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


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


Preparations for the conference are well underway now, and there’s a real buzz developing as the event draws near.  The site is being prepared, with paths being mown amongst the high wood sedge in the magical woodland where much of the conference will take place.

The conference site is on the edge of a 150 hectare expanse of Forestry Commission mixed woodland, some of it ancient, some plantation, and some open space (the latter being grazed at present by the Neroche herd of longhorn cattle).

There is a grove of huge veteran oaks on the site, remnants of a medievaldeer park, and these immense trees are looking down on the proceedings and offering a great atmosphere for the event.  A local tree dowser has visited the oaks and dowsed them to find out if they’re happy with the event taking place – thankfully, it seems, they are!

We have three fire pits taking shape in the woodland, one central one which will be the focus for the evening activities, and two smaller ones which will provide venues for some of the workshop discussions – weather permitting!  The main covered space for the event, which will be brought onto the site very soon, includes a huge three-domed Kata tent, like a triple tipi; a circus big top; and a large yurt.

From the woodland edge, the view south up towards the Blackdown Hills scarp is fantastic, and the whole location is quiet, a long way from roads or settlements, and feels very special. A band of volunteers will be invading that solitude over the next two weeks as the preparations continue, but we will be careful to hold on to the very special atmosphere we have here – because that is what will give this event its most important ingredient.

– Gavin