If “a culture is no better than its woods”, then WH Auden would be rightly disappointed by large parts of the world if he were still with us. There’d be Romania, one amongst many countries miserably failing to preserve its woodlands, where a violent logging mafia clear-cuts vast and spectacular beech forests irrespective of EU legislation that’s intended to protect them. There’d be Australia, where weeks of murderous infernos earlier this year didn’t prevent the New South Wales Forestry Corporation from deciding to log unburnt forest despite its suddenly critical importance as surviving habitat for the endangered greater glider and Hastings River mouse, as well as the dwelling place of the vulnerable koala in an area proposed for a national park on its behalf, whose horrific deaths in the wildfires reached into the thousands. And then there’d be Britain, where the country’s most significant, richest and irreplaceable treed landscape – ancient woodland – is regularly threatened by development proposals or destroyed by their implementation, whether for roads, motorway services, quarries, the Lower Thames Crossing or HS2, the country’s planned high-speed rail line.
You might think a pandemic would bring pause. Other non-essential work in the country has been cancelled by government mandate and physical distancing restrictions put in place. A catastrophic economic freefall that shows no signs of abating anytime soon would normally cause a project costing over £100 billion to be rethought. HS2, however, seems to exist in a parallel world. As I write, parts of the ancient woodlands of Crackley Woods, Birches Wood and Broadwells Wood in Warwickshire are being uprooted. Video footage from woodland campaigners is heartbreaking. You can hear the spring songs of birds in the background along with the noise of heavy machinery. You can see how light dances when it’s filtered through new leaves. HS2 Ltd began levelling woodland as migratory birds were still returning and resident species had already begun nesting, let alone the countless invertebrate species seeding eggs for a new generation of life throughout the woods. Although the company claims it’s doing everything it can to protect bird nests, destruction of woodland and its densely interwoven ecologies at this particular time of year sums up the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to the biodiversity crisis. You can say all the right words about tree-planting and wildlife extinctions, but they don’t mean a thing when you declare one of the country’s richest habitat types to be expendable through your actions.
There’s a good reason why the Woodland Trust describe ancient woodlands as irreplaceable; they are the unrepeatable and still evolving result of their complex histories, ecological processes and climatic conditions. But what makes Britain’s ancient woodlands so singular – woods that have been in existence for at least 400 years and often far, far longer – is the close interactions between people and trees. For in many cases these were once working woods. In their heyday as places of labour, ancient woodlands would have looked radically different to how they appear today. They would have been used by coopers, coppice-cutters, tanners, bark-strippers, besom- and charcoal-makers. They would have been used to produce clogs, baskets, pegs, barrels, ships, house beams and charcoal for the smithies and furnaces of the land. And the surnames of the nation are an enduring testament to how important these woods and industries once were: Greenwood, Shaw, Forester, Ash, Barker, Underwood, Maples, Wainwright. The contemporary presence of ancient woodland – at a time when 1,207 of them are currently under threat for one reason or another according to the Woodland Trust – owes everything to those who preserved them in the past, and while their livelihoods have since been eclipsed, the connections between people and woods haven’t dimmed at all in that time.
I listened to stories of people’s abiding attachments to threatened ancient woodlands while writing my recent book Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save our Wild Places. Woods that were potentially slated to become motorway services, quarries and car parks. Woods that had been an integral part of the local landscape and fabric of life for centuries. And the breadth of their continued use amazed me. Not surprisingly, they are ideal places for people walking their dogs, for jogging, for bird watching and for wandering, but they are also places where other kinds of connections are kindled. I met a woman who sought solace amidst the trees during the grief of bereavement. I met children who used ancient woods to gather caterpillars they then placed in jars, where they watched through glass the miraculous transformation of forms before releasing butterflies into the open glades of light, further deepening an attachment to the natural world that can lead to a lifetime of care and concern. And I met a young man who would do anything to save his threatened woods; having attempted suicide several times, it was only during a therapeutic retreat to an ancient woodland that he found a way to live with his manic depression, underscoring the importance of our woods to our mental health and wellbeing. Our modern connections to woodlands are as deeply rooted as they ever were.
Which brings us back to the irreplaceable. This long continuity of human connection is severed the second you destroy an ancient woodland. All those attachments lose their anchor point, and the wood’s antique, layered ecologies are undone. And yet that doesn’t stop developers and politicians from claiming that the irreplaceable can be replaced. Back in 2014, when he was environment minister, Owen Patterson even put a number on the rate of exchange, suggesting that ancient woodland could be destroyed as long as 100 trees were planted elsewhere for every one that was felled. HS2 Ltd have said they’ll plant new trees and translocate ancient woodland soils for the creation of new woods. Such biodiversity offsetting – and the absurdly arrogant idea that the transference of an entire ancient ecosystem is even possible – completely misses the ecological point of veteran trees and the accumulated cultural meaning of old woods. We all know that a copy of Van Gogh’s sunflowers or stars on a living room wall doesn’t carry the same weight and meaning as the original, or that the reproduction of King Tutankhamen’s tomb using period methods and techniques that was showcased in the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel and Casino is merely an impressive replica of an irreplaceable artifact. And the same is true of ancient woodland. While saplings may well become important dwelling grounds for wild species and meaning over the course of their lives, 650 beetle species alone are found almost entirely in ancient woodland or on old trees in Britain. As the great environmental writer and scholar Oliver Rackham put it, “A single 400-year-old-oak… [is] a whole ecosystem of such creatures for which ten thousand 200-year-old-oaks are no use at all.” While I daren’t even imagine what Rackham might have said about saplings in comparison to old oaks, his message about ancient woodlands is clear: “…to recreate an ancient woodland is beyond human knowledge.”
