Nature as a product

I have a chunk of oak that is over 400 years old. It’s part of a sole plate (or sill beam) that was the foundation for a wall of a timber frame hall house. This oak would still be there now if had not been for an extension built onto the hall in the 1930’s. The sole plate was laid onto bare earth sometime in the late sixteenth century, and so it’s encasing either side with concrete and brick in the twentieth century led to entrapment of moisture around the beam and the rotting of this substantial piece of oak.

The bottom of the oak studs (upright beams) of the wattle and daub wall had also rotted so that the oak pegs no longer held them to the sole plate. And, as the sole plate rotted and twisted, so did the studs and the wattle and daub panels bow outwards at the base, causing some parts of a panel to fail and reveal the vertical oak staves that fit between the mid rail and the sole plate. Also revealed were the horizontal hazel stick weavings between the staves that are the infill framework of the panel between the studs (1).

Landscape and nature in our past

Here, in this little sketch from an earlier era of building history, is a product list of the uses that we made of the natural world. The oak would have come from local woodland, the scantling sizes of the studs, mid rails and wall plate of this modest hall house cut from trees at a younger age (oak at about 25 years old) than for the larger timbers of the sole plate and of the beams of more extravagant buildings (oak up to 75 years old). The scantlings would have come from trees that were roughly “squared” with an axe or adze, and may have been halved with a hand saw. The large beams would all have been cut by saw, sometimes with a second person working the saw from a pit. Splitting oak for large beams was too imprecise and could waste wood, although cleaving did follow the grain and minimise the incidence of secondary splitting in the later ages of the beam. I doubt that there was much waste anyway: the staves would be split from the shorter lengths of imperfect trees; the pegs made from splittings waste; and the bark used in tanning.

Woodland coverage retrenched across Britain thousands of years before the oak was felled for this house. In spite of this, it is considered by Oliver Rackham, after painstaking analysis of sample areas, that there was sufficient extant woodland to meet demand (2, 3). Moreover, there was every expectation at that time that a felled tree would be replaced without artificial replanting. Shipbuilding for an Elizabethan navy was thus not the cause of our woodland loss, nor would it necessarily have restrained the use of oak in house building. It would be some centuries later before mass plantings of woodland were considered to be needed as part of a national strategy (see Forests with no trees, 6 September 2006).

The hazel for the wattle would have come from local coppices that were probably maintained as coppice with oak standards. A five to eight year cutting cycle of the hazel would have ensured a supply of branches with varying diameter. Where I once thought all hazel sticks for wattles were cleft and sharpened, the presence of un-split smaller diameter sticks in the weave of this panel made good sense. The clay for the daub would also have been local. Forget the exotic mixes with various animal dungs, the likely additives in this daub were local straw and not too much water so that the daub would stick when “thrown” onto the wattles from both sides, and would not crack on drying out. A lime wash or thin layer of lime plaster would then be used to weatherproof the daub.

It’s tempting to speculate that many ponds in clayland villages originated from the need for building material. Rackham is a little sceptical about this since his quantitative estimates suggest that one good-sized pond would have been sufficient to have made a whole village (3). But we don’t need to agonise over this precision since a pond as an expanse of permanent water is an attractant for much wildlife. Wild ducks were bound to visit it and, along with perhaps the domesticated ducks that local people may have introduced, it would have become a source of food for the village.

Not all wildlife would have been so welcomed though as the ducks. Deer, given protected status in the landscape under the ownership of the kings and their royal hunting “forests”, would have revelled in the new growth of the coppice and thus had to be kept at bay by a pale. The latter was originally a fence made of split shingles that surrounded a deer “forest”, but became the term for a deer-proof boundary that included a ditch, bank and a fence (see Forests with no trees, 6 September 2006).

These defences would not have kept out other wildlife that would flourish in the more open, sunnier woodland edge nature of the coppice. Thus many species of butterflies would have found a greater homeland range available to them, as would woodland edge flowers that relish the greater sunlight, and birds such as the woodlark would have prospered too. As Peterken notes, the more mobile woodland species were presented with manifold opportunities by these “replacement habitats” (4). Woodland clearance and management enabled them to expand and combine in new communities with open space species that would have occupied in low numbers the patchy environments within woodland and were also found on the wetland, coastal and montane margins.

