What can history teach us about our woodlands during lockdown?

Book Cover - British Forests: the Forestry Commission 1919-2019

Book Cover – British Forests: the Forestry Commission 1919-2019

Book Review

British Forests: the Forestry Commission 1919-2019 edited by Ian Gambles. 2019. Profile Editions, London. ISBN 9781788163132.

By Ed Lord, June 2020

Ed Lord works for Coed Lleol / Small Woods on the Actif Woods Wales project in Neath Port Talbot. He is also a Lecturer in Mental Health at Swansea University, and RCBC Wales (Research Capacity Building Collaboration) PhD fellow in Ecotherapy. In the first of his series of book reviews Ed discovers a century worth of learning about woodlands to inspire us during lockdown.

Small Woods in Wales adapts during lockdown

For my role with Coed Lleol / Small Woods I am usually out and about meeting people and spending time co-ordinating our Actif Woods Wales project in the varied woodlands of Neath Port Talbot. Covid-19 lockdown has meant a temporary change to that way of working. So, for now, I am writing a series of book reviews that will hopefully support your knowledge and enjoyment of woodlands.

The Actif Woods Wales project focuses primarily on social forestry, the opportunity for local people to enjoy the benefits to their health and wellbeing of woodlands. Sessions are very experiential and based in the vitality of hands-on activity and sensory stimulation that makes woodlands so special. In this first review I introduce a book – “British Forests: the Forestry Commission 1919-2019” – that may on the surface appear very ‘dry’ and at odds with the vitality of our social forestry. But I think to dismiss the historical and cultural is to miss an important aspect of how woodlands come to be as they are, how we use them, how we access them, and how our imaginations are fed by them and, in turn, imprint upon them.

A century worth of learning by 18 authors

British Forests is a collection of chapters featuring 18 authors, published to coincide with the centenary of the Forestry Commission in 2019. As would be expected from a book with a centenary theme there is a strong thread of history running through it – including a whole section providing a chronology of the Commission since its founding in the aftermath of the first world war. Also included is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, and chapters on habitats, forest research, urban forestry, arts in the forest, and one on the technical aspects of Silviculture – “the theory and practice of establishing and maintaining communities of trees and other woody vegetation that have value for people and society” (p. 97) – all interspersed with attractive illustrations of different tree species. The final 40 pages of the book is devoted to a guide to some of the Commission’s more prominent or notable sites around England, Scotland, and Wales.

Understanding forest landscapes

As a method of connecting with woodlands this is a valuable book as it offers a way of understanding the landscapes that surround us – whether that is a vast  spruce plantation (a prominent feature of many upland areas in Neath Port Talbot), or a small pocket of mixed species established under some of the ‘urban forestry’ initiatives (noticeable in parts of Telford, familiar to my Small Woods colleagues). These spaces, despite their ‘permanence’ in the popular imagination are the result of a complicated interplay of local and national politics, cultural and social practices, and ‘natural’ processes, and would have looked very different when my maternal grandmother was born in 1918. While the Forestry Commission – and its devolved partners in Wales (NRW – Natural Resources Wales) and Scotland (Scottish Forestry) – is only one player in the woodland scene, its influence has been significant over the past 100 years. This is not only as a direct landowner/manager, but also as an employer, a skills and training provider, a commissioner and disseminator of research, a grant and licencing distributor, and many other facets of activity.

Exploring Cathole Cave (occupied by Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers) in Parc Le Breos Woods (Swansea) with Gower Unearthed and Actif Woods Wales project participants. Photo: Small Woods

A century diversifying woodland use

The low percentage of woodland cover – and the poor quality of this woodland – was a woeful aspect of the British landscape by the end of the first world war. This book gives a good overview of why this was the case, and what the Forestry Commission has done over the past 100 years to dramatically improve this situation. While a secure and predictable timber supply was at the core of why the body was founded, it is interesting how their aims and practices have developed and diversified over the years. This is particularly notable in terms of an emphasis on habitats and biodiversity, as well as the recreation, health, and social benefits that many of us have hugely enjoyed while using Commission sites. For example, who could have imagined in 1919 that by the 21st Century through a combination of devolved government in Cardiff and a state forestry organisation, Wales would be a world class mountain biking destination – with the cost of use usually just a parking charge! There are, of course, criticisms of many of the policies and strategies that have been applied in this past century – as an example the tension between plantation forestry, of often imported species like Sitka Spruce, and broadleaf woodland (although such a simple binary division has its own issues) was a particular focus of campaigning from the 1970s through to the present day. Coed Lleol’s partnership project “Lost Peatlands” in Neath Port Talbot (Lost Peatlands Project) is an interesting case in point of how some of the practices of the past are being responded to and addressed in creative ways.

Craig Gwladus Country Park

A guided walk around Craig Gwladus Country Park (NPT) with Actif Woods Wales project participants. Photo: Small Woods

Discover woodland heritage and history during lockdown

There are some messages to take away from this book that may be of use during lockdown and social distancing. First there is the value of heritage and history as a way of interpreting the woodlands close to us. In Swansea the Actif Woods Wales project has in the past partnered with ‘Gower Unearthed’ to deliver content related to the history of the sites being used. In our sessions in Neath Port Talbot we have engaged with a fascinating archaeological record to be discovered from exploring Craig Gwladus Country Park. Many of the coppice skills that we learn together are vital to the sustainable management of small woodlands and have been honed from human engagement with woodland for hundreds (even thousands) of years. If we cannot be together in woodlands for a period of time, or if people are shielding at home, there are opportunities to access digital archives, and research woodland sites. This book could provide the spark of imagination for just such a project – maybe in a few years time you could be sharing your knowledge with an Actif Woods Wales group!

To discover online woodland activities with Coed Lleol / Small Woods during lockdown visit: www.coedlleol.org.uk

Ed Lord. Photo: Small Woods

Ed Lord. Photo: Small Woods