Are we out of the woods?
As a forester this saying has always confused me. It equates being in a forest with trouble. I have heard it used recently for the prospects of people recovering from illness, i.e. they are not out of the woods yet. The irony is, that during the coronavirus lockdown, I yearned to be in the woods.
Sir David Attenborough recently said that humans have overrun the planet. As a forester my instinct, and along with many others, is to reach for more trees. Before I do, and with 30 years’ experience working with trees, I would like to reflect on what humankind’s dominance has meant for woodlands in the UK.
“Resilient landscapes are more likely to withstand environmental change.”
I started my career in Ayrshire, where Robert Burns, the 18th century poet and farmer lived. Here, upon ruining his fellow mortal’s “housie” with his scythe, Burns famously apologised to a mouse – as “man’s dominion, has broken nature’s social union”. This heartfelt apology is worthy of immortalisation, as it denotes humanity’s self-appointed position as governor of the natural world.
“A culture is no better than its woods” is often quoted in forestry circles. It’s the concluding sentiment of W H Auden’s mid-20th-century poem “Woods”. Auden’s reflection on “primal woods” being “reduced to patches owned by hunting squires” stands out in his indictment. Both poems emphasise humanity’s grip over the natural world. The latter lamenting our treatment of forests, and in doing so holding a mirror up to society.
“Woods” touches upon ownership and land-use. Whether land is owned privately or publicly it is the area of land that is altered, how it is used and for how long, that contributes to ecosystem fragility or resilience. Resilient landscapes are more likely to withstand environmental change. Biodiversity is key to resilience. And the UK has become one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
This leads us to a critical concept – stewardship.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) inspired the US Environmental movement. She also inspired social psychologists to devise the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) scale. NEP measures an individual’s pro-ecological world view. By answering fifteen questions, this questionnaire helps explain the differences between people’s attitude towards the natural world. The scale covers the fundamental principles of ecosystem governance and is relevant to legal mechanisms, such as earth jurisprudence, as well as approaches to ecological restoration, e.g., afforestation or rewilding. In short, the NEP scale reflects our attitudes to environmental stewardship.
In England, we learnt something about how society values woodlands in 2010, when the government proposed selling off the public forest estate. The government were promptly forced into a U-turn by the ensuing public outcry. And yet, the Independent Panel on Forestry report in 2012 revealed the poor condition of many woodlands, urging “society to value woodlands for the full range of benefits they bring”. The report concluded with a vision of a woodland culture for the 21st century.
The UK Tree Charter: A woodland culture for the 21st Century
How do we include all people in this woodland culture? As Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai said, “you cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”
In 2017, the UK Tree Charter was published with the ambition “to place trees and woods at the centre of national decision making, and back at the heart of our lives and communities.” Over eighty organisations were involved, and the Tree Charter was launched with fanfare. It covers the breadth of forest stewardship superbly, from habitat restoration to forestry’s role in a low carbon green economy. There is a website where anybody can sign up to the Charter’s ten principles. Surely the Charter promotes both Maathai’s wisdom and is the bedrock of a vibrant woodland culture?
After three years, c. 155,000 people have signed the Charter, approximately 0.002% of the UK’s population. Many of us have opined about a reconnection with nature during CV19 lockdown, at a time when many forestry organisations have turned their attention to tree planting schemes for carbon sequestration. So, I ask myself, have we foresters dropped the ball on the Tree Charter? The Charter’s aim is to be at the centre of national decision making, so surely, for example, it should serve as a powerful influence in the case against the removal of ancient woodland for HS2?