Book Review: A Tale of Trees, The battle to save Britain’s Ancient Woodlands

Book coverDerek Niemann, the author, has spent 25 years working for the RSPB so is well qualified to describe the extraordinary change in attitude to our woodlands since the 1970’s.

This is the first book I have read which tries to explain how and why within a 50 year period almost 50% of our ancient woodlands were either permanently destroyed or converted to conifer plantations. He tells the story through the lives of the foresters, farmers and woodland owners who were responsible which helps us to understand the sociological and economic reasons for such wanton ecological destruction. He also details the even more catastrophic despoliation of large areas of native pine forest in Scotland which took place right up until the 1980’s. None of this happened very long ago, so Derek has interviewed many who were involved on both sides of the argument, and many who have changed their views over time.

Throughout, the book he is non-judgmental of individuals and brings much insight into the reasons for the philosophy and policies which brought about so much loss of habitat. Derek is even handed. He painfully recounts how totally ineffective the young conservation movement was in the face of such political and commercial pressures.
While there are certainly “villains” in the story, Derek deals with them sympathetically and in context. We read in much more detail about the woodland “heroes” who slowly turned the whole policy and practice around. We read of Oliver Rackham, the genius academic who opened our eyes to the importance of ancient woods, and George Peterkin, the genial civil servant, who persuaded the authorities to take notice. He recounts Ken Watkins the founder of the Woodland Trust and many individual farmers and foresters who at that time were swimming against the tide.

The book celebrates the richness and diversity of our old woodlands and is well researched throughout. Derek is not complacent making it clear that management, deer and squirrel control as well as catastrophic tree diseases are huge challenges for the future.

Derek is a joy to read and is engaging throughout. At the same time he has managed to write an important book which reminds us of our destructive powers and our eagerness to act before we fully understand the value or importance of our environment.

I think Derek could possibly have said more about the extreme pressures put on both farmers and foresters during both world wars to boost production at all costs. A time when tenant farmers could be thrown off their farms if they did not increase their yields and the lack of a “strategic timber reserve” threatened the war effort. This culture was a core belief to generations so it was no surprise that so many ancient woods were affected. The book does not mention that many foresters were also motivated to bring jobs and employment to rural areas. Conifer forestry has been successful in diversifying and sustaining the rural economy, and plantations on ancient woodland sites have created skilled jobs in many parts of the UK. Without a plan to better manage our ancient woodlands over time many of these jobs will be lost.

The last area of ancient woodland that I can remember being felled and replanted with confers was in 1984. Two years ago the larch in this wood was removed as it was infected with Phytophthora ramorum. The wood is now regenerating surprisingly well, though it will possibly take centuries for the ground flora to fully recover.