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Ecoforestry in a Welsh Wood

First of two articles for the Ecoforestry journal of British Columbia June 2002

Iliff Simey


Iliff Simey discusses ecoforestry in the context of his own ancient woodland in Wales . He describes how, until visiting the American Pacific Northwest three years ago, he had never heard of ecoforestry, yet was himself working with natural processes. Imagine his surprise, therefore, on finding that his practices were remarkably similar to those of Merve Wilkinson at “Wildwood” on Vancouver Island , and to the practices Orville Camp in Oregon , and others, had been advocating for some time. These people have provided profound inspiration for Iliff, helping his own ideas to progress by leaps and bounds.

This is Iliff's first attempt to describe what he is doing in terms of ecoforestry, rather than of “management,” a term he now recognizes to be loaded with preconceptions and inappropriate ideas. He suggests that ecoforestry is actually central to the forest and it is conventional silviculture that is peripheral. Ecoforestry, however, seems all things to all people. What is ecoforestry? In the next issue of Ecoforestry , Iliff will relate his experience to this question and suggest how these skills can be handed on. He is interested to hear from others practising ecoforestry in this way, especially in the British Isles where enquiries suggest he may be on his own.

Ancient forests

On a five-month visit to the Pacific Northwest in 1999, I was horrified to find how little undisturbed original old-growth forest was to be seen (footnote ). I gather there is now only just over 2 percent remaining in the U.S. , of which I found only minute fragments, for in many of these the ecosystem has been seriously damaged by the removal of fallen lumber. This figure is almost exactly the same as that for “Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland” (ASNW) in Britain (footnote ), all that remains after thousands of years of agricultural encroachment. This, without exception, has been so intensively managed that it contains but relic features of the original wildwood (Hermach 2001 ). Ancient woodland cannot be re-created, so it is indeed very precious (Kirby 1992 ).

Coed Nant Gain – an American creek

Coed Nant Gain (footnote ) lies in the shelter of the Clwydian hills in North Wales . The annual rainfall averages 36 inches, spread more or less evenly through the year. Glaciers and erosion cut the nant roughly east/ west. My property is 20 acres, including two of hay meadow and my house, and is half a mile long at an elevation of 450 to 550 feet. Boulder clay overlies the limestone, with oak/ bluebell woodland. The riparian stream has alder/ ash woodland. This creates exceptional diversity. It has survived intact because it was too steep for agricultural encroachment.

The woodland has been described as unique in this part of Wales , for there is no shooting, no mineral extraction and it is sympathetically cared for, indicating the dire plight of most woodlands in Britain . Woodland of under 10 acres is typical of our countryside, so that Coed Nant Gain is significant. These fragmented woods are too small for ecosystems to function naturally. Edge effects, rides (roads), clear “coups,” have a disproportionate impact (Hambler and Speight 1995 ). Unthinkably for Canadians, very few British woods actually make a profit! Coed Nant Gain demonstrates all of these problems.

  History of a Welsh woodland

Man has been active in my woodland for 2,000 years or more. Physical and botanical features in the woodland tell us much about its history (Simey 1993 ). When the scrub woodland on the hills was cleared by prehistoric man, it seems that the resulting storm surge caused erosion of the nant, which continues to this day. In medieval times, timber frame farmhouses and the fine church roof indicate that local woods must have been highly productive of oak, timbers, fuel and much else (Rackham 1986 & Linnard 1982 ). Similar farm woodlands are still to be seen in parts of Eastern Europe, productive of materials for carts, tools, edible fungi and much else (Sturt 1963 ).

Coed Nant Gain was probably clearcut about 1801, when fuel for burning lime to improve the newly enclosed common land was at a premium. It may have been at that time that the lichens identifying ecological continuity were lost. By the mid 19 th century, it had become the pheasantry of a country estate and planted with introduced conifers and broad-leaves. At the end of the First World War, it was again devastated when the estate was broken up and the timber trees felled. In common with much of the woodland of Britain , Coed Nant Gain was then neglected. Abandoned, the land became waste probably for the first time since the original wildwood was cut.

In 1926, my grandfather acquired Coed Nant Gain; reminding him of his Scottish glen. Sunlight flooded in and the wildflowers were prodigious. Unfortunately, he did not select the natural regeneration and a tangled mess of broken trees grew up. In my father's time, rabbits in their hundreds were a major problem, wiping out everything. He was advised to plant blocks of conifers, mainly from the American Pacific north-west (footnote ). Nature , however, overwhelmed this and he began an arboretum.

