That the natural world is rarely entirely “natural” is a bit of a truism, one I’ve reflecting on since reading “Curlew Moon” by Mary Colwell. It is tempting to idolise “wild nature” without reflecting that, for a long long time, human activity has moulded nature (and vice versa of course) in ways more complex than simple exploitation and ruination. Here is a germane quote from Oliver Rackham, from his magisterial “Woodlands”:
The thesis that woods were destroyed by heavy industries cannot be sustained. On the contrary, wherever there remained a big concentration of woodland, there is an industrial or urban use to account for its preservation. It was the ‘unexploited’ woods that disappeared from the map. Industries, however, are liable to sudden death through technological change or foreign competition, leaving their woods unemployed. In Cornwall the woods, when the tinners had finished with them, reverted to domestic use, leaving charcoal-hearths (p.166ff) as witnesses to their industrial phase.
Disused industrial woods could pass to other industries. Northern and western coppiced oakwoods were taken over by an expansion in leather-tanning, which used bark and could be combined with other industries using the wood. Others produced pit-props for holding up the roofs of coal mines. The Chiltern woods, as the London market for billets and charcoal declined, were gradually taken over by a mechanised furniture industry. So thoroughly were they converted from coppice and pollarded wood-pasture to timber production that by the nineteenth century this was regarded as the normal state of a beechwood.
The rise of shipbuilding would have found a use for the oaks no longer wanted through the decline of timber-framed building. Specialised underwood trades expanded, especially in southern England, to take advantage of increasing markets for mass-produced hop-poles, barrel-hoops, and other industrial, agricultural and domestic artefacts; this was probably related to the replacement of mixed underwood by chestnut. Indeed, Collins has termed this ‘the golden age of English woodlands’.
The decline of industries left woodland open to destruction. Coed Glyn Cynon was still very much alive in the 1810s, when again there were complaints that its valleys had been ‘stripped of their grown timber’. After the iron industry had died, it seems to have produced pit-props and then passed to modern forestry, which lasted for only one generation of planted trees. On the Ordnance Survey of c.1870 the South Welsh valleys were still one of the biggest wooded areas in the British Isles; by 1950 the woods had faded away, mostly into moorland. In Kent and Sussex, although there is still plenty of woodland left, much was grubbed out in the nineteenth century, the golden age of hop growing. Elsewhere, woods were saved by agricultural recession and fell into disuse or were used as pheasant shoots, until the great onslaught of the 1950s
Some interesting thoughts. Woodland as a sustainable resource requires a long perspective. Agriculture is an industry that has treated trees as weeds, competition for space and water. The understanding that trees help bind soil, help store water reducing flood risk and provides wind breaks is still to be fully understood and appreciated.