It’s difficult to know whether the coppicers of the sixteenth century would have made a link between their management practices and the diversity of wildlife in the more open woodland of a coppice. Primary production from natural resources then had but one aim in meeting human need, and thus good stewardship would have been measured in the productivity for material rather than for any environmental gains. As it was, wild boar as a threat to woodland management had been extinguished by then and, without labouring the point, there must have been ambivalence at best towards most wildlife provided it posed no threat to livelihoods (see They shoot foxes, don't they? 24 January 2007).

Present day landscape and nature

Coming up to the present day, there was no choice but to replace the rotten sole plate so that its key function in supporting the overall rigidity of the timber frame was maintained. The sawmill cut to order from unseasoned oak of British origin. It would be nice to think that it came from one of the two woodland expanses nearby to the sawmill, but that was not the product’s promise. In fact, oak formed little of the timber stock on site. Instead we witnessed a modern day mechanical mastery of four softwood trees at a time being lifted from towering stacks in the yard and deposited into an interlinked process of rolling bars and saw machinery that squared it and sawed it into planking of sizes dialled into a control panel.

In making the mortice holes and peg holes in the new sole plate, and the new tenons on the existing studs, we used powered drills and saws rather than the hand augers and saws of our predecessors, although the wood chisel and mallet would have been the same. Even with the power advantage, we would have shared in the property of unseasoned oak to weep moisture when it is drilled and worked, making it seem alive. The replacement sole plate was then underpinned by a new foundation of concrete and brick courses, divided by a damp proof course strip that will prevent a recurrence of rotting. Our predecessors could have laid the original sole plate on a flint rubble bed rather than bare earth, but they would not have foreseen the stupidity centuries later of the 1930’s extension.

The repair of the wattle and daub panel can make use of the staves in good condition, and the old daub can be wetted and reworked. However some of the hazel wattles were dry, brittle and crumbling, and will need replacement. A trip into local woodland would yield - with little disturbance to the woodland - branches of suitable use since hazel often throws out young growth from the base even when unmanaged (2). And it will have been unmanaged for some time because the demand for coppice products withered into the twentieth century. A few specialist producers exist from which to source quantities of replacement hazel, but the chances are now that you are more likely to be able to get hazel sticks from a wildlife conservation organisation than from woodland workers.

An example of this exists a little distance away from the hall house, in the old farm and its landholdings that the county council maintain as a country park. Amongst the woodland of the park, the county rangers have reinstituted a coppice, surrounding it with a ditch, bank and fence to protect it from browsing by deer. Their purpose in doing this is to replicate a management practice that brought with it an associated wildlife. A leaflet explains it thus:
”Some plants and animals have benefited from the way in which woodland had been managed, albeit a happy coincidence rather than as an intentional effort to encourage it as it is today”.

On the day that we were there, the rangers had a bonfire going for their woodland clearings. It is likely to be the case, where ever conservation professionals set about reinstituting and managing a coppice, that wasteful burning will be the end result because there is no market today in which to sustain this level of woodland clearance and rotational cropping. The repair of timber frame wattle and daub panelling certainly cannot support the re-growth of a coppicing industry. Nor is it ever really discussed whether this rewinding of the landscape clock is an acceptable thing to do since wild nature always reclaims in the meantime what we have lost interest in. Thus reinstituting a coppice will inevitably result in wholesale disturbance of woodland and the killing off of the wild nature that has returned. If deer fencing is reinstituted, then it also reduces the habitat range that this wild animal should enjoy. As Peterken notes, when a coppice is long overstood and permanent open space has already been lost, then resumption of management in semi-natural broadleaved woodland is a poor option. Commenting on a view of an overgrown coppice-with-standards in Sherrards Park Wood, Peterken says "The wood is attractive as it stands, so any felling and planting will introduce a conspicuously artificial aspect" (4)

The aim of nature conservation is surely to perpetuate native species throughout their natural range. There can be no denying that coppicing creates a highly artificial structure, dependent on us for its continued existence, and with a community of species that may only exist in this artificial structure – it is not natural. Compared to a natural woodland, coppice has little or no decaying deadwood or litter as secondary habitat for a range of woodland species including fungi and invertebrates, and it has no forest interior habitat that is essential for immobile woodland species that require minimal disturbance and habitat continuity (many of the ancient woodland plant indicator species) nor for the species that are dependent on trees of sufficient size such as hole-nesting birds.

