Ancient woodlands and woodland memories: dreams of re-wilding, from Dartmoor to Caledonia

While on a field trip to Dartmoor last term, on a cold and windy day, we were all very relieved to be able to shelter in Wistman’s Wood. This is one of my favourite spots on the Moor. People talk about the place being enchanted and mysterious, but I think I like it most because it is always so full of life. … there is always the sound of bird song, even in the middle of Winter; the trees are draped with various mosses and lichens, and even a non-botanist can plainly see how numerous and diverse the plant life is.

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Wiseman’s Wood in Winter

Wistman’s Wood is normally referred to as an ‘ancient woodland’ – a glimpse of what much of Dartmoor might have looked like thousands of years ago; a magical piece our ‘natural heritage’, to be treasured and protected.

The biodiversity of the Woods was brought home to me during one visit I made with a colleague from the University of Minnesota, Professor Jim Perry. Jim is an ecologist, and as we sat down on a patch of nearby empty moorland, he implored me to “Listen!”… We sat and listened… Silence! …

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Dartmoor!

OK; we could hear the occasional skylark, but not much else. As an ecologist, Jim spent about 10 seconds rooting around on the ground before announcing that we were sitting in a desert – very few species; hardly anything able to live here. About 20 minutes later, we were sitting within Wistman’s Wood, and once again, Jim implored me to “Listen!”…

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Wiseman’s Wood in the Summer

A myriad of different vibrant bird song, and a humming buzz of insect life. Jim spent 20 minutes rooting around, counting up the pieces of plant, lichens, moss, beetles, insects and other inhabitants, just within a 5 yard circle from where he was sitting. We couldn’t actually stay there for very long though, since the insects started to bite, and we had to move on.

This is a familiar type of narrative, often repeated by those people who are enthusiasts for ‘re-wilding’ – the supporters of policies that seek to overturn many of the present agricultural practices of management in our upland spaces. Rather than (artificially) maintaining open spaces of moorland expanse, people like George Monbiot would curtail upland grazing by sheep and cattle, so as to encourage the progression of a ‘natural’ process of plant and animal succession towards that of a state of ‘ancient woodland’; rich in biodiversity – to be more like Wistman’s Wood, than an open ‘desert’ moorland landscape.

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Cattle grazing on the open moorland, just west of Princetown

I can see the point that the ‘re-wilding brigade’ are making – particularly when I am sitting in Wistman’s Wood! The re-wilding sentiment seems to have caught the public’s imagination, perhaps in connection to the recent popularity of New Nature Writers. So, I was a little surprised when I read an article in the Guardian, entitled “Scottish climbers and gamekeepers unite to oppose woodland plan” (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/15/scottish-governments-forestry-strategy-called-into-question)

As the article noted, Mountaineers and Gamekeepers rarely see eye to eye. The former are usually diligently interested in issues of open access and the ‘freedom to roam’, while the latter are generally keen to restrict access for the sake of deer stalking and grouse shooting activities. Apparently, though, the Government is keen to increase the amount of forest in Scotland as a climate change measure – but of course, more forests might mean a reduction in open moorland; a distinctive character of Scotland’s upland landscapes. In a joint letter, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Mountaineering Scotland say that they are worried about the threat of forestry to Scotland’s “dramatic open views and vistas”.

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Knoydart, Scotland – ‘characteristic’ open expanse of landscape

As a keen walker and occasional Munro-bagger myself, I can see the point. Indeed, looking back through my hill walking photos, I see that I have numerous examples of “dramatic open vistas’, in Scotland and elsewhere, including Dartmoor.

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A student on my Dartmoor field trip, however, put me on to a Blog, which followed this point up (https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2017/02/16). Entitled “A Curious Row about Trees in Scotland”, the article picked out and developed some further points of clarification from Mountaineering Scotland. Despite the tone of the Guardian article, the Mountaineers and the Gamekeepers were mostly keen to get some clarification on a coherent policy from the Government, and were worried about the potential for the treasured wide-open vistas to be destroyed by commercial coniferous plantations.

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I can certainly see this point, being no fan of dense conifers myself. Whatever one might say about open moorland being a ‘desert’, replacing one green desert with another (slightly darker green) doesn’t make sense. But what intrigued me the most, however, was that in their clarification, Mountaineering Scotland called for the growth of native woodland, and conservation of Scotland’s “iconic Caledonian pine forests”. So, from a discussion of iconic open spaces, to one of iconic Caledonian pine forests. But what is a Caledonian pine forest?

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It always strikes me that the phrase ‘Caledonian pine’ is often misunderstood, and greatly misused; as Christopher Smout of the Scottish Forestry Trust has recently noted “It is often assumed … that Caledonian Forest was composed of Caledonian pinewoods, which is not true at all” (http://www.scottishforestrytrust.org.uk/userfiles/file/projects/p13-243%20inaugural%20rsfs%20annual%20lecture/scots%20pine.pdf)

It turns out that there is no such thing as a “Caledonian pine”, most people – seemingly – confusing and conflating what they think is a ‘Caledonian pine’ with a ‘Scots Pine’, which is one of the most widely distributed trees in the world today. Indeed, as Smout goes on to say, much of the diverse mix of trees, flora and fauna that might be found in a ‘Caledonian forest’ has had a very long history of co-evolution with humans: “to assume, as many environmentalists do, that you can get ‘back to nature’ (i.e. to a time before human influence) by seeking to recreate the world before farming is wrong” – and it might even be that blanket bog and the open moorland country might actually be the natural climax vegetation for much of northern and western Highlands of Scotland.

