Once there were giants

Gnarled, ancient and soaring skywards with cathedral-like grandeur, beech forests are a quintessential part of Britain's natural heritage. But could their fiery autumnal displays soon become a thing of the past? Peter Marren reports
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Late last autumn, for a few dazzling days in November, England became New England. Even city-dwellers couldn't miss it: a sudden kaleidoscope of colour in our woods and parks, in every imaginable shade of crimson, copper, tangerine and gold.

Late last autumn, for a few dazzling days in November, England became New England. Even city-dwellers couldn't miss it: a sudden kaleidoscope of colour in our woods and parks, in every imaginable shade of crimson, copper, tangerine and gold.

All our traditional greenwood trees were enjoying the benefits of an unusually dry, sunny autumn. Above all, it was the beeches. No variation of autumnal hue seemed beyond them, no subtlety of texture or shade. Their beauty came also from the sight of colour in motion as slanting light flickered through the leaves and illuminated this bough and then that. It was almost as if the beeches were showing off.

If that was their moment of glory, could it have been something else, too? Could the beeches also have been saying farewell?

That's less far-fetched than it sounds. The future of the beech in Britain has never looked less promising. As a southern tree, it should benefit from climate warming; and indeed this year, too, has been a good "mast year", with quantities of ripe nuts following an amazing spring flowering. But a more violent climate - more gales, more floods, more periods of drought - will hit the beech much harder than it hits other trees.

The wind resistance of tall, thin trees, never great, is weaker still for trees with shallow roots, such as beech. That is why the great gale of October 1987 knocked so many of them down. The wind doesn't snap them as much as blow them over. And if the soil is cracked and loose from alternate flooding and drought, so much the worse. The great trees keel over, pulling out huge circles of earth in the clasp of their roots.

Add the fact that we now have far too many deer and grey squirrels nibbling away at our beech trees, and there are more genuinely sick beeches in evidence than I have ever seen before. Stressed-out beeches suffer from a variety of ailments, including beech bark disease, a fungal infection spread by a scale insect. And, experiments have shown, beech is more vulnerable than native oak to the dreaded sudden oak death disease, which has recently spread into parks and woods from garden centres.

For lovers of the British landscape, this is serious. Our native trees are among the most glorious on the planet, and none - not even the park oak, with its crenellated leaves and acorn pipes, its corky, fissured bark and its immense boughs - seems so reassuringly home-grown as the beech.

There was one memorable old beech wood in the Chilterns, near Henley, where the elegant smooth-barked trees soared heavenwards like the nave of a Gothic cathedral. You stood far below on the cool, bare, dim forest floor, squinting up at the light flickering on the glossy foliage. It was hard not to feel that you were in the presence of something eternal.

The great storm of 1987 did for the wood - afterwards, it looked like a giant woodstack studded with chalky craters. But other such woods remained, as well as a host of quite different beech woods, which remind us that, historically, the beech hasn't always been a tall tree. The real beech is a shape-shifter, a quantity of woody plasticine that moulds itself according to circumstance.

Nearly all the oldest beeches are pollards: that is, trees that had their crowns cut off at about 10ft every 20 years or so to provide billets of small-bore timber for bakeries and glass-making factories. Skilful pollarding actually prolongs a tree's life: the operation is a kind of rejuvenation. All things being equal, a pollard beech will always live longer than a "natural" beech.

It also, arguably, looks better. An old pollard ceases to be merely a tree and becomes architecture. Could there be a greater contrast between the "chair-leg" beeches of the high Chilterns and the weird "tree-men" of Burnham Beeches, a few miles down the road? Here, there are trees on stilts, as though walking through the glades; trees that look like fantastical Henry Moore sculptures; and trees with groping, limb-like arms that would be quite at home on JRR Tolkien's ents.

Burnham Beeches - and specifically the Cage Pollard, which appeared in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - is one of several beeches that feature in Jon Stokes and Donald Rodger's book, The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern Ireland. Published to highlight the Green Monuments campaign run by the Tree Council, the book identifies and celebrates British trees whose age, beauty, fame and historical associations make them part of our heritage.

Others featured include the Layering Beech at Kilravock (pronounced "Kilrawk") Castle near Inverness; the Pollok Park Beech in Glasgow; the Wesley Beeches (twined together as saplings by John Wesley in 1787 to represent the unity of Methodism and Anglicanism) at Lambeg, near Lisburn in Northern Ireland; and the Meikleour Beech Hedge - 530 metres long and the world's tallest hedge - along the A93 near Blairgowrie in Perthshire.

