The glacial period that lasted some 100,000 years and ended around 10,500 BCE layered much of Europe in ice. When at last the ice retreated, sea levels rose dramatically and the land began to be recolonised by people and densely populated by trees.
Very little is left of that primordial landscape. Of the mixed deciduous and coniferous forest that once covered an area of lowland Europe almost as vast as the Amazon rain forest, only a fragment remains, straddling the Polish-Russian frontier. The Bialowiecza Forest is memorably described by Douglas Botting in Wilderness Europe (Time-Life, 1976), whose first impression reads like a scene out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:
“Approaching the forest was like approaching the ramparts of some medieval walled town. The long line of trees ahead presented a high, sheer, solid front, silent except for the croaking of a dozen ravens wheeling about a group of tall hornbeam trees a little inside the forest. At the end of the track stood an immense gate, nearly three times the height of a man, constructed of vast beams pegged with large wooden rivets. I passed through this portcullis into the strict reservation. The trees shut out the human world like a door closing behind me, and I entered a natural world like none I had ever seen before.”
Tolkien is reputed to have got his inspiration for the fabled forests of Middle Earth from Puzzlewood, an ancient woodland site in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, England. Ancient woodland refers to trees that have existed continuously since 1600 or before in England and Wales and 1750 in Scotland. Before those dates, planting new woodland was unusual, so a wood present in 1600 was likely to have developed naturally. Also known as “old-growth forest”, ancient woodland is characterized by large trees and standing dead trees, multi-layered canopies with gaps that result from the deaths of individual trees, and coarse woody debris on the forest floor. Old-growth forests are often biologically diverse and home to many rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and animals, making them ecologically significant.
The Savernake Forest is another of the oldest woodlands in England. The first mention of “Safernoc” appears in 934 CE in the written records of the Saxon king Athelstan, and after the invasion of 1066 it passed into Norman ownership. The forest today lies about one mile southeast of Marlborough in the county of Wiltshire, occupying approximately 4,500 acres. It has around 2,600 ancient oaks, 2,400 ancient beeches and over a hundred ancient chestnut trees.
Green campaigners have been urging the British government to increase protection for England’s ancient forests, which cover just 2.7% of the country. They are critical of the environment secretary, who is defending a so-called “biodiversity offsetting” scheme under which woodlands could be cut down if developers agree to plant 100 trees for every one they destroy. According to the Woodland Trust, the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity, more than 380 ancient woods are already under threat from projects including the HS2 high-speed rail line and the construction of roads and housing.
“Biodiversity offsetting” sounds like a cheap political ploy, rather than sound environmental planning. It seems obvious to all but the ecologically challenged that ancient woodlands are irreplaceably part of Britain’s heritage and demand cast iron preservation policies. Let’s hope the British government takes note. As Edward Abbey, the American author, essayist and advocate of environmental issues, wrote in Desert Solitaire (1968):
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”