If we observe the history of woodland management represented as a time line, as Earths history often is, your span from left hand to right hand. Consider that if we first started to use stone axes at the end of your right hand and the Forestry Commission was set up at the end of your left hand, then the British woodsman had reached his zenith at the first joint on your left index finger, just before the industrial revolution.
Unfortunately, historic woodsmen had also watched UK canopy cover drop to 3% of the total landmass of mainland Britain by the outbreak of WW1. Today we stand at 10% land coverage in England, 15% in Wales and 8% in Ireland.
The point is that as humans, we have been affecting the natural order in woodland for a very long time. From the earliest hunter gatherers who would make clearings to allow fresh grasses and low vegetation to establish, attracting grazing animals into a corral that made it easier to spear them. To the eighteenth century when we purposely grew, trained and cut down great oaks to use in ship building and made most of our housewares from various species of tree. A moment in time when our houses were filled with products from the wood. Everything from clogs to clocks, bowls to benches.
I ally with a growing band of woodsmen and women who employ ancient management methods informed by modern science. Like so many others, I come from a long line of woodsmen and estate workers who would probably recognise the methods I employ and pass on to students. How could they have known that their activities would result in the beautiful array of British Broadleaf woodland we have inherited? And could they imagine the massive effort we must now make to conserve and increase them? If we could go back to thank our ancestors, could we do so without a pang of guilt for how we have neglected these cathedrals to nature and craft?
Today more than ever before, our lives as Northern European Woodsmen are measured by seasons rather than days. Seasons which are becoming less predictable, warmer and wetter and we find that we must adapt our skills and methods to ensure the health of the land in our care.
With birds nesting earlier in the year and raising multiple broods, the felling period is getting shorter. Springtime buds and leaves are consumed by ever increasing numbers of insects and deer. Summer brings drought, causing trees to reduce foliage to conserve fluids and wither canopy limbs. Autumn comes late and wet. Those wood cutters who use leaf fall to tell them when to harvest, now begin work late in the year and winter storms bring veterans crashing to the ground with drowned and rotting root plates unable to stay fast in the sodden earth.
Of all the skills we have inherited from our ancestors, observation is the key to making good decisions for planning woodland management. This now takes up much of my time as I survey the flora and fauna in Holly Hayes reporting the results of the decisions I have made, to Forestry England in exchange for their approval.
It is well documented that worked woodland conserves far more species than derelict stands and I am able to extract the timber I need to make traditional craft products whilst maintaining rare habitat and encouraging wildlife. And, sometimes, as I stand beneath a high canopy, shafts of light bringing floral gems into relief in the woodland floor, thinking about the cliff edge on which this generation’s environmental legacy stands, I will feel the gentle hand of my Grandfathers on my shoulder, and I know, we will make our descendants proud of us.