Dec 31 2010
One autumn, while out on a family ramble, we found a dead oak. Its coarse, flayed bark made crisp curls and revealed holes and channels deep inside. Suddenly, countless ladybirds arrived on bronze wings and busied themselves finding a hole in the carcass of the tree. We stared for a long time and counted the spots, marvelling at new varieties and colours. In death, the oak had become a winter haven.
Last week, as reported by John Vidal, the government announced its plans to sell off state-owned forests and woodland. His article pointed out many important environmental reasons why this is a flawed and damaging proposal. However, there is a beguiling and much more compelling argument against the big forest sell-off. If David Cameron does sell all of the state-owned, 635,000-acre Forestry Commission estates, he may be letting go of more than he bargained for.
Many people native to these shores would say that the sea ran in their blood; the British are an island race descended from pirates and fishing folk from Europe and beyond. How many would say they feel the same way about forests?
Our native woodlands and the shy creatures that inhabit them feature heavily in British folklore. Filled with wood nymphs, spirits, goblins and sprites, long before Christian missionaries waded ashore, our forests reigned supreme. We have all heard the old stories of swaths of deciduous woodland completely covering Britain, a brooding misty isle that even worried the mighty ancient Romans. It was a strange unconquered place filled with the promise of mineral riches and mythical creatures, with monsters and witches that were said to lurk in the tangled woods and glades.
Few strangers dared to wander alone into the druid-filled forest depths for fear of human sacrifice and the spirits that could turn the bravest man insane. The fairies who lived there were not the benevolent characters we hear about today: they turned milk sour and made whole herds of cows go berserk overnight. Much feared by the native Britons, they would place saucers of milk outside their front doors for the “little folk” to keep them happy. Likewise, the “green man” is named after a pagan deity that apparently dwells in the forests of Britain. His face was found carved into tree trunks all over Celtic lands and his hold over the early Britons was so powerful that early Christians relented and adopted the green man’s image as a force for good and a symbol of new life and renewal.
Back then, forests provided the game and berries for food and wood for shelter; they were rich with fungi and a wide variety of fruit and nut trees. The animals were hunted and trapped for their meat and fur and the trees provided the firewood that littered the forest floor. The forest nurtured us, sustained and protected us.
To sell our native state-owned woodland is beyond the pale for the spirits and the people of Britain, but also for the wildlife that populate them. The roe deer, badgers, foxes and weasels; the songbirds and birds of prey, from the endangered fish-eating ospreys to the owls; and bats. A huge variety of insects rely on the delicate balance of life and death in the forests, as do the microscopic beasties: the moulds and bacteria that mulch the leaves and rot the wood.
The ancient Romans chopped down trees. They cleared the land to protect their armies from ambush – but they knew it also hurt the tree-loving Gauls and the Druid-led tribes they wished to subdue. The tribes watched them violate the forests and crush their way of life: each stroke of the axe broke their hearts and weakened their spirits.
To sell our forests is beyond reason; their contents are sacred. Be careful, Mr Cameron. The fairies may come and turn your milk sour.
• Louise Ingram posts on Cif as teaandchocolate
- ALERT! Stop UK Government’s Grand Forest Sell-off, Urge Protection and Restoration for the People’s Old Forests (forests.org)