey squirrel numbers, and lynx control deer and rabbits. Rewilding moves the British landscapes closer to their naturally wooded state, which people will engage with more, and start to rewild ourselves. I believe more basic “accommodation” like wild camping and hutting have a role in that.
Rob Yorke had a list of prepared topics to provoke discussion, and started with definitions of rewilding, and then things moved on to differing land uses, environmental benefits such as flood control, climate change, and even the EU referendum. One theme that kept being emphasised was the desirability of avoiding conflict and trying to find consensus, rather than the sometimes stronger language that you see. I had a feeling that phrases such as George Monbiot’s “White Plague” description of the impact of sheep on the landscape were in people’s minds when saying this.
Consensus and compromise are good, but they are a two-way process, and it became increasingly clear that Minette Batters and Julia Aglionby were dragging us away from rewilding step by step. Eventually the idea of reintroducing pine martens for their own sake and for the way they suppress grey but not red squirrels was countered by the idea that we might just not bother and be satisfied with conserving the refuges the reds have been reduced to.
Simultaneously, farmers had to be acknowledged as the custodians of the landscape who take a multi-generational view in contrast to politicians and the public; and yet the 25 years for tree planting to take full effect could be deployed dismissively when discounting trees for flood control. Consistently, the message was “management”. A managed landscape that must continue to be managed. It’s understandable that people whose uneconomic lifestyle is subsidised by the more productive elements of the economy in return for “management” of the landscape are attached to the word. But it’s missing the point in a discussion about rewilding, where the intent is to see how far we can let go.
The discussion took a more worrying turn when Minette Batters got on to the subject of lynx. She’s clearly horrified by the idea, and the thought they might take lambs, and deployed some unfortunate and untrue arguments. In particular, she claimed that “we” had decided to remove lynx from Britain because they are dangerous to people (and to the aforementioned lambs.) This was picked up by the Telegraph reporter present (or planted by the NFU?) with the lurid headline “Releasing lynx into wild puts ramblers in danger of attack, warns NFU“.
I’m struggling to believe that Minette Batters is ignorant of the European experience with lynx. Humans aren’t attacked by lynx. If you attack a lynx it will defend itself, but they actively avoid humans. The whole idea was implicitly undermined elsewhere in the discussion: we weren’t even to consider lynx as a way of controlling badger numbers (which are crashing the hedgehog population) because there was no way a lynx could tackle a badger.
In retrospect I should have made more of an effort to get the audience microphone and object to the falsehood that lynx endanger humans before the discussion moved on. But it illustrates that an untrue statement can conveniently shut down a debate in the moment, and then get spread by other media to a wider audience (with comments turned off, too.) People do say some very harsh things about the NFU’s behaviour, and this is the first time I’ve seen it up close. Unfortunately Minette Batters is ignoring replies to her comment via Twitter, despite happily tweeting away about other things.
So all in all I felt it was a wasted opportunity to really get into the subject of rewilding, and that being nice and trying to find a consensus doesn’t work when this kind of thing is going on in the room.
Next I went to “Permaculture and climate change adaptation” with Thomas Henfrey (who has a new book out), Maddy Harland and Andy Fryers. There were some interesting overlaps with rewilding. One striking example was the Tamara village in Portugal where reforestation was part of improvements in water availability throughout the year, where previously cork oaks had been replaced by eucalyptus, accompanied by a collapse of lynx numbers incidentally. Permaculture shares with rewilding a recognition of natural systems and the way their elements fit together and cannot be broken down into separate parts and controlled.
Back outside, the Woodland Trust have a stand at this year’s festival, and were fielding waves of children from the school coach trips that had been organised, in between the sessions they all seemed to disappear in to every hour or so.
Hay is normally a different kind of town anyway, and the festival accentuates this. On the road between the town and the festival field, ad-hoc cafes and shops pop up, like this one in a front garden. There’s also a convenient car park next to the festival run for Macmillan, which you can pre-book.
The weekly market in front of the castle still goes ahead, now in the hands of the Hay Castle Trust after it was sold by Richard Booth, who started Hay on the path to becoming a “book town”. His old bookshop is now in other hands, but he started again with the much smaller “Richard King of Hay” bookshop.
There are fewer shops than there used to be, and I’m guessing that’s the internet. I used to scour second hand bookshops but now use sites like Abebooks.com if there’s something out of print I need. Searching rather than browsing I suppose you could say. However, just as vinyl records have survived despite cassettes, CDs, DAT, MD, MP3s, and now streaming, people still enjoy the experience of browsing and reading physical books.
This last photo is taken from Hay Bridge, showing the wooded banks which include the Wye Valley Walk. Across the bridge is the main site of the How the Light Gets In festival which runs at the same time as Hay Festival itself. They have a helter skelter and a big wheel (amongst other things) though.
