One year on…

Warm September sunshine, weather for basking. Dappled shade beneath the protecting trees, conversation, time to think. Talk of nature, community, landscape, culture, story, and wood. And then firelight and stories and music, and light reflected upwards into the branches.

Only a year ago? If you’re like me, it feels like longer. But not so long that I don’t look back with warm and fresh memories of a truly special couple of days. And find myself quoting examples from the conference, and recollecting things I learned and came to understand better, because of it.

What about you? How does it look from this distance? Has the warmth of that weekend left a mark in your life? Effected a change, however subtle or simple?

If you have a recollection, reflection, or reconsideration to share, please do…

With warm wishes

Mighty Sir Hugh

During the Woodland Edge event we set a challenge on this blogsite to guess the girth of one of the sentinel oak trees that framed the conference venue. These veteran trees added to nature’s own vibes we felt at the gathering within the woodland setting, against which the conference was perched. The particular tree we measured was named Sir Hugh. 43.75% of you thought Sir Hugh was 20 feet and 2 inches wide. We can now announce that he totals an impressive 18 feet 8 inches (that’s 5.69m in new currency), so well done if you were one of the people who guessed that amongst the choices that we offered in the vote.

According to Gavin Saunders, a survey was carried out in 2006 of the Medusa-like veteran trees in the Neroche area. It found that 75% of veteran trees of all species were below 4.5m girth/circumference (14 feet 9 inches), 5% were more than 6m, and the largest of all (about a mile from the conference site) was 10.2mm, which is mega-sized even for veteran oaks. For context, the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is 10.4m (see photo below). Since the Victorian era the massive limbs of the Major Oak have been supported by an elaborate system of scaffolding.

We’ve previously mentioned the special forces of these trees, and Gordon the Dowser (see top pic) even marked the extent of their energy field in the forest. There is no doubt that many participants felt the presence of these forest guardians in various ways. Most specifically, Gordon sensed that the trees wanted their tangled understorey to be cleared. Some of the volunteers set about this task for the three particular trees who had communicated this plea, and Gordon felt their wishes had been honoured. The subject of veteran trees leads us to a world where ecology, history, folklore and much more fuse together. As a starter for further reading why not try the Forestry Commission guide on the subject…  and this manual which you can use to estimate their age.

We also had a quick look on the web beyond the UK to gain an international comparison. The widest tree in the world is the Sunland Baobab in South Africa and is located on Sunland Farm near Modjadjiskloof, Limpopo Province. This Baobab is quite renowned because in its hollowed trunk some locals have established a bar and a wine cellar which can apparently hold up to 60 people! The Baobab tree has been carbon dated and is estimated to be around 6000 years old, which would make it one of the oldest trees in the world. The circumference of the Sundland Baobab trunk is a massive 33.4 metres.

COMING SOON on this blog we’ll have feedback from the Woodland Edge workshops

– James

Awakening the forest

In 2009 I helped to run a workshop about reintroducing various species to Britain.  It involved the participants suggesting their vision about returning wildlife to these shores over the coming decades. Here are just three examples of what came up in people’s comments…

“Cranes displaying near beaver ponds beside forests with lynx roaming free.”

“Beavers, wild boar, and moose established. Realistic proposals for lynx and serious discussion about wolf.”

“Land managers are informed about all possible reintroductions and are willing and happy to work in partnership to achieve this.”

The last quote above, emphasised that local landowners and communities are central to all this. It turned out to be a dominant theme of that event. In all the discussion it was quickly realised that people themselves should be persuaded of the merits of a possible returning animal or bird, to help influence how it happens, especially if it will be in their locality or have a link to their specific interests, be it farming, forestry, water management, game or conservation of other wildlife.

