The Art of Natural Forest Practice
Celf Ymarfer Coedwig Naturiol
Reviving our woodland culture in the 21st Century
Old-Growth Ancient Woodland in Wales
In the village of Cilcain in the Clwydian Hills of North Wales there is a church with a magnificent medieval roof dating from before the Reformation. It is a revelation to stand there and speculate how many large oak trees did it take to make this and, most poignantly, what did the countryside look like that it could produce so many oaks?
I own a woodland nearby that has evidently existed for hundreds of years. It’s called Coed Nant Gain. Gain, it is said,was a Welsh Princess who sheltered here from the marauding Saxon warriors in the 6th century. Prior to this, before man interfered, the prehistoric wildwood must have consisted of diverse native trees, huge amounts of fallen and decaying wood; numerous plants; some of which perhaps no longer exist, wolf, bear and beaver; it was symphonic with birdsong and had a myriad on insects and fungi. This would have continued for miles in every direction. Now, all but a few fragments survive, such as Coed Nant Gain, indicating how prehistoric wildwood functioned.
Over the millennia man has cleared the woodland for agriculture and imported new tree species for timber. As recently as the First World War there were large trees in Coed Nant Gain of oak, ash, alder. In the last century Coed Nant Gain was abandoned and became waste land, perhaps for the first time in its history. It now has no commercial value, being of very difficult access for modern machinery. It has thus become isolated, a relic of its former self in the windswept countryside that surrounds it. How medieval man would weep if he were to see this!
Coed Nant Gain, as the name suggests, is a steep-sided ravine or glen. It is on limestone, is geologically complex and has thus never been ploughed. As a result it is exceptionally rich and diverse. Its features indicate that it has existed for a very long time, probably since the retreat of the ice age. Its soils are diverse; there is evidence that the river once ran above the tree tops; it has exceptional fauna and flora; there are multi-stemmed oaks whose stumps possibly dates back to the time of the Armada indicating that its genetic stock may possibly originate from the wildwood; and there are diverse bryophytes, ferns and mosses. I have plotted this as a Habitat Jigsaw (described on the website– see footnote) making a highly complex mosaic. What’s special about Coed Nant Gain is that it has survived- intact, typical of what was once common place. No wonder it has been described as unique in this part of Wales!
Standing in the woodland look, what do we see? Trees- of course. Right? Wrong! There’s much more- shrubs, bluebells, bird song, leaf litter, fungi, moss, ferns and much more. There’s decaying wood everywhere (hopefully) with numerous creepy crawlies at work, insects flying, foxes, badgers, even stoats, weasels and so on. There are trees with nesting cavities, windblown and standing. We must stop thinking of this as we do our garden, a collection plants, but rather a complex, diverse community that is dynamic and interactive, a self-sustaining ecosystem. To the inexperienced eye this is grossly untidy, a mess without apparent rime or reason. Yet Darwin, in the last paragraph of The Origin of Species,recognizes why this is (on our website- see footnote).
Decaying wood is an essential component of a healthy woodland without which much of the fauna and flora could not thrive. In America I have seen that unlogged, untouched old-growth forest has far more decaying wood than anything I've ever seen in this country. Unless we take care, our mania for wood burning stoves is but the final act of asset stripping our woodlands and we are thus witnessing their final destruction. Reluctantly I admit to taking some logs to heat my house and for cooking, knowing that in so doing knowing that I am harming the woodland. To compensate I make sure I leave plenty to decay, standing and on the ground. A decaying wood policy will, in due course, be added to our website (see footnote).
It’s a great challenge and responsibility to own a woodland it’s so precious. I have observed that, in our stressful age people gain great spiritual refreshment visiting my woodland. The sound of wind in the trees, the sense of peace and tranquility and sense of adventure is crucial for us all. I feel I do not have a God given right to do as I please or take whatever I want, but must conserve this. As with the air, water and sunshine, I do not ‘own’ it but rather I'm its guardian, obliged to care for it, protect it from the ignorance of our age and restore its health so that I pass on to future generations my woodland in rather better condition than I inherited it.
Paul Goetzee, tree surgeon contributing to the restoration of Coed Nant Gain, describes how working there has turned on its head everything he has learned. He says- Much of what he does centers around creating glades. As with nature, a gale blows over a tree letting light onto the woodland floor. As a result flowers bloom, insects dance, fungi fruit in the humid, damp conditions, tree seeds germinate and grow, nature creates natural nesting cavities. We mimic this by working with nature giving a helping-hand accelerating natural processes of recovery. For nature and Paul, creating prolific amounts of decaying wood is vitally important. He has learned to be un- tidy, very, tearing off branches and leaving the debris where it falls. In this way glades can start small and be enlarged. We don’t make clearings because they are too big, letting in too much light and air which results in a dense bramble cover that fortuitously protects the soil from drying out.
This is Natural Forest Practice whereby we learn to observe the forest and work with nature. Coed Nant Gain has become a demonstration woodland illustrating how the natural ecosystem functions. As a result we are far less intrusive and rather more effective in caring for the forest. We are thus ensuring that it is in good health to pass onto the next generation with pride. You can see this on our website. However, prepare yourself for some surprises, for the more we observe, the more we find we have to learn.
We now consider Coed Nant Gain as much older than that defined by the technical term Ancient Woodland, (at least 400 years). Rather, the collective evidence indicates that it is very much older; leading me to believe that it has must have been continuously wooded since the retreat of the glaciers 12 millennia ago. It is these surviving fragments of woodland that I refer to as Old-Growth Ancient Woodland. Wales is especially well endowed with such woodland yet this treasure is totally ignored and as a consequence its international significance unrecognized. The result I'm sorry to observe is that great damage is being done as the last remnants of the prehistoric wildwood disappear.