Four years ago next month my partner and I were fortunate enough to be able to buy a small (3 acre) woodland in Shropshire. It is a beautiful mixed wood which at that time comprised mainly mature oak and birch, with one or two willow. Beneath this canopy layer there was alder, holly, hazel, rowan, hawthorn and blackthorn. Herbaceous plants included honeysuckle, bramble, bracken, ferns, wild raspberry and foxglove, and there was a groundcover of mixed grasses, mosses, bugle, tormentil, primrose and bluebells.
The woodland is designated as a semi natural ancient woodland, and it sits in an area of protected landscape in the South Shropshire Hills. Shortly after we purchased it, and in order to enhance the level of protection still further, the local council put a Tree Protection Order (TPO) on the woodland. The TPO means that we are not permitted to cut back or cut down any tree without first obtaining permission from the council.
All these designations mean that this particular wood is highly protected from the wrong kind of intervention, but this perhaps begs the question as to whether or not these protections are likely to (or even able to) promote or encourage beneficial interventions? Or whether indeed there is even a need for beneficial intervention? After all the wood contains a range trees and plants that are suited to the conditions and have been growing without any intervention for many years.
Before I had any direct experience, and in so far as I thought about it at all I thought that a natural woodland would be self maintaining and have no need for external support. However, with the destruction of so much of our natural environment and the severing of the interconnections between ecosystems, I now consider that all UK landscapes are incomplete, impoverished, and as a result they are very much in need of tender loving care.
Initially I did not think about what care the woodland would need – as this post of January 2018 shows all thoughts were of what we would do in the wood, rather than what we would do with or for it. However over the past four years we have learned that despite the inherent advantages of being both semi natural and ancient, our woodland has been experiencing setbacks and difficulties that work against it being able to function at its best.
As a result when Pat and I have visited and cared for our lovely woodland we have continually had the principles of forest gardening in mind. In a forest garden the aim is to guide the garden towards health, fertility and ultimately abundance by encouraging and supporting it towards having the structure and function of a natural woodland. And although it may sound strange the principles of forest gardening have helped guide us towards a deeper understanding of our wood and how we can best focus our support.
The first principle of forest gardening is:
Forest gardening is based upon the structure, composition and functioning of a natural woodland including the resultant ecosystem and its emergent properties. In a forest garden biodiversity means health; a living soil and increasing biomass mean increasing fertility, and together health and fertility mean abundance.
This then is the over arching aim – to guide the wood towards an even better state of health and fertility.
And the next three principles are:
First stop; don’t do anything until you need to and, in that prolonged pause, let go.
Everything the forest gardener does takes full account of the whole of the forest garden ecosystem – what has happened, what is happening and what they intend for the future.
Watch and wait.
And these are the means – firstly stopping, seeking to see every individual thing in the greater context of the whole, and simultaneously exercising the restraint of patient watching and waiting whilst the necessary understanding and insight is attained.
In future posts about the woodland I will describe and explain how this has worked / is working out in practice and more about the lessons that spring direct from nature when you take the time to watch and wait.