So, just to do a hard sell about how majestic a lynx or a beaver might be, in some people’s eyes, may make some people suspicious or turn others off. It is important to provide information on what the species is and how it influences the environment around it, for people to consider all the issues and discuss the implications amongst their peers. It was this sort of discussion which also arose at the workshop which followed the woodland edge conference. A group of people got together to consider the latest state of play on the possible return of beavers and lynx, and to consider how wild herbivores, like the Neroche longhorns, contribute to the feel of rewildling the land, and to the process of conservation grazing. You can listen to the workshop talks and much of the discussion by clicking the play figure on the centre of the images below.

The speakers we heard from on beavers have notable experience. Derek Gow has advised several landowners and charities about the captive beaver projects on their land, and has arranged the quarantine and delivery of the actual animals for them. He has provided consultancy advice on other issues of beaver ecology, including on how further trials for conservation management involving beavers could occur. Lisa Schneidau, Director of Conservation at Somerset Wildlife Trust, was formerly with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, where she was involved in the policy discussions linked to the beaver trial at Knapdale in Argyll.

Following a quick tea break we were joined by ecology consultant Peter Taylor and James Thomson, MSc graduate from Edinburgh University to discuss the scope for reintroducing lynx back into the UK. Among discussions about the return of the Eurasian lynx to Scotland, pursued in depth by current Cairngorms Wildcat Project Manager David Hetherington, we were also joined by a different character… The Iberian lynx. Peter commented that the endangered feline could be quite at home in Dartmoor with it’s large supply of rabbits. After a good old fashioned debate on all that, it was then the turn of Derek Gow to give the definitive low-down on Longhorn cattle. To listen to Derek’s presentation and to see some pictures of the ‘Neroche longhorns’ just click here.


The debate over how, where and when former species like beaver and lynx could be back in Britain includes three slippery questions:

  • How can we consider these factors amongst other priorities in wildlife conservation, when resources are so stretched?
  • To what degree could these former species of wildlife provide natural processes that we may desire in our woods, wetlands and other habitats? Might they help provide a healthier ecosystem for free?
  • Are we not only rewilding the land with these creatures, but also rewilding ourselves? Is this about us, and reclaiming lost elemental experiences, as well as     restoring missing species to their former realm?

For more discussion on reintroductions and rewilding, a compilation of articles from ECOS, with example projects and policy debates, has just been prepared by Peter Taylor.

– Rick

Without whom….

One of the most refreshing things about The Woodland Edge, aside from the fresh air, fresh ideas, and refreshing showers after a night in a tent, was the mixing – on equal terms – between people employed in the environmental sector, local members of the community, and volunteers. 

I’d like to thank all the volunteers who took part:  Hannah Aitken, Lisa Chell, David Clegg, Richard Cooke, Allan Covey, Sarah Covey, Claire Criddle, John Dryden, Patricia Dryden, Tim Duffen, Michael Fairfax, Geraldine Field, Gordon Field, Jamie Goodwin, John Greenshields, Alex Harding, Charles Hill, Sue Howard, Tricia Hutchinson, Ben Livick, Bob Lloyd, Tim Loosemore, Peter Maben, Nick Milton, Grahame Moses, Jocelyn Murgatroyd, Simon Newcombe, Dee Nightingale, Andrew Quinlan, Sarah Quinlan, Laura Quinlan, Mike Ridge, Stuart Rigg, Margaret Robinson, Anna Spiess, Tony Spiess, Martin Taylor and Rosemary Viant.

On a simple practical level, the event couldn’t have happened without volunteer support.  Volunteers cut the scrub to prepare the site, gathered the firewood, laid the ground reinforcement for the vehicles to get in, helped erect the tents, manned the car park, watched the fire, sat on reception, patrolled the site, and then helped take it all down again at the end.  And throughout they were ably coordinated by Neroche’s volunteer coordinator, Jilly Ould.

Jilly Ould, Volunteer Coordinator

But volunteering was much more pervasive in the whole event than that.  Volunteers and members of Neroche’s local stakeholder group, and the volunteer-run Blackdown Hills Trust, took part in all the group discussions, offering a prominent voice for the experiences and perspectives of people who give their time for free to projects like Neroche.  As a result, workshop discussions about community involvement and governance weren’t academic – they were grounded and genuine.

