Conservation's old chestnuts

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The Independent Online
Foresters seem both solid and troubled. Their contentment flows from dealing with big areas of land, big plants and big machines. Their tensions flow from the largeness of the time-scales in which they work: foresters are caught between the mistakes they inherit and those they must assume they will hand on.

This was strikingly evident when the Herefordshire branch of the Royal Forestry Society (RFS) held a meeting at the National Trust's Croft Castle estate, north of Leominster. Two foresters in conversation will always manage to produce diametrically opposed views on problem, prognosis and cure. More remarkably, so will any larger number of foresters. To aggregate into anything so large as splinter groups would have seemed too compromising for these charming but chippy iconoclasts.

We stood under a threatening sky in Croft Castle's celebrated avenue of ancient chestnuts. These are great gnarled things around 350 years old. If they could speak, and they look as though they might at any moment, they would ramble on about the illicit dalliances they have sheltered. But then, one rather suspects, they would settle into a discussion about their medical histories.

These trees are well within their rights to be dying, as several are. They are assailed by ink disease. Laurie Clark, the National Trust's countryside officer for the Severn Region, told us that he had sought advice from all over, and remarked with some wryness that one chap had said that the trees' problem was that they had been planted in wholly inappropriate soil.

The really interesting stuff was philosophical, or at any rate aesthetic. One forester said briskly that the trees should all be knocked down and chopped up for firewood, because that was the destiny of a very old tree. This argument implied, plausibly, that to be hung up about a few old hulks was a museum-ish approach suggesting an unproductive namby-pambyism in the present generation.

Some argued that the trees should be allowed to stand exactly where they are, dead or alive, because as timber and sculpture they have their own value. Mr Clark thanked everybody for his or her opinion and did not point out that in its disunity, the society had been as useful as a kitchen cabinet of economists, except in mandating him to stick to his original plan, which is to do as little as possible.

There are several reasons why the Trust would be well advised to sit on its hands. The Chop 'Em Up brigade is surely right to detect that modern people, especially members of the National Trust, don't like decay but fear it much less than action. They can't bear to see trees cut down, and would probably least excoriate whichever course of action most satisfied their passion for the status quo.

Some foresters thought the Chop 'Em Up school was a bit right-wing because it wanted to make money out of the old trees and put commerce, not conservation, first. Actually the Chop 'Em Uppers hold the rather romantic view that man and nature are one, and that it is proper for man to profit from nature. But the Direct Debit Squirearchy, which pays for the National Trust, is far more likely to be generous towards a very conservationist trust, so for the trust's foresters the bottom line should not be timber.

Another good reason for leaving the trees standing, or where they are when they fall down, is that there are apparently some bugs which like the dead wood of which British parkland is a rare bastion, as it is of living old trees.

It's a pity these two arguments are right because they rob us of the fun of promoting the idea that Croft Castle's dying chestnuts should be bagged up as chic firewood. And we lose the joy of infuriating the right-ons.

Such modern failure of nerve was evident in another knotty problem the RFS meeting pondered. We stood in a steep little valley which had been landscaped in the manner of Payne Knight (a local landscaping squire and aesthete). It has become overgrown to the point where it now contains some really nice ash timber trees. We all fell out on whether the trust had a greater obligation to the picturesque or to the present drift to 'ecologically sound' climax vegetation, or to a bit of both plus timber production. Again, the least-action option is appealing to the trust: members are likely to favour the continuation of the unmanaged scene they think is ancient, but is actually the result of 30 years' neglect.

'That's a fine old character, isn't it?,' one grandee suggested of an old oak we were passing. Yes, of course. Old trees seem so individual, and they invite anthropomorphism. Yet the free-standing tree is a freak. The natural location of a tree is a forest, and the natural state of a forest is flux. Only deliberate human action - straight intervention - allows the curiosity of the specimen tree we so love.

Having managed such trees into existence, we can treat them as we like. It will do something for our self- confidence to remind ourselves that they are in a real sense our creations, our triumph. They are signs of the success of man's interfering, restless, improving spirit. It's rather pathetic that we are now so petrified of the sort of action that created what we so admire.

The Royal Forestry Society, Herefordshire branch, is holding an open day from 2.15pm on Sunday 3 July, at the Foxley Estate, Mansell Lacy, near Hereford (0981 22224). Arrive on time to join a walk led by the owner, a past president of the society.