Tuesday 25 January 2011


Good Morrow, good folk!  'What news, what news in this our tottering state?'

I was going to post something anodyne about the signs of spring, and the starlings which are doing imitations of swifts, on our chimney.  One even mimics the 'beep-beep' of the reversing garbage truck - quite  a repertoire.  

But there's too much momentous stuff going on in the real world and I need to do a double rant.  And it's a couple of  big ones, too.  But I think we can only stand one per week, don't you?  So here's the first:

Anemone nemorosa growing in ancient woodland near where I live.
(I've made the pictures bigger than the template allows but they look nice big
I must, must, must re-design this blasted blog.  It's horrible like this.)

Newspapers, blogs, Twittings and TV are full of sound and fury about the Coalition’s plan to sell off our publicly owned woodland. I don't know how you feel about that, but it strikes me as pretty pointless because no one stands to gain much. The Exchequer gets a tuppeny-ha'penny payment, barely glint in the bottom of the dark, empty coffer. Purchasers will end up with assets of dubious financial value, unless they are changed, exploited and possibly wrecked.  And above all we, the voters, the punters, the poor sods who have to put up with flaky governance and who have to finance the bank-buggered deficit with our hard-earned, risk losing a substantial and cherished chunk of our natural heritage.

Whichever way you look at it, it's likely to be a lousy deal with all sorts of nasty little trade-offs.

UNLESS – and it's a big UNLESS – there are safeguards of such cast-iron strength, that the woodlands' new owners make a better fist of managing them than the Forestry Commission has.  Indeed, it's an opportunity to change priorities on much of our woodland, and put biodiversity, conservation and accessibility at the top of the priority list.

I have no particular affection for the Forestry Commission.  Bad planting between the wars, and up to the 1980s has compromised diversity in much of our woodland and, when you compare ours with those of France, it becomes clear that we get a raw deal in terms of accessibility.  

The Bluebells, Hyacinthoides nonscripta, in Bourne Woods.  My father, my grandparents and great grandparents all gathered the flowers here each May, cycling over from Spalding on Sundays.  It was acceptable, in past generations, to gather wildflowers, just as it was to go birds nesting, and to collect Lepidoptera.

We're remarkably lucky, in my area.  We have large patches of ancient woodland, some Forestry Commission, some private.  Accessibility should be greater in the private woodlands than it is, but the Forestry land is well pathed - if there is such a verb - and greatly enjoyed by the local community.  Naturalists, cyclists, dog walkers - wish they'd keep their beasts on leads during nesting time - and others enjoy the woods greatly, particularly in spring.

I would think that the wildlife and amenity value of much of our woodland outweighs the commercial value of the timber, so the Forestry Commission could be more sympathetic in the way it harvests its crops.  But they have got a lot better in recent years.  

And what would new owners do?  Developers would love to get their hands on the fringes of Bourne Woods, and I know the council has beady eyes on its eastern edge for building a byepass.  Bye Bye bluebells; hello doggers and cruisers?  White admiral butterflies and nightingales?  Gone, and who cares?  Few knew they were there and anyway, there's room for an ASDA, now, on that wasteland. Hurrah!

If you want to sign a petition, to prevent selling the woods off, here's a link. And here's another.  

Otherwise, I'd just like to say why I love our local woods - and woods in general - so much.

Bluebells and Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea.  You couldn't plant better.

I love the woods because. . .
                                                Nature seems instantly accessible in them.  When you walk into a wood – especially if you do so alone – the change in habitat is arresting, at first, but after a moment of adjustment, becomes welcoming and soothing.  Sounds of the outside world are softened, and a normal spoken voice within the wood might jar, unless you hush up a little and begin to listen.

Wind sighs, in the branches but at ground level, the calm airs are rich with a cocktail of smells that might contain leafmould, fox, primrose flowers, oak tannin, bluebells, sweet violets, oxlips, sweet woodruff Galium odoratum, or honeysuckle.  In damp woods, there’s the balsam whiff of emerging willow leaves; in dry ones, the rankness of herb Robert, Geranium robertianum.  Garlic woods smell like a French kitchen in May and in October, fungal decay makes the air musty.

Primroses, celandines, anemones, bluebells, moss and birdsong.

A woodland picnic, a deux, is a joyous event.  If you sit still, in the same spot for half an hour, the less obvious things begin to appear. Coal tits, marsh tits, willow tits and with luck, a goldcrest or two might entertain you with their acrobatics while they forage for tiny invertebrates. In spring, the cuckoo repeats too much but the falling cadences of willow warblers, and sweetest songs of blackcaps make up for that.  If you're lucky, a nightingale might pipe up, drowning everything else.