In fact, much of the specialness of The Woodland Edge as an experience was down to that very real, generous and human sense of people coming together to create a welcome in the woods.  We all have much to learn from that, wherever we happen to be in the woodland universe.

Volunteers Dr Rosie Viant, Bob Lloyd and Dianne Hood, with Neroche Administrator Caroline Newcombe (second right)

– Gavin

Smoke Signals

Ok, it all seems very meaningful – coloured lights in the forest, stories around the campfire, talk of energy from the trees, and people finding their inner self. But this is dreamy stuff isn’t it? Where’s the hard-nosed reality? Tony from Somerset comments that he wanted to hear about the incentives for managing woods and the viability issues, and the conference didn’t even touch on crucial matters like tree disease, and the range of renewable energy being considered in forests – some big and controversial like wind turbines, others local, low key and sensitive. But maybe the event and its agenda could never have been complete, unless it took all week, as pleasant (but unaffordable) as that would have been. Instead we tried to create the circumstances for deep discussion. Participants responded, they immersed themselves in the process of the event, they opened up to each other and the natural world around. The woodland edge participants themselves made the gathering a holistic one.

People talked of the baggage in the language we use for the environment, we spoke of how gender influences our view of the land and our organisations, and what it might be like if men took a year off. People had their own realisations. Ben my friend from Gloucester recognised the direction he wants to take – a career helping children with outdoor learning. Somebody announced they were redirecting their PhD, and Gavin suggested we face the big changes coming, in society and in policy, together with a common strength and language. There was lots of talk of ‘benefit stacking’ whereby one objective meets many others as we harness the range of assets in our woods, and we were invited to consider the last tree on Easter Island, the place famously over-exploited which became devoid of its trees, shade and timber. Why did the people not look ahead and plan a sustainable harvest of their wood, and what did they think as they hacked the last tree? ‘I’m glad it’s all mine’ or ‘Haven’t we been dumb…’?

For those who came to the woodland edge event and for anyone else interested, several of the workshop topics, the talks, and the ideas discussed around the fire are all to be written up and illustrated. They will be drawn together for the final edition of ECOS this year, so we will capture much of the hard-nosed reality of the event, and the dreamy stuff, including the meaning of a canopyference, the splendid new word invented on this blog. We will announce the availability of the woodland edge ECOS in December, and meantime people are being press-ganged to contribute.

Scanning through a blog like this is rather like visiting the woods. It is a complex environment, heading in different directions depending where you look, where the mind wanders, and what each of us sees as we reflect on a tree. Managing the woods, the public ones especially, must be complex. There is both nature’s chaos and its order to manage, all of our amenity and recreational likes to provide, and yes, there is a basic job to be done – extracting wood and keeping the functional forest ticking over. Local, visiting, and professional camps of people (we called them tribes at the woodland edge) all have different preferences and needs as they come to experience the public woods. Given this challenge, and given that we all want our view of the woods to be catered for, who would be the Forestry Commission? How can it ever get it right? It’s a stodgy, corporate, faceless public body, right?  Well, I grumble about the Forestry Commission as much as anyone. I would like it to manage (or not manage) more of its land for nature’s chaos, and be more adventurous, but then again it has taken as many steps as anyone in this direction. 

As I nit-pick the work of the Forestry Commission I notice an organisation which retains creativity, and I see an arm of government which has a can-do attitude, with staff who can improvise and want to work in partnership, responding to diverse and changing needs. The Forestry Commission is that rare thing – an organisation with a soul, and we would do well not to crush it. I don’t think we need whittle it in any reforms. That’s my message to the Government panel on the future of public forests. What’s yours…?

– Rick

Neroche welcomes new faces

Following on from the main event, young families from the surrounding area came together at Neroche forest to soak up the weekend sun and enjoy the many activities on offer.

Forest School leader Arainn delivered a highly creative workshop for the children which went down a storm. Whilst the original idea was to build sailing boats out of recycled wool and small branches, the kids had other ideas and dream catchers were made instead.