We learn to value the ancient woodland

When I took over in the 1960's, the intrinsic value of ancient woodland was recognised by only a few ecologists. In common with all small woodlands felled during the two world wars, Coed Nant Gain had no economic value. No wonder we have the second lowest tree cover in Europe ! Following both world wars, the politicians demanded greater self-sufficiency in home-grown timber. Alien conifers were planted by the million and many ancient woodlands obliterated. Fortunately, it was beyond my capacity to clear cut and Coed Nant Gain survived.

I was, however, not aware of how man's intervention over the centuries had altered my woodland, that some trees were introduced, or that what I did would be evident for centuries to come. I had yet to learn that the implications of working with nature would be a voyage of discovery for me. For the next 25 years I was more or less on my own, working with two trusted companions.

An ecoforestry concept evolves

I set out to establish a medieval woodland of Sessile Oak ( Quercus petraea ), Ash ( Frxinus excelsior ) and Cherry ( Prunus avium ) with an understorey of Hazel ( Corylus avellana ), Holly ( Ilex aquifolium ), and a rich ground cover (footnote ). Timber was my long-term objective but in the short term, my reward was its beauty. Unknown to me, I was heading towards ecoforestry. I did not, however, know what to do next; the canopy closed over and I lost all the gain I had made.

Not until the Forestry Commission (footnote ) in the late 1980s started to show some concern for the plight of native woodland, did a forester become available who could assist me. Trained in conventional silviculture, he had learnt the importance of maintaining a sanitised forest. The retention of dead wood was an anathema, implying considerable change of attitude. We did not understand the purpose of Honey fungus ( Armillaria mella ), for example, which attacks dying and suppressed trees (Cowan 2002 ). The ancient woodland has many such complex anomalies.

Learning to work with natural processes

Woodlands are most exciting spatial experiences, filled with colour, light, sound and scent ever changing, never repeating. They are great architecture, akin to the gothic cathedrals (footnote ) and a natural introduction to understanding dynamic forests. I began to appreciate the significance of working with, observing and learning from nature. Experimenting, to find out what worked and what did not, really took off. For example, a light bramble cover ( Rubus fruticosus agg. ), provides a micro-climate for regeneration, with protection from grazing and competing grasses. This is nature's tree guard, drastically reducing the need for intervention.

My strategy, however, was still one of “management.” This, I was slowly finding, was loaded with inappropriate preconceptions and it hindered my development. The Forestry Commission emphasis on timber production; clearcut “coups” and restocking, rather than healthy ecosystems, passed me by. I found myself declining restocking grants as detrimental to the restoration of the woodland. Slowly I became aware that such things as genetic origin and retention of deadwood were of greater importance. I considered “continuous cover forestry” but found it to be aligned with conifers, ignoring broadleaves (Gwlad 2001 ). One of Britain 's leading woodland ecologists, writing about ‘ Natural Forestry' , made no reference to ecoforestry in the Pacific north-west (Peterken 1997. ). Ecoforestry practice was unknown here.

Naturalness is not necessarily natural

“Naturalness” in woodlands is politically correct here, yet is greatly misunderstood. Guiding people around my wood, I point out that it has never looked like this before. If medieval man were to return, he would he horrified. Mature pines planted nearby at the turn of the century, give some idea of how it might have appeared. We assume this to be “natural,” for more than a generation has passed since the woods were productive.

The small scale and fragmentation of our woodlands does not favour natural diversity. Nature works on a larger scale and is not confined by artificial boundaries. “Naturalness,” therefore, requires careful thought. Current management jargon “biodiversity,” “habitats” and so on, leads people to perceive that unless we intervene these may disappear. They do not see the forest as dynamic, growing, ever changing, in which “biodiversity,” “habitats,” etc. are but a product of a healthy ecosystem. My aim, therefore, is to create naturalness in miniature, so that 20 acres in effect becomes 200.

Some areas I have identified as “botanically sensitive,” where the flora is of exceptional interest.