A bank of wild garlic in Elsea Wood, Lincolnshire

You can gather free food in some woods. Bear garlic, Allium ursinum has fine flavour but you use the fresh leaves, rather than the bulb.  Our woodland edges are hung with blackberries ever autumn, there are hazel nuts if you can beat the squirrels to them and for the brave - or foolhardy - there are plenty of toadstools, both edible and extremely poisonous.

In wildest days of October or March, you can find sheltered walking, among the trees.  The wind howls and hisses over the top but your hair is hardly ruffled, as you stroll.  The dried, dead grass stems, in winter, look as lovely as the bare trees and lighten up the scenery with pale buff and dun.  And if it snows, you can walk through a photographic negative, with dazzling ground, looking lighter than the leaden winter sky.  

Woods are full of suprises, too.  I discovered small teasel Dipsacus pilosus locally - a rare plant I'd never seen in these parts.  I know too, where deadly nightshade grows, though busybody idiots try to uproot all the plants because they're so poisonous.  Would they plough in the foxgloves, too?

So those are a few reasons why I care so much about our lovely woods.

A foxglove explosion, in pinewoods in North Norfolk.  Digitalis purpurea does this sometimes. 

Next week, we'll do food.
Meanwhile, here's a vision of 2050:-
Nine billion people, a crashing climate, new top dog superpowers replacing the old top dog superpowers and a looming resources crisis.  Food for thought? And probably not for eating.

I'm listening to the prelude to Wagner's music drama Lohengrin.

And I think I've said more than enough!

If you've read this far, you should be sainted and granted three huge wishes.


  1. And, of course, by 2050 we'll also be 30 years into being peat-free in horticulture.
    I've just started to dig a big pit in the garden where I will be hoarding peat-based potting and seed composts to keep me going past 2020.

  2. Looking forward to next week...
    I love our local woods for many reasons, but perhaps mainly because it is the one place my son (aged five) seems entirely content. He is completely in his element, doing the running, climbing, hitting-things-with-sticks thing that little boys do. He always just looks happy, at ease.
    Makes me realise how alien the rest of his life is to him, classrooms, pavements etc...

  3. Don't forget radio - I've just been listening to Radio 4's You and Yours, which I occasionally get cross with and switch off but this time it was about forests: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00xpp1x

    75% of the population don't want the government to sell off the forests

    and they made the very sound point in the programme that the government's promise to safeguard the woodlands as woodlands - i.e. stopping anyone buying them to build on them - isn't worth squat. Once it's out of public hands and in the private sector the government has lost control over what the owners do with it. And we all know what that means.

    Right, I'm off to sign those petitions.

  4. I love our woodlands & don't want them sold off because I don't care how many safeguards you put in, over time they won't be worth the paper they are written on.

    Looking forward to your next subject!
    Mary x

  5. What's happened to your photos? Is it the new format or did someone else take them. They are suddenly bowl-over wonderful.

    When you say about picking wild-flowers. I understand we need to protect them but also think not being able to pick etc. has divorced people from nature and we are lured into looking at a landscape in terms of conservation instead of being part of it.

    Forestry commission - I'm feeling odd conflicts at present. I was brought up at a time when the Forestry Commission's name was mud for filling the hills with rows of dull little pines. That we are thinking there are worse things than the Forestry Commission is a turn around - having said which, now they've grown, I've learnt to love being in straight rowed forests.


  6. Lucy - the photos were shot by me, or by my wife, the so-called Photographer General. We're usually credited as N&R Colborn and don't own up to individual images in case of squabbles. The ones on this post are all images that I've pulled from our picture library, rather than stuff hastily shot just for the blog entry. So they've been through a selective editing procedure, have been processed from raw images and archived. The new format certainly helps, though, despite the horrid layout which I'm going to fix when I've got a minute.

    Anon and CG - thanks. And no, I don't forget radio, thanks for mentioning it.

    Lia - he'll probably be developing a love for nature with every minute he spends in the wood.

    Geoff - I SO agree. I'm about to sow tomatoes in stuff that looks like road sweepings.

  7. It probably IS road sweepings. I'll keep a corner of my stockpile for you.

  8. I grew up in Berkshire - home of vast conifer woodlands which are soulless places. I remember vividly our weekly family walk in these places and feeling frightened at the thought of straying off the track into the black void of the conifers - little undergrowth, light, bird or animal life (plus there was the fear from nearby Broadmoor). However, one small part of the original decidious woodland remained because there were remains of a Roman fort and these were joyeous; beautiful beech trees in particular. In the Autumn I have very fond memories of running down the slopes of the old ramparts into piles of beech leaves.

