by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Throughout history trees have formed an intrinsic and vital part of our cultural landscape. Our woodlands, and woodlands in general, have been managed and worked by woodsmen since antiquity supplying lumber, the most noble of building materials, and firewood for heating homes and cooking food, as well as wood from which to make the majority of products that were being used, from tools and tool handles, to kitchenware, including spoons, plates, and everything else in between.

Growing trees and using their wood is increasingly recognized as one of the most environmentally sustainable land uses. Yet, in recent decades our relationship with our trees and woodlands has waned, with the UK importing an estimated 80% of its timber, whilst only 20% of the country's woods are actively managed.

The Department of Land Economy of the University of Cambridge has been running a long-term study investigating trends in the management of private woodlands on traditional estates in England and Wales. The study commenced in 1963, continued through the 80's and 90's and the findings from the latest survey in 2006, strongly suggested that there has been a deterioration of the financial performance of many estate woodlands to the point where management has been reduced or even suspended.

It is not just the deterioration of the financial performance of the estate woodlands that we must be concerned with but the deterioration of them in general due to the reduction or even suspension of management. And it is not just the private estate woodlands that are thus afflicted. The same goes, maybe even more so, for council owned woods and woodlands. They are all in dire straights.

Wystan Hugh Auden wrote in one of his works “a culture is no better than its woods” and if we look around us today I would say many of our cultures are not worth much, considering the way we treat our “native” woodlands. However, thankfully, a revival of our “woodculture” seems to be on its way and this is to be more than encouraged; it is the way forward, for the new age, the coming age, is the age of wood, or the Wood Age. We have had the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, though, theoretically we are still in that one, even though some insist to call the current age the Technology Age.

Wood, however, is the way forward, once again (we have been there once before, I know) for many of the things that today we use plastic, for instance, and what better than that wood being home-grown, coming from a woodland near you. This would benefit not only the local economy and the local woods – and the woods in this country per se – but also the environment and the Planet.

Wood from local forests and woodlands also cuts down on the so-called “woodmiles” and keeps those to the absolute minimum, and this even more so if the sawmills and other wood-using businesses and craftspeople are local and the products sold on markets as local as possible.

The majority of woods in Britain, whether privately owned or owned by local and county councils are in dire straights and lack of market is but one small reason for this lack of proper management which has caused a multitude of problems. Lack of vision and lack of finance is another big part here as is the fact that there are a multitude of misguided “environmentalists” who believe – and are very vocal about this – that cutting any tree is bad for the environment.

Coppicing, the age-old and time-honored and time-proved method of managing hardwood woodlands, in which trees are cut at a certain age and then allowed to naturally regrow from the root stock, the stool, is not harmful to the environment at all. The opposite rather. It benefits both the woodland and the wildlife. In addition to that bringing our woodlands back into production, primarily by means of coppice management, not only benefits the woods and the wildlife but also the local economy as it will create employment and products. It is a total win-win situation. Realizing it though in the right quarters is an entirely different story.

© 2015

For more on coppicing and why, etc. see “Managing our Woods”, a small book that explains the whys and wherefores of managing our woods in this way and calls for us to return to that way.