Knowing what is “natural” and what has been introduced over the centuries is complex. The Sycamore ( Acer pseudoplatanus ), widespread in Britain , is said to have been introduced no later than about AD 1300. The sessile oak is of two genetic origins. Not until I witnessed how clear cutting in Oregon had wiped out genetic stock suited to the local micro-climate, did I realise that the same was probably true of our oak. So many timber ships were built for the navy of Elizabeth 1 it seems probable that only the runt of the genetic stock remained. Stunted, forked and twisted, they are to be seen to this day.

Acorns producing straight trees were imported from France and Belgium on a huge scale in the 19 th century and have hybridised with the native oak. Yellow Archangel ( Lamiastrum galeobdolon ), a relatively scarce “ancient woodland indicator,” has been all but wiped out in my wood by hybrid cuttings thrown over the fence by a neighbour. I now no longer accept anything from outside.

Recognizable ecoforestry emerges

After the first world war felling, nature introduced pioneer species such as Birch ( Betula pendula ) and cherry. As the canopy closed, shrub and ground cover plants were shaded out and the woodland became completely open underneath. Standing by the stream, I could see right up to the boundary. A chilling breeze blew through the wood.

With my new-found confidence, the first phase of intervention involved felling the tangled hung-up trees which cantilevered out over the nant, suppressing those below like a line of dominoes. Trees more or less upright, straight and clean, that might make timber were retained, as were amenity trees, with forks, cavities, dead wood and Ivy clad ( Hedera helix ) (footnote ). This gave the wood great vibrancy. Gaps in the canopy dramatically increased the number of birds; light reaching the ground produced an abundance of wildflowers. I now see this as accelerating natural selection, a process that would take nature hundreds of years unaided. It is the act of cutting, used to mimic nature, that invigorates the forest.

The second phase, now in progress, develops techniques of natural selection by removing competitors and retaining the best genetic stock. Nature produces timber with tight ring growth, slow in terms of volume increase, but crucial for quality. I have recorded the circumference of selected trees, with the intention of establishing growth charts giving optimum tree spacing. Surprisingly, although this has been well researched for conifers, nothing has been done for broadleaves! The third phase, overlapping with the second, encourages regeneration and restores the health of the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, we lost our large predators; bears, wolves, beavers and so on, 200 to 300 years ago. By encouraging a dense ground cover, shelter has been provided for small mammals. The rabbits, introduced some thousand years ago, have as a consequence, been virtually eliminated by stoats, weasels and foxes. As a result, the regeneration is now flourishing.

This work has been done over several years, partly because of my limited resources and the difficult terrain, but principally to minimise the impact of the “edge effect” on the interior of the wood. I am very conscious of the damage this can do, drying out the soil, reducing humidity and letting in too much light and breeze (Hambler & Speight 1995 ) (Kendrick 2001 ).

I am astonished by the vibrancy with which nature bounces back and is re-establishing its dominance. It's as if the birds singing their dawn chorus, are doing this specially for me, making the woodland very precious indeed !

The benefits of recording

I have mapped the nant as a tool in restoring the woodland, not only to sharpen my awareness of the complexity of its diversity but also to record features such as geology, human history, scarce flora, place names, etc. I have also established a database of the fauna and flora: 673 species have been recorded, providing volunteer enthusiasts with opportunities to be involved. The database can be sorted to whatever is required: mosses, trees, bryophyte, birds, butterflies, “ancient woodland indicators,” introduced species, etc. This enables me to relate it to the maps, establish a culling/ elimination policy, identify what is missing (which can be very revealing of past events, eg, the lichens) and more. The educational potential is obvious, but not yet developed. In centuries to come, my records should be invaluable in assessing environmental changes.

Other influences

Outside pressures, affecting how I work in the woodland, are diverse and considerable. One of the most serious is the effect of intensive agricultural practices. Farmers have universally lost all sense of their traditional woodland culture, once an integral part of the rural economy. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has pushed them to graze their woods virtually out of existence. That I should value my wood comes as some surprise to them.

Nitrates washing into the wood from fertilisers and slurry are having an adverse effect. I first noticed this with the meadows. I then realised that it could account for the decline in woodland orchids. Now I see that there is clear pattern, for where land has had agricultural use, however long ago, the trees do not regenerate readily, the nitrate run-off probably killing the mycorrhizal fungi in the woodland soil. Nitrates in water courses are a political issue, but not yet with woodlands.

These are but illustrations of the pressure on woodlands in this country and why owners feel overwhelmed and woodland continues to decline.

