Saturday 17 October 2015

Ther is a wode called Heyle

In 1251 Hugo de Northwold the Bishop of Ely commissioned a survey of his estates which included the statement [original in medieval Latin] There is one wood which is called Heyle which contains fourscore acres. When Oliver Rackham read those words in the great Coucher Book of Ely in the 1960s he realised that the small patch of woodland which he had campaigned to save as an island of ecological diversity had been in continuous existence for at least 1000 years.  The worthy bishop was not talking about a recent plantation but an already ancient, constantly changing, but also immutable complex of trees.  Trees, yes, but also bushes and coppice stools, and carpets of bluebells Scilla non-scripta, and woodmice Apodemus sylvaticus and beetles and birds. Rackham was born on 17th October 1939, so in 1962 he was still very young. a scholarship boy, recently graduated from Cambridge with a 1st class honours degree in Natural Sciences and working towards his PhD.

I came across him [L posing in Hayley Wood] when I was sharing a house in Dublin with two long-haired botanists 15 years ago and I borrowed a copy of his Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. It was brilliant, I spent the whole of the following weekend ripping through it with a sense of delight.  By applying his eyes, informed by a lifetime's study of maps, manuscripts and placenames; and tangled banks and transects through the landscape; Rackham could conjure up the whole dynamic history of a hedgerow between field and wildwood. He was a notable iconoclast, rubbishing cosy certainties about what trees were and how woodlands should be handled. He realised that, to be a resource for weekend walks they must be managed and indeed had been managed by foresters for many generations. That felling trees for building was part of the process. That you couldn't hurry the process of regeneration on. That forestry was playing the long game. When the Great Storm of 15-16th October 1987 swept millions of English trees to the ground, Rackham was vocal "A fallen tree is not a dead tree" about letting some of the corpses be left to fulfill their natural destiny as a home to beetles and fungi.

James Lovelock was with him on this. When I last met Lovelock, he had just given a presentation in UCD.  In response to a tree-hugging question at the end of the talk, he confessed that, when he bought a small-holding in North Devon, he had planted a biggish section of the property with 'native hardwoods'.  With 20/20 20 year hindsight, he regretted that he'd not just left the small rough fields alone to develop in a natural ecological succession. That way the real native hardwoods, best suited to the local micro-environment, would settle in and grow up.  It only takes one extra lifetime to reach steady state.  If you hurry things impatiently on you risk causing incalculable damage.  Imported (even imported from the next county) tree saplings carry not only themselves but also a whole ecosystem of microbes and fungi . . . in equilibrium there but maybe less so here.

Rackham was also an expert on the evolution of the landscape of Crete [he needed his place in the sun like any other English academic] and neatly said “One should not assert that goats eat everything without having watched goats.”. We are all of us picky eaters and the our food preferences can profoundly affect the landscape. By observing and recording and mapping he could explode a number of myths about the state of the English countryside: the wildwood was not destroyed to build the British navy; woodland was rather destroyed when cheap coal made the management of woodlands uneconomic.  The Hayley Wood Trust was able to preserve a key element of its ecological diversity by the judicious use of wire fences to exclude invasive deer Muntiacus reevsii [Prev on The Blob]. Not one to waste things, Rackham recommended "Eat Bambi" as a partial solution to the ravaging of saplings.

Rackham's last book The Ash Tree was written in response to the threat of ash die-back disease which is caused by a fungus Chalara fraxinea or more properly Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.  It was imported into Ireland in October 2012 from continental Europe because the EU barely recognises biological species let alone ecotypes. If your county council wishes to plant a roadside with a screen of trees they are obliged to put the contract out to tender across the EU.  If a company in Italy can come in cheaper than one from Roscommon, the CC is more or less obliged to accept their delivery of 100,000 whips, and the appended microscopic beetles, fungi and bacteria. Those trees may not grow so well, or at all, 1000km further North.  Oliver Rackham died on Darwinday this year having collapsed over dinner a few days before. He had made a difference.

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