Later on in the day, visitors were taken by David West of the Forestry Commission on a little adventure to see the Neroche Scheme’s own herd of Longhorn cattle. A sense of adrenalin seemed to pass through the group as the cattle became less timid toward our presence and started munching through the dense bramble around us.

Throughout the day volunteers were on hand to offer people a chance to brush up on some traditional woodworking. Thanks to Tim’s enthusiasm to share his skills, the lathes hardly stopped spinning and by the early evening the site was scattered with chair legs.

Saturday’s visitors to Neroche will hopefully have gained a real taste for the spirit of the event, though evidently it wasn’t just humans that took an interest in proceedings.

– James

Alchemy in the forest?

What an exhausting and incredible five days. I would like to say thank you to Rick Minter who invited me along, to everybody who dreamed up the event and to the catering staff whose famous raspberry crumble was enjoyed nightly by those lucky enough to be in attendance. And what can I say about the weather? Who would’ve thought it was possible to get five straight days of brilliant sunshine one after another in late September. I find the capacity of our island weather system to completely reinvent itself over night strangely enlightening. Moving northwards on a train up to Edinburgh, the passenger beside me reveals the country’s airports are preparing gritters for heavy snow next week.

As we approached the end of the conference it translated that the way we manage our woods was also in a state of flux. Historically we might behave in conferences according to our past experiences, our cultural beliefs and perhaps most significantly of all, the badge indicating the organisation we work for. The Woodland Edge succeeded as a platform to help us express our different views, but I think it simultaneously pushed the boundaries of our comfort zones as well. Ecologist Peter Taylor initiated this process when he spoke with eloquence about the role of the great alchemists in founding the Royal Society during the 1600s. Peter’s criticisms of modern science and government may have caused a stir, but they also ignited a spark.

Fusing together a broad spectrum of organisations responsible for managing the British countryside and it’s forests was an accomplishment of social alchemy that the Neroche team should be proud of. On the periphery of this exciting experiment, I happened to be thrown into the melting pot along with everybody else and I have to say I enjoyed the ride. I’m likely to miss the fireside banter, the warm company and the impressive evening’s entertainment, climaxing on Friday night with an incredible poi spinning show from local volunteers Taesha (aged just 10!), Dee and Stu.

For me, these illuminating words by hunter and philosopher David Peterson help to articulate how our discussions on the edge cause influence both in the forest and beyond.

“When you go into the woods, your presence makes a splash and the ripples of your arrival spread like circles in water. Long after you have stopped moving your presence widens in rings through the woods. But after a while it fades, and the pool of silence is tranquil again, and you are either forgotten or accepted – you are never sure which. Your presence has been absorbed into the pattern of things, you have become part of it…” 

I’m hoping that through this portal, we can amplify some of those ripples and patterns emerging from our interactions with the edge to a wider audience. This blog’s got plenty more juice left in the tank, so stay tuned (or subscribe to get new posts mailed directly to you), as the speakers and participants give their own reflections over the coming weeks.

– James

Whistle while you whittle

Throughout the conference delegates and volunteers have been able to visit the artists in residence, Michael Fairfax and Gordon Field to create artworks to take away or present as an offering to the ceremonial fire at the end of the event. The opportunity to sit and whittle hazel while chatting (whittling) away made this a light hearted networking hub.

Michael would take each whittler into the wood to select a piece of hazel for their artwork. He got them to reveal and heighten the healed wounds of the hazel. Gordon was letting people tie and decorate found objects as potential offerings. As almost everyone wished to whittle, Gordon concentrated on constructing the sculpture for the ceremonial sculpture.

Whittling is very therapeutic, those who are trying it for the first time were keen to learn to carve safely so they can whittle away the hours. As well as creating the fire structure Gordon with the help of Neroche Conservation Volunteers cleared some of the ash and hazel beneath two of the veteran trees who were not happy with all the youngsters below them. The energy fields of these trees were soon moved out into the wood creating certain very intense emotional experiences for a few of their unsuspecting visitors.