    Here is Malvern I am not so aware of the Forestry Commission - we dont seem to have any large areas of dense woodland. I know the Forestry Commisssion has sites in the area but am yet to find them, enough said.

  9. At last a good discussion on You and Yours yesterday (aka The Daily Whinge in these parts).

    I believe that if the govt places so many caveats to go with the selloff to allay public concerns, then no commercial venture will touch them with a bargepole as they'll be unviable as a going concern. Then the commercial ventures will exert pressure on the govt to drop those caveats.

    Despite all the lovely projects cited yesterday, I don't believe there's enough public/charity money around to pick up the bill and ensure our nation's forests continue to be managed on behalf of us rather than big business.

    NB @handsoffdean is rather good to follow on Twitter - a group actively campaigning to save The Forest of Dean.

    I seem to be permanently in rant mode at the moment - solar panels as you've already seen; last week it was museums; food and public planting are permanently there; libraries... the list goes on

    I can't see how the so called Big Society (whatever that is) can step in to save everything. It's too much and it'll get spread too thinly.

  10. I am so depressed at the idea that somwhere as magical as The Forest of Dean (which I am lucky enough to live reasonably close to) could be under threat from ridiculous short termism. Great to have you add your rant to the growing chorus of dissent and promote the petitions. The ancient woodland near us is within easy walking distance and is managed by the Wildlife Trust. The bluebells there are stunning, as is the wild garlic. Its part of the ancient forest of Avon, and they coppice an area that has been under man's stewardship for centuries. Walking there always gives me a near instant sense of peace. That similar habitats the lenght and breadth of the country are under threat is obscene. I wish I could believe that they will safeguard their future from developmen should they go through with the sell-off.

  11. I'd like to see the bankers give their bonuses to the Woodland Trust, or some other woodland charity so the land can be bought in our collective interest. As it is I suspect some of them will buy up large tracts of woodland as playgrounds for their Range Rovers. And when they do open them to the public (to gain tax concessions) we will be expected to be grateful that we can once again visit our woods, that they bought with our money. (Audition piece for angry old woman over)

    BTW, I've been using peat-free compost for more than 5 years, firstly in a domestic capacity and now commercially. Some are v. poor and give the rest a bad name. But New Horizon multi-purpose is good and Clover seed compost is great. I actually prefer them now as when I occasionally do use peat it seems to dry out too easily and is hard to rewet.

  12. SomeBeans likes the open vastness of moorland and mountains. I love to be enveloped within a wood. So much life in them.

  13. I love your descriptions of the woods - you've really expressed the magical specialness!

    Whatever the criticisms of the Forestry Commission, I think they've done a great job and are constantly improving.

    Having watched Newsnight last night, I now think even more how bonkers this sell-off is! Bonkers, immoral and against all common-sense and respect.

    And even if there were cast-iron safeguards, there would not be actual encouragement to folk to come in for free: all those families who benefit from the fresh air and exercise, the freedom to enjoy their forests.

    (Now there's an encouraging sign the word verification just now was 'nolost'!!

  14. I grew up in rural Bucks and spent many happy hours cycling around Burnham Beeches learning about what plant was what and generally marvelling in the effect that woodland had on me. Thirty years on and a walk in any woods brings this straight back to me and I have made sure that my kids have had access to woodlands and all they contain. How on earth the government even thinks the woodlands are even theirs to sell without some sort of referendum beats me as surely they belong to the country and are managed by the Forestry Commission,who aren't doing a fabulous job but have greatly improved in the last decade or so. And who would buy woodland? Yes the occassional person who truly would love the wood might come along but we all know its more likely to be those unscrupulous developers who will fight and fight for planning permission until they win it.
    Its just another sign that we are becoming further alienated from the earth that feeds us and it saddens me to see this happening but we need to stop it...roll on the revolution!!!!

  15. Huge thanks to everyone who commented. You've all made a strong case for keeping the status quo and apart from a spokesman from the Country Landowners Association, I've heard virtually no one speak in favour of this government's intentions.

    Government spokesmen themselves are spectacularly unconvincing and I suspect most members of the Coalition wish that no one had come up with this ridiculous idea of dumping publicly owned woodland for a few peanut pounds.

    Another rant coming up this week, I'm afraid - but not about woods.

  16. These are lovely images. It won't be long before everything spring is out. No one can stop that can they??

  17. Wow, I share a similar appreciation for woodlands which I think comes across in my blog though in a much less eloquent way. Well said.