But there is much more to our beech heritage. There are collections of ancient beeches in most southern counties: some are well known, such as Frithsden Beeches near Berkhamsted, or Felbrigg Beeches in Norfolk; others less so, like the corkscrew mountain beeches at the Blorenge hill near Abergavenny, or the pollards of Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, where the boughs have fused together.

In the Chilterns, you can even find rare examples of beech coppice, which looks like gnarled bonsai stumps bearing shaggy sprays of boughs like giant shaving brushes. They look unearthly, but that is exactly the sort of beech a medieval peasant would have been familiar with. Tall beeches weren't in demand in the days before power lathes and factory saws. Julius Caesar, you may remember, remarked that he saw no beeches in Britain. Maybe he was looking for big trees. He should have checked the bushes.

But much of this heritage is in peril, and there is little we can do about it. True, public money is being used to plant community forests and farm woods - one government policy with which nearly everybody agrees. But the trouble with planted trees is they are all pretty much the same, whether they are in Glasgow or Gateshead or Guildford, and we are in danger of creating a landscape full of homogenised pseudo-woods.

I would rather see 10 interesting trees than a thousand dull ones, or one ancient beech than any number of skinny saplings. I prefer trees to be individuals. Give me a tree with "imperfections" any time. Such trees have not only character but surprise and meaning, with history in their contorted limbs and mossy roots. And wildlife prefers them: many of the insects associated with beech are confined to old beeches with their much greater variety of insect habitats, such as rot-holes and sap-runs.

The good news, as I see it, is that the bulk of the danger is borne by the tallest, straightest beeches. Don't get me wrong - I love those "cathedrals" of beech - but it is possible to see their demise as a case of nature reasserting itself. Why, after all, do woods end up looking like cathedrals? Because, like the columns that support the church roof, the trees are all more or less identical. Despite their apparently timeless aura, these trees were put there by someone's great-great-grandfather to supply timber for chair legs. Britain's woods are full of trees that have long outlived their original purpose. Many 200-year-old oaks were planted to build wooden ships in the 21st century. Our 50-year poplar plantations were meant to provide the matches for the chain-smoking Nineties.

Woods, more than most places, have an air of permanence. Old trees do decay and die, but they are replaced by younger ones and, we were told, things go on pretty much as they are. Under some immutable law, bare ground is supposed to turn into scrub, and then, rather more slowly, into woodland. But the woodland doesn't turn into anything else unless someone chops it down. It's the "forest climax", and it goes on and on.

Except that it doesn't: not today. Many big trees are dying prematurely, and the replacements are nibbled away by deer or smothered in mildew. Probably the best way to preserve old beeches is to embark on a cautious programme of pollarding - which means not pollarding all of them, nor all the boughs at once. And, as they go on feeding wildlife after death, we should as far as possible leave the fallen trees to rot away. The best way to preserve our ancient forests would be to rediscover a taste for venison. And full legal protection for our historic trees is long overdue.

The crucial thing, though, is to prize quality, not quantity. For too long, we have tended to think of British trees as synonymous with British timber. What damages the timber quality must damage the tree, according to this thinking. So fungi, insects, wind, floods, squirrels, age and anything that prevents a tree from assuming the smoothness of a lime-green lollipop must be bad.

In fact, a tree can retain its magic, and its ecological value, long after it has lost its use as timber. After the devastation of that Chilterns wood, many of the trees would have gone on growing. But they no longer conformed to the forester's idea of what a beech tree should look like, so they tidied it all up and planted some more beeches.

No doubt there's merit in planting trees all over the place in the hope that, like the bomber, some will get through. But what really matters is that we take better care of the trees we already have. It will be a poor look-out if we let old trees be felled on spurious grounds of health and safety, or because they inconvenience developers. These - the heritage trees - are our real trees, rooted in landscape and history. And, unlike the saplings in their tree shelters, they are neither expendable nor replaceable. It is time to stop considering the forest and take a closer look at the tree.

'The Heritage Trees' is published by Constable on 14 October (£16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £14.99 (free p&p) call 01206 255800 and quote "IND". Offer ends 29 October 2004 and applies to UK only