Sun 29th May update: Ben Eagle has posted another first hand account of the rewilding panel at Hay. Minette Batters of the NFU still hasn’t retracted (or defended!) her falsehoods about lynx.
Thu 2nd June: another first hand account (“What would Eat a Badger? Rewilding at the Hay Festival“), from Graham Strouts at Bangor.
What does “mismanaged woodland” mean? It’s very like saying “a weed”. It all depends on what you’re hoping will grow.
Gardeners complain about weeds and go to great lengths to eradicate them. But in other contexts, the very same plants are crops or part of natural, even protected, ecosystems. “A weed” has no botanical meaning. It’s a judgement we make, based on our objectives, plans, and even dreams for the ground in question.
People often talk about “mismanaged woodland” in the same way, often without realising it. It becomes a shorthand for woodland that is neither Ancient Woodland being preserved nor other woodlands being managed to produce timber or coppice products.
But again, those are judgements we make. One symptom of this is that those judgements change, often quite radically. Almost as fashions. Once upon a time, Ancient Woodland with native trees was viewed as “mismanaged” because it wasn’t producing as much commercial timber as grubbing up the trees and planting conifers could. These Plantation on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) are now out of fashion, and clear felling them and replanting with more even-aged conifers is not the “right” kind of management.
For me, preserving and, where possible reviving, Ancient Woodland is the right thing to do because its loss is irreversible. Just as a weed in a garden is indeed a weed. But when we’re talking about planted woodlands that we have already or might create in the future, “mismanagement” always has to be viewed against the objectives we choose.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of the Green Man – a figure of a human face made of or surrounded by leaves. I think my parents pointed them out in the 1980s, along with the similarity between fan-vaulted church ceilings (like Kings College Chapel) and the canopy of trees in the forest. They both seem to be medieval attempts to bring the wild wood that everyone knew into the sacred space of the church. For me, the Green Man is sometimes a personification of nature, but sometimes he is a symbol of mankind as part of nature and that’s another way of representing the idea of rewilding ourselves.
I’ve been thinking about these connections for the last year or so, and making more of an effort to look out for Green Men when out and about. There are lots of images online of him in churches and cathedrals, but here are some I’ve taken in the John Rylands Library built in Manchester in the 1890s. The building looks like a gothic church and even has fan vaulting. There are heavy stone bosses at the tops of the pointed arches and corbels where the arches spring from the walls, and all of these are carved with some kind of figure or design. Walking round I was able to find three green men on arches: a corbel and a ceiling boss from the corridors on the first floor, either side of the block of rooms including the Rylands Gallery; and then a ceiling boss from the staircase down to the men’s toilets under the main staircase at the Deansgate end of the building:
There’s also a very prominent fanged Green Man by the doorway into the main reading room:
This inspired me to add a Green Man to the log cabin. I have his hand-carved wooden image at home, but there’s always a risk things left at the wood might be stolen. So I opted for something I could easily replace if necessary.
I suppose next I could learn to do chainsaw carving and start putting him on tree stumps that would be tricky to steal with a van and sell off in a pub car park somewhere! I wouldn’t be the first to do this though. Here’s one example carved from a tree that stood at the centre of the maze in Tatton Park in Cheshire taken a few years ago:
The Black Wood of Rannoch is a thousand hectare area of ancient Caledonian Forest which has been continuously forested with native species for the last 10,000 years or so. People have harvested the trees in the past, but they’ve not been replaced by human replanting rather than natural regeneration, as is the case in the adjacent forests and most woodland across the island of Great Britain.
Earlier this month I was able to visit and photograph the wood, and I’ve already posted some pictures of a root plate in a blog post about that. Below are some more pictures with a wider range of subjects.
I parked just off the lochside road near where the Dall Burn flows into the south shore of Loch Rannoch. There are quite a few Forestry Commission stopping places along this road. I then walked up the roadway immediately to the east of the burn, as it passes houses, the abandoned Rannoch School swimming pool, and then through the gate into the Black Wood which has the green wooden sign shown here. There are several paths, but I stayed on the roadway with brief detours to look at interesting features.
The Black Wood is primarily silver birch and Scots pine, which were both pioneer species in the first wave of reforestation after the last ice age. You can see the random distribution of the individual trees in the pictures. Along with the uneven ground that pattern is in stark contrast to plantations. I’ve included the root plate pictures again as they also give you a feel for the place.
I took this panorama showing scattered, well separated birches on the higher edge of the Black Wood to the left of the track, and the start of a denser, even-aged plantation of pines with mostly bare trunks on the right. The difference between the two types of wood is very clear on the ground. Continuing along the track I left the Black Wood behind and came out into areas of clear felling and replanting, including one where older trees had been left. They did mostly appear to be dead though.
After these pictures is a short video I made while driving south from the Black Wood, showing a forestry harvester systematically engaged in clear felling.