Trees. They’re everywhere, aren’t they? At least in my mid-latitude neck of the woods. Pun intended: it’s funny how trees have set their roots deep into everyday speech. One can bark up the wrong tree, be stumped, felled, or uprooted, branch out, or be unable to see the wood for the trees. Maybe we’re all enchanted by distant folk memories of the legendary ‘wildwood’, home of bears and beavers, wolves and witches, and said to have once stretched from Land’s End to John O’Groats. In real-time it’s long gone, of course, if it ever existed to quite that extent. Trees have stayed with us, though – and the creatures that depend on them. In the long centuries since the primeval forests of Europe receded, many of these woodland species have evolved to depend on the way forests have traditionally been managed by man. And although forests cover only around 12% of the UK land surface, globally speaking a pitifully small proportion, that’s still higher than it has been in some years. Plenty of places which could still potentially harbour woodland specialists, then, even in built-up Blighty – so what’s the problem?
Well, unfortunately the post-wildwood, post human invasion equilibrium is vanishing, for a vast array of reasons, and at a much faster rate than its ancient predecessor: leaving woodland creatures facing a similar conundrum to that brought by climate change. That is, species and ecosystems will always adapt to changing conditions, but the simply staggering anthropically enhanced rates of change being flung at them are just too much. Total woodland cover only tells you so much, I’m afraid, and conceals many a sorry tale of habitat loss, neglect, and unchecked plagues of deer. It’s fair to say that many of Britain’s woods are not in great shape.
But I don’t really want to talk about that. Not that it isn’t important; indeed, in my view, protecting woodland ecosystems is likely to be one of the big conservation issues of the next ten years or so. Instead, for now, I’d like to set aside more complex ecological questions – after all, then I’d actually have to research these blogs! – and have a stab at getting to the heart of the matter. The heartwood, if you will: what exactly is a tree? Why are some people fond of them to the point of irrational attachment to an individual tree, whilst others gleefully set to them, chainsaw in hand, in equally unreasoned fashion?
I’m guilty of a rather half-hearted, ambiguous relationship with trees. I appreciate their beauty, alright, and have often admired individual trees myself, from gnarled feature oaks standing alone in a farm field, to laden veteran fruit trees in an October garden, rare Scots pines that have been granted space and time to fulfil their lush, spreading destiny, or a strong, sparkling beech in early spring. But apart from these occasional exceptions I tend to see trees as props, stage sets, basically just perches for birds. If birding were a religion, trees would be our menorahs; their spreading arms each holding up a bright spark of avian life, functional but not an end in themselves. When a candle is alight, very few people are looking at the thing holding it up.
And until I was forced to look properly (because somebody was paying me to!) I had never really got to grips with tree identification. Besides the obvious species, I tended to know only enough about trees to figure out what kind of birds I expected to see whilst walking among them. Since knowing with a little more accuracy what I’m looking at, I’m seeing trees afresh, as if for the first time, and the experience is as revelatory as ever. I needed it, in fact, for I confess that many of my favourite places to be are suspiciously tree-free. Wetlands, lowland heath, moors and mountains, chalk grasslands, the cliffs and small islands of the north and west: not known for their arboreal diversity. Indeed, trees are all but incompatible with some of them. So I’m embracing my inner tree-hugger, for I know he’s in there. Over the next few weeks, in a series I’m imaginatively calling ‘Considering Trees’, I’ll see if he can’t persuade me that these magnificent organisms have an inherent value beyond their appeal to birds.