ECOS 38 (5)

WOODLAND DEVELOPMENT

A Long Term Study of Lady Park Wood

George Peterken and Edward Mountford

CABI

2017

286 pages

ISBN: 978 1 78639 281 7

Paperback RRP: £35

Review by Simon Leadbeater

 The ebb and flow of a woodland ecosystem, deep in the Wye Valley

This is an indispensable book for anyone who wants to understand woodlands. Over a period of 70 years George Peterken and Edward Mountford (GFK and EM), and – they are at pains to emphasise – their predecessors, such as Eustace Jones, analyse how a woodland develops in ‘real life’ rather than through models or ‘wishful thinking’. This is based on a ‘forbiddingly quantitative’ assessment of how the 36 ha Lady Park Wood has developed since 1944, documenting the unexpected, which traditional academic dialectical discourse does not lend itself to. The result led the authors to have their ‘damascene moment’ when they realised that woodlands were a ‘living, changing entity, not a statuesque, apparently unchanging collection of trees”. The book also demonstrates what rewilding actually means, and asks whether this is wise or what people really want.

What lessons does Lady Park have for other woodlands? Some developments have been predictable, such as progressive self-thinning and the build up of deadwood. More influential are ‘disturbances,’ especially the 1976 drought, but also storms, disease, alien species, heavy browsing – much of which is attributable to human influence. Owing to these disturbances, two of the main forest trees, beech and oak, are unlikely to gain dominance, although both limes may do so, despite their vulnerability to browsing.

I found the authors’ observations concerning the ‘test of woodland rewilding’ especially interesting. While GFK and EM consider rewilding to be ‘constructive and forward looking’ Lady Park reinforces their view that rewilding should take different forms and degrees. Woodlands which rewild by default lose most of their butterflies and light loving plants, and rewilding small woods in particular is likely to diminish biodiversity. The authors also question whether people will like woodlands which have a decrepit feel and smell of decay. In consequence GFK and EM advocate an “adaptable and subtle attitude, responding to context,” “wilder not wild”.

Reading this book made me think of other writers’ views.  Does ‘pure’ rewilding reduce biodiversity? Clive Hambler, who can perhaps be credited with initiating the rewilding concept, might argue that butterflies and light loving plants belong to grasslands whereas “the darkest canopies are the richest in Britain”.[1]  And Peter Wohlleben, in his The Hidden Life of Trees, suggests that trees make friends and can keep their fellow trees alive even after they have been cut down or ring barked. [2] Suzanne Simard demonstrates how ‘mother trees’ share nutrients and water through a wood-wide mycorrizal network with their off-spring and even other species, and claims trees “communicate with each other in numerous ways to promote the stability, or equanimity, of the greater community”.[3] This is all rather different from the competitive woodland environment conveyed by GFK and EM. It might be that these authors simply don’t agree, but perhaps alternatively they are not borrowing from each other when observing similar phenomenon.

GFK and EM describe and in some (possibly great) measure explain how and even why. But is there a dimension or two missing, and I wonder if a more complete understanding could be sought by combining GFK and EM's ‘forbiddingly quantitative’ approach with applying Simard’s understanding of how trees relate to one another.

[1] Hambler, C. (2015) ‘Evidence-based or evidence-blind? Priorities for revitalising conservation,’ ECOS 36(3/4) 2015 p.23.

[2] Wohlleben, P. (2016) The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

[3] Simard, S.W., (2015) ‘Conversations in the Forest: The Roots of Nature's Equanimity’, SGI Quarterly, January 2015

 

ECOS 38 (5): Contents

Inheritors of the Earth by Chris Thomas

Review by Peter Shirley

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

Review by Andrew Blewett

Rewild by Nick Baker

Review by Peter Taylor

Re-enchanting the Forest by William Ayot

Review by Peter Taylor

Woodland Development by George Peterken and Edward Mountford

Review by Simon Leadbeater

The Red Squirrel by Neil McIntyre & Polly Pullar

Review by John Savory

Camera Trapping for Wildlife Research by Francesco Rovero and Fridolin Zimmermann (eds.)

Review by Rick Minter

2 thoughts on “ECOS 38 (5): Book Review: Woodland Development

  1. Interesting thoughts about ‘rewilding’ and British woods; I’m not sure that simply leaving woodland to its own devices in UK conditions can be viewed as rewilding anyway if by rewilding we mean restoring complete trophic systems – so the relict and otherwise limited ancient or replanted woodland we have in this country lack the ‘wild’ impact of large mammals crashing around – no Aurochsen, no boar, too many or too few of the right or wrong deer species etc, not even beavers opening riverine habitat and creating beaver meadows… yet… much… I think that the point here is that rewilded woodland makes no sense in the absence of the entire faunal system, without even beginning to think about the subtle interactions with fire, flood, disease and wind throw that you refer to. The use of extensive woodland cattle-grazing makes sense in this context of course, regulated of course by human ‘predation’. There seems little doubt that forest glades and other open areas are a norm in pristine-like or near intact European forest ecosystems for all these reasons, and diverse niche small animals and flowering plants have co-evolved in these ever changing spaces along with the rest. Some insight into how this might be supposed to work is provided by the Vera woodland-pasture hypothesis, whatever its scientific strengths and weaknesses – a debate covered in ECOS some years ago. In reality we simply don’t have forest on the scale required to even contemplate what even near-pristine ‘wild’ might look like and anything else is by definition modified including our so-called rewilded woodlands. The problem is that in practice people have to recreate the wild disturbance to paradoxically facilitate the mix of habitats that pristine British woodland might have involved 6000 years ago, thereby encouraging the butterflies, wildflowers and range of bird life which people generally value and want to see. We have the paradox for these reasons that many of the richest wildlife sites in Europe are therefore those consistently managed, often for low intensity extraction of various sorts – as humans replace other keystone species in providing similar functions to missing trophic and mechanical disturbances which otherwise generate natural evolutionary pressures and emerging biodiversity. My feeling is that the notion of rewilding in Europe will realistically always be contingent on human decision-making to this extent.

  2. I am not qualified to comment on whether the Vera thesis vs more or less contiguous high forest would have constituted the pristine forest environment of pre-neolithic times. However, I once attended a course led by Keith Kirby and he expressed doubts about the Vera position, and I don’t think Clive Hambler agrees with it. But I stand to be corrected on both points.

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