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So, where does this leave us? A debate about ‘re-wilding’ in several forms – certainly a general conclusion that the ‘wild’ part of ‘re-wilding’ is always an imaginative pretense. There is a strong notion that it is never a good idea to apply a blanket policy in our uplands – either to ‘re-wild’ or not. But also, implicit within these debates is an often-glossed over recognition of human-non-human co-evolution and co-existence.

Somehow, I feel that the re-imposition of a vast ‘Caledonian pine forest’ (comprised of scots pines, and running with wolves, lynxes, beavers and bears) would be an injustice to the memory of numerous generations of human inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland; their lives, experiences and activities. Taking just one (almost?) entirely unpopulated Glen in Knoydart as an example, a cursory examination of a map of Glen Carnoch reveals a multitude of Gaelic place names:

Coire na Gaoithe n’Ear: Corrie of the East Wind

Beinn an Aodainn: Mountain of the Face

Allt Achaddh a’Ghlinne: River of the field of the glen

Bealch na h-Eangair: Pass of the mill

Who once lived in this valley, and who named these features? The Glen is ‘empty’ today, but the names suggest that there was once a mill (probably a simple ‘clach’ mill), and that the side valley once contained a ‘field’. If we carry out a policy of ‘re-wilding’, the memory of the field will be erased. In striving for a ‘Highland Wilderness’ that never existed, the exploits and experiences of real people who once lived in these glens, the descendants of whom are now spread around the world, might be lost forever.

On a more prosaic scale, as much as I always enjoy visiting Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, I would hate for the whole of Dratmoor to be covered by such dense forest, ‘ancient’ or otherwise.

Flodden Field Heritage: Nations, Pacifism, and Pacifist Aggressive Behaviour on the Borderlands

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Northumbria a few weeks ago, staying on the English side of the River Tweed, near Coldstream. This is “1513 Country”, through which buildings, villages, and entire landscapes are ‘time-tagged’ according to the date of the Battle of Flodden Field, for which 2013 marked a 500th anniversary.

2014 has seen a good deal of attention directed at the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn – Scotland’s most famous victory – with a £10million refurbished visitor centre being opened by Alex Salmond in April. The 500th anniversary of Scotland’s most famous defeat, in which King James IV and many of his leading nobles lost their lives, has not received such a high profile.

The Battlefield site lies on the English side of the border, and forms the centre piece in the recently established multi-site Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum. Initially developed in France to protect vulnerable rural communities, the ecomuseum concept has become increasingly popular in recent years, providing a means through which to channel a variety of community-led initiatives and encourage multi-agency co-operation in rural areas. The resulting ‘museum’ is a slightly ambiguous mix – of several stories and interpretations being loosely encapsulated under a single ‘time-tagged’ umbrella of “1513” – a strangely static way of dealing with temporality. Under this umbrella, however, there are several narratives:

At nearby Etal Castle, there is a permanent display by English Heritage. Essentially, this is a story of two armies confronting one and other on the battlefield, with individual stories mostly taking a back seat amidst the over-arching ‘battle of nations’. The imaginatively drawn battle scenes ‘helpfully’ depict soldiers bearing either the red cross of England, or the blue saltires of Scotland, so it is easy to tell who is who!

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At the nearby Flodden Peace Centre, however, there is a vigorous attempt to use the Flodden Battlefield story as a prompt for contemporary practices of peace and reconciliation. A colour coded garden leads the visitor through moments of ‘clash’, ‘loss and desolation’, and towards ‘dialogue’, renewal and reflection.

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The red garden: “There is a time for confrontation. Things must be said. This is a rant space”

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The place of reflection: “A quiet seat for prayer and reflection”

The centrepiece of the Flodden Peace Centre Garden is the Peace Plough, by artist, Nick Watton Drew: “barbed wire sprouting vice leaves symbolises the end of wars and the end of all barbaric fences of imprisonment and separation”

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Meanwhile, at the actual Flodden Battlefield site, the Remembering Flodden Project has established ‘The World’s Smallest Visitor Centre’ in an old BT Phone Box:

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In many ways following the example of the Flodden Peace Centre, rather than seeking to glorify victory in a triumphalist manner, the actual battlefield site, trail and Telephone Box-cum-Visitor Centre tries to convey the battle as one of both ‘victory and despair’, encouraging visitors to reflect on the lives of ordinary people who were caught up in the battle, and prompting notions of reconciliation.

In many ways, this is a laudable attempt to ‘do battlefields differently’ – conveying them not as victorious scenes set in aspic to be celebrated through ritual commemoration, but as active and present-centred touchstones through which to think about the nature of conflict. However, I do feel that the pacifist tone can become a little over-wrought, particularly in some of the petty sniping at the Bannockburn juggernaut. To quote the Remembering Flodden Project leaflet: “To mark the 700th anniversary of the famous battle in 2014, Bannockburn now boasts a multi-million pound visitor centre. We were not so fortunate, but the disused phone box was purchased from BT for £1 and now helps to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden”

In some ways, the hard sell to visitors that they should reflect on ‘peace’ rather than ‘war’ comes across as a form of ‘pacifist aggressive behaviour’ – that debate might be closed down through a command towards only peaceful reflection. Perhaps this might be seen as another ‘casualty’ of the time-tagging paradigm: that if everything is channelled through the prism of “1513”, then practices of perceived injustice and dynamic power relations are over-looked.

I really liked the Remembering Flodden material, but there is sometimes a fine line between seeing a message of peace as being a prompt for present-centred reflection, and using a ‘message of peace’ in a slightly triumphalist ‘holier-than-thou’ manner. And anyway: sometimes it is good to scratch at scabs!