A good book is hard to beat

In an idle moment I reflected that, every 10 years or so, a book comes along that seems to have a disproportionate effect on changing the way people think, what we accept as common knowledge. They cause a shift in our baseline assumptions about conservation.

In the mid-seventies conservation (and more slowly forestry) thinking started to change following the publication of Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (Rackham 1976). Rackham was not the first to use the term ancient woodland – that goes back into the 19th century.  Others notably Colin Tubbs and George Peterken in England and, in Scotland, Steven and Carlisle (1959) for the pinewoods had published on historical approaches to understanding sites. However, Rackham’s book got to the wider audience, paving the way for the term to become adopted in ordinary conversations – by 1985 it was used in an issue of Good Housekeeping!

Rackham got many people looking at old maps, banks and coppice stools.

Another shift occurred around 1990 with the publication of the proceedings from the Burnham Beeches Veteran Tree conference (Read 1991). Again, it built on earlier work such as Harding and Rose’s (1986) review of over-mature timber sites, but the meeting and collection of papers made old trees and wood-pasture suddenly visible to many people. It led a few years later to the Veteran Tree Initiative that catalysed work on identifying and improving the management of such trees and sites. In the uplands open oak and pinewoods, began to be re-interpreted as not necessarily ‘degenerate’ woodland but a form of managed, cultural landscape with as long, if not longer, history than many coppice woods.

Recognising old pollarded alder along the Langwell Water in Caithness and wood-pasture in Borrowdale, Cumbria.

The shift in thinking about wood-pasture during the 1990s chimed with my next landmark publication – Grazing and Forest History (Vera 2000). I remember my first reading of it on a six-hour, late-night train journey from Leeds to Glasgow, not least because I was due to talk on wood-pastures the next day! Vera made us look again at our assumptions about natural woodland and the role of grazing, both in the past and with respect to future conservation. I don’t agree with all his conclusions about past landscapes, but there is no doubt that he has changed our thinking about landscape-scale management for the future.

Vera’s ideas gave impetus to the ‘rewilding’ movement in Britain and specifically the transformation of the Knepp Estate in Sussex by Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree. The latter’s book – Wilding – published in 2018, has been very influential in showing people a positive side to future conservation; it does not have to be all ‘doom and gloom’ and species in decline.

The Knepp Estate, from nondescript farmland to this rich wildlife mosaic

That is one selection. There are other books that I might have included – the Nature Conservation Review (Ratcliffe 1977), George Peterken’s Woodland Conservation and Management (1981), the NVC volumes, (Rodwell 1991), the Veteran Trees Handbook, the Forestry Commission’s Managing ancient and semi-natural woodland (2010) – all of which have taken ideas, developed them and turned them into practical action and guidance.  You will all have your own different choices, but I would be surprised if there are not some of the above amongst them.

So, what might be the next game-changer? I think it will be to do with what woodland conservation will look like under future climate change. It will need to consider

  • what the overall balance of land-use is likely to be and within the woodland component how much might be managed with conservation as a major objective;
  • what communities and assemblages should we be encouraging that will adapt well to these new conditions in ‘conservation’ woods;
  • what sort of communities are going to develop in woods managed for carbon storage and future wood production priorities;
  • how our attitudes to questions of defining native species and native ranges will change;
  • how we balance rewilding philosophy which points towards reduced intervention for conservation with the traditional conservation approach of seeking to promote particular species in particular places.

I have other writing jobs on at present, but once they are out of the way, perhaps I will have a go at this, assuming no-one else has beaten me to it!

Forestry Commission 2010. Managing ancient and native woodland in England. Bristol, Forestry Commission.

Harding, P.T. and Rose, F., 1986. Pasture-woodlands in lowland Britain: a review of their importance for wildlife conservation. Cambridge, Institute of Terrestrial Ecology.

Peterken, G.F. 1981. Woodland conservation and management. London, Chapman and Hall

Rackham, O. 1976. Trees and woodland in the British landscape. London, Dent.

Ratcliffe, D.A. 1977. A Nature Conservation Review. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Read, H.J. 1991. Pollard and veteran tree management. London, Corporation of London.

Read, H.J. 2000. Veteran trees: a guide to good management. Peterborough, English Nature.

Rodwell, J. 1991. British plant communities: I. Woodlands and scrub. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Steven, H.M. and Carlisle, A. 1959. The native pinewoods of Scotland. Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd.

Tree, I. 2018. Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm. London, Pan Macmillan.

Vera, F V M. (2000). Grazing ecology and forest history. Wallingford, CABI.

2 thoughts on “A good book is hard to beat

  1. Cheers Keith, that’s a great list – and I have most of them! Good to see books about veteran trees in there as well as woodland. I might add Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees, and more recently Jonathan Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees, which I think have affected the way people appreciate trees aesthetically. And a friend of ours might want to add the Lorax as well…!


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