At least Owen Patterson recognised the existence of old trees. The same can’t be said for party colleague and now prime minister of the country, Boris Johnson, who told Total Politics magazine in 2014 that “it’s tragic we have protest groups talking about ‘this ancient woodland’ when actually there’s no tree in this country that’s more than 200 years old.” I read this and think of how effortlessly ancient trees can be cynically erased in so few words for political purposes: the yew in the churchyard of St Cynog’s in Defynnog, now split into two distinct parts and believed to be 5,000 years old, making it Britain’s oldest arboreal resident; the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, mythic site of shelter for Robin Hood and his merry men, and thought to be between 800 and 1,000 years old; and the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Tree in Dorset, 330 years old and the famous site of a meeting in 1834 of six agricultural labourers who formed the first trade union in Britain beneath the sycamore’s branches in response to long hours and low wages. Or the Cubbington Pear in Warwickshire. Named England’s favourite tree in 2015, this remarkable and tenacious wild pear is thought to be around 250 years old. Sadly, that’s as old as it will get, despite it still blossoming and fruiting each year, as South Cubbington Wood, on the edge of which the pear tree is found, stands in the way of HS2 and will be demolished this year. The original route of HS2 was altered to save a golf course just six miles north of South Cubbington Wood after five years of petitioning from the club and negotiations with the rail company, so it would be reasonable to assume that the route could also have been altered to preserve a living entity as irreplaceable as that ancient wood and its renowned wild pear to the south of it. For this to happen, however, would mean acknowledging at a political level – a level that has historically shown little interest in ecological issues that affect the wellbeing of us all – what a great many of the public already intimately understand: that ancient woodland is more vital than ever. People’s desire to protect the nation’s long-standing woods is not “tragic” but the natural response to the state’s unforgivable failure to safeguard our wild heritage. Being readied for felling later this year, South Cubbington Wood is now sealed off and shut with fencing, preventing citizens from visiting its loved and venerable pear, undoing those deep relations that have held steady for centuries. Last spring the world mourned as Notre Dame Cathedral accidently burned; this spring similarly irreplaceable treasures are being purposefully destroyed.
It needn’t be this way, of course. While greater rail investment and passenger capacity is required in Britain alongside a host of local green transport initiatives to encourage travellers out of cars and planes in order to reach its climate targets, by insisting on high-speed rail in a small and uniquely contoured country, the decision was always to prioritise efficiency over everything else that matters in our shared lands, elevating time saved over places savoured, requiring the rail lines to be as straight as possible rather than follow the shapely and historic borders of ancient woodlands and other essential wildlife habitat in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Supporters state that only a portion of the affected woods are to be destroyed, repeating the same hollow line that developers have long used when it comes to enroaching on irreplaceable habitats, defining their acts of destruction as a necessary exception while further fragmenting finite ecosystems until they become merely shadows of their former selves, inevitably stripped of ecological and cultural meaning as they shrink. Tackling the climate crisis – as HS2’s green-minded backers dubiously claim about the project – mustn’t come at the expense of the biodiversity crisis. Vandalising the unique woodlands that have lived alongside us for centuries, providing sustenance, solace and wonder to us while enabling wild lives to flourish and thrive, can never be the answer. With 108 ancient woodlands either directly or indirectly affected by HS2 there is a great deal of loss yet to come, but in the midst of a pandemic almost certainly triggered by the destruction of nature, it’s increasingly clear that we need to reset our collective course with regard to the natural world; to learn to live more lightly on the planet and rethink our path when it comes to these shared but imperilled natural wonders, so that our cultures, as WH Auden might have hoped, are equal to what remains of our magnificent woods. Because with ancient woodland there’s no second chance; what we have is all we get. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
I’m delighted to have collaborated with Rob and Harriet Fraser of somewhere-nowhere on this post. Along with using their fantastic photography and writing to highlight the culture and nature of place in their work, encouraging greater discussion about critical conservation issues between ecologists, farmers, scientists and students, Rob and Harriet have been documenting what stands to be lost in ancient woodlands along the route of HS2 in their Archive of Lost Woods project. Please see the video below and their website for more information. More about Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save our Wild Places can be found here.