The future

In due course, my small woodland should again be productive, not only in timber but also with an abundance of wildlife spilling over into the surrounding countryside. Future income should derive from quality, not quantity. Good clean butts, for example, of veneer quality timber which I can move with a farm tractor and trailer, are worth serious money. This will not, of course, occur in my lifetime but I believe it is my task to turn my woodland around, so that I hand on something of increasing value. Meanwhile, it costs me less than playing golf and I get endless pleasure.

Had the ecoforestry message been available when I started out, I need not have reinvented the wheel. I would have made significant progress, for one generation is not enough to restore the forest ecosystem.

Woodland culture in Britain has virtually died. Opportunity to make an impact is being lost and worse; many forests world-wide continue to be needlessly destroyed. No one should ever again fell all my trees out of ignorance. My woodland clearly illustrates that ecoforestry addresses the very heart of restoring the forest ecosystem. Indeed, I believe that ecoforestry has the potential to provide a new forest culture for the 21 st century, one that is based on dynamic forest systems and to which people relate.

As I write, notice has been served on me by the Welsh Assembly that my land has been designated part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under European Directive. The bureaucrats are, it seems, unaware of the woodland's long working history, for the order does not view the forest as dynamic and changing, but static and heavy with perceptions of “habitat management.” Timber, or any other income-generating activity, is precluded. The notification, legally binding, with penalties and without carrot, may at a stroke have rendered my land and my work valueless.


I am working to what I perceive as clear ecoforestry principles, yet these are not prescribed anywhere. Ecoforestry, it seems, is all things to all people, only too evident by reading this journal! In my next article, I will show how I am establishing an ecoforester's ethical code specific to my woodland, one which provides continuity for the forest with future owners. Building on this and surrounded by the Oregon forest this summer, I will write how I think ecoforestry can be defined in an international context.

Credits: Photographs – David Curtis, Kilken; Logo – Cathy Hawkes. Thanks to William Topley, skilled chain saw operator and colleague whose participation and practical application made all this possible.

Endnote and references :

I understand there is rather more in British Columbia but this is fast disappearing.

Ancient Semi-natural Woodland (ASNW) is a technical term defining woodland that has existed for at least 400 years. This may not therefore be continuous from the original wildwood. The term forest is distinct from woodland , the first referring to medieval king's hunting land, but now used to describe conifer plantations. The latter describes mainly native broadleaf woodland.

Coed ' is Welsh for woodland, ‘nant ' is comparable to a Scottish ‘ glen ' or American ‘ creek ' for which there is no equivalent in English and ‘ Gain ' reaches back in Welsh mythology, probably referring to Princes Gain who is said to have sheltered here from the marauding Vikings in the 6 th century AD.

Douglas Fir ( Pseudot menziesl ), Hemlock ( Tsuga spp .) and Sitka Spruce ( Picea sitchensis ), the latter planted by the government Forestry Commission by the million

The elm tree ( Ulmus glabra ) was reduced to a shrub species by the Dutch elm disease in the 1960/70s.

The government body responsible for the state forests, grants to private owners, research, etc.

Experience the Californian Redwood grove!

No relation to poison ivy of the Pacific north-west.


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KIRBY. K. – Ancient Woodland : a re-creatable resource?- pp.11-13 Tree News Summer 92

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pp.137-147 British Wildlife Vol 6 no 3 February 1995

SIMEY. I. – Interpreting Woodland History: A study of Coed Nant Gain, pp.129-134 Quarterly Journal of Forestry, Royal Forestry Society, Vol.87 No.2. April 1993

RACKHAM O, - The History of the Countryside , Dent, London 1986

LINNARD W, - Welsh Woods & Forests: history & utilisation, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1982

STURT G. – The Wheelwright's Shop , Cambridge University Press 1963

Cowan A. - Fungi; life support for ecosystems- pp.14-17 Essential ARB issue 4 (undated but 2001/2)

Gwlad , Welsh Assembly Agricultural Office- p.4 issue 3 Feb.02

PETERKEN G. Natural Forestry, - pp.12-15 Tree News - Autumn 97

Hambler C. & Speight M.R. - Seeing the Wood for the Trees , pp.8-11 Tree News autumn 1995

Kendrick B. - Fungus Roots in the Forest, pp.20-23 Ecoforestry Vol 16 no 2 summer 2001

Copyright. People are welcome to use material from this article provided the source is acknowledged. The author would appreciate copies of such use at the email address above.