Hot on the heels of Brigit Strawbridge’s new bee book, another Shaftesbury environmentalist is putting years of knowledge into print. Robin Walter’s book ‘Living With Trees’ will tell the story of Britain’s changing approach to forestry over the centuries.
Many Shaftesbury residents know that Robin Walter is passionate about trees, biodiversity and climate change. He’s a key player in both Planet Shaftesbury and the Shaftesbury Tree Group. Robin was a woodland officer for the Woodland Trust until 2010, before he became an independent forester.
His forthcoming publication encourages more tree planting and provides practical ideas and inspirational thought. “The book is very optimistic,” said Robin. “It traces the history of loss, but it says, ‘we have still got this’. There’s a whole load of interesting things people are doing in the woods right now and ideas for things we could do.”
Robin explains that vast areas of woodland and forest have been felled. “After the Ice Age, much of Britain was covered in trees. As civilisation developed, we gradually cleared forests and made way for agriculture. 100 years ago, less than 5% of the British Isles was covered in trees. The Forestry Commission was set up after the First World War, when they realised they needed timber to fuel the war effort. There was then a concerted effort to restore England’s forests,” said Robin.
But trees were not replaced ‘like for like’, Robin explained. “What we’ve gained since then is very different from our native woods that we have lost. A lot of conifer plantations have been created. Although the area covered has gone up, the character of our woods has utterly changed.”
War and the subsequent post-war rebuilding programmes dramatically accelerated our need for wood. “They decided to build a ‘strategic reserve of timbers’ after the First World War. After the Second World War, there was more concerted planting through the 1960s and 1970s and it reached a peak in the 1980s. You’ll see the big spruce plantations all over the uplands in Wales, Northern England and Scotland. There are also conifer plantations in smaller woods in the south. We’ve got Duncliffe and Kingsettle on our doorstep,” said Robin.
Those fast-growing trees provided straight timber, which was used for industrial processes, in sawmills and pulp mills. Robin says that widespread planting came at a price. “A lot of these woods that were planted over had high biodiversity, which was largely obliterated by the shady conifers. The theory now is those woods should be restored back to their native origins. Duncliffe and Kingsettle should get back to semi-natural broadleaf trees, like oak, ash and field maple. The growing of timber on an industrial scale should be done on low grade land,” he said.
Robin’s book explains how thoughts about the best forestry practices have evolved. “The forestry industry has made some mistakes over the years. A lot has been learned in what to plant, where and how. Those bland plantations are now being restructured. Post-war trees are being felled and replanted in a more sympathetic way. The next generation of conifer plantations fit in better with the landscape, pay more regard to biodiversity and safeguard things like water courses, rare habitats and bits of heathland.”
With Robin’s environmental campaigner credentials, you would expect his book to reference to how forestry will adapt because of the climate emergency. “The government decided we should aim for net zero carbon by 2050. Our land use and our carbon sequestrating capacities have to be redoubled. There’s a real role for increasing tree cover. Summers are getting hotter, winds are going to be stronger, downpours are going to be more torrential. We need to protect the land with more trees to prevent the worst of the weather to come. There appears to be government backing for some of that vision which we can realise.”
Robin is keen to stress that this book is far from a gloomy reflection upon what has been lost. He is keen to champion examples of woodland projects worth celebrating. “There are some jewels in the crown, fantastic ancient woods and individual ancient trees which have somehow escaped the chop,” said Robin. “There are wonderful new woods that have been planted and the book very much focuses on individual stories. It might be a craft project in a wood or a woodland restoration project or ‘rewilding’, like bringing back Caledonian pines in Scotland.”
Robin offers some examples of initiatives fairly near North Dorset. “There’s Axewoods Firewood Cooperative in East Devon. They manage neglected woods for the production of firewood for local people. They run a fuel bank for people who can’t afford fuel. There’s a lovely cherry wood project near Bath, too, where a new generation of crafts people are living in the wood and making things out of wood.”
Robin’s publication also zooms in on some special sites near Shaftesbury. “I’ve written about Kingsettle Wood and the considerations one has a forester when managing a wood. They are restoring an ancient woodland that’s been planted over with conifers,” he explained. “Doing it too quickly can cause as many problems as leaving them. Kingsettle has extremely difficult access. It’s got the main road along one side without a good turning for a lorry and it’s surrounded by fields with poor access on the other side. If you wanted to ship out hundreds of tons of timber, it’s a logistical problem. They have done it in Duncliffe. It was plastered over with conifers after the Second World War, but the access there was much better, and The Woodland Trust have finished the urgent work by taking out the shadiest of the conifers.”
Robin says that he has written ‘Living With Trees’ to appeal to both decision-makers and armchair environmentalists. “It is aimed at policymakers, who can see how looking after what we’ve got and then adding more trees could address a range of policy issues. But someone who knows nothing about trees would certainly find it intelligible. It doesn’t require expert knowledge,” he said.
The book also suggests projects that readers might wish to pursue. “There’s a hit list of things you can do yourself and in collaboration with others in your garden, your community, town and on a national scale.”
Robin’s publisher asked people who would welcome a book like this to help support the publication through online crowdfunding. By the end of July, 200 people had helped Little Toller Books’ appeal, with pledges totalling £7,500, £2,500 above the original target.
“The book and the pictures will be nicer,” laughed Robin. In reality, the extra cash will fund printing of an additional 2,000 copies of ‘Living With Trees’. The publisher’s website now suggests a February 2020 book launch date, slightly delayed from the planned publication this September. Robin is hoping to hold a launch event in Shaftesbury when the book is available.