Intentionally destroying one native habitat and displacing or destroying its species in order to create an artificial habitat with an opportunist species community seems a nonsense to me, especially since we make no use of the products of management. Wild nature itself can never be the product of our landscape management. We thus disregard our own aims for nature conservation in the pursuit of what is our choice of species that we want to favour.

As is the way with contemporary nature conservation, the scale of intervention becomes inexorable. Public money is being poured into re-establishing coppice management across SE England in the latest move to secure butterfly populations in “Britain’s biggest-ever butterfly conservation project” (5). Butterfly Conservation has been given £900,000 to spend on three woodland landscapes that will be used to demonstrate how “correct woodland management can reverse wildlife declines”. Chillingly, a newspaper report of the project launch states “conservation experts believe that this is just the first phase of the programme” (6).

There is an increasing realisation around the world that biodiversity does not equal wild nature when the approach is conservation aimed at individual species in managed landscapes. The latter is very much the approach driven by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), and it gives free reign to sectional interest groups that only see landscapes as a way of supporting their favourite species. As long ago as 1993, Mitch Friedman (Greater Ecosystem Alliance) cautioned us that "an ethic of technocratic optimism has delivered us a biodiversity crisis" (7). He went on to say "The extreme preservation view is fixated with the compositional aspect of biodiversity. It would preserve components - whether species or forest types - with scant recognition of the ecological functions of these components." I would agree, and I would further point out that rewilding and self-shaping of landscapes to reinstitute their ecological function is anathema to these sectional interests since it does not offer any guarantee for their favoured species.

Matt Shardlow, the director of Buglife, a charity involved in invertebrate conservation, is a committed advocate for his favoured species and a recent article of his shows his absolute dedication to the approach of single species action planning in the BAP (8). Thus there are 37 species of moth and 53 species of beetle identified in the BAP, all with their own Species Action Plan, compared to say two sea corals, or about six woodland plants. How this works to the disadvantage of landscapes and wild nature is shown in Shardlow's response to a request for his views on rewilding. He dealt first with the implications of whether his invertebrates would be capable of migrating into and making use of these reinstated natural landscapes. He then showed the reality of the orthodoxy in nature conservation and the barriers facing true rewilding (and perhaps his limited understanding of it) when he wrote:
“Rewilding itself can be overplayed, in the UK there will always be fences, health and safety concerns, and grazing management decisions.”

The sectional interest clearly comes through here:
”Of course we can't allow decision makers to believe that creating large areas of young semi-natural habitat means that we no longer have to look after the needs of endangered species on existing sites. To allow a reduction in such targeted resources would be to condemn many slow dispersing or highly specialised species to extinction.”

He could have been talking about ancient woodland indicator plants, but he wasn’t.

Mark Fisher 14 August 2007

(1) Timber Framed Buildings of England, RJ Brown (1986) Robert Hale

(2) Woodlands, Oliver Rackham (2006) Collins New Naturalist Series

(3) The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham (1997) Phoenix Illustrated

(4) Natural Woodland - Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions, George F. Peterken (1996) Cambridge Uni.

(5) Biggest butterfly project yet to halt decades of decline, Butterfly Conservation News 21 July 2007

(6) Bringing sunshine into the woods should stop decline of butterflies, The Times 21 July 2007

(7) A Land Ethic for Protecting Biodiversity, Mitch Friedman (1993) The Trumpeter (Journal of Ecosophy) Vol 10, No 2

(8) New biodiversity priorities – a route to wildlife recovery, M Shardlow (2007) ECOS 28(2) 28-37