Country Matters: A tree-loving David beats the Goliaths

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The Independent Online
THE PLEASURE of walking through woods - which I am lucky enough to enjoy almost every day - is as nothing beside that of studying a forest in the company of its owner or manager. Just as I experience a sense of wonder when moving among fine trees, so I feel awe in the presence of a skilled forester, for long association with the earth seems to endow a man with elemental strength and wisdom.

So it was the other day when experts gathered on the Ebworth estate, near the western edge of the Cotswolds, to honour John Workman, whose family owned glorious beechwoods there for generations before he gave them to the National Trust in 1989.

To his cottage in the middle of the woods came senior representatives of the major organisations now involved with the running of the estate - the Trust, the Forestry Authority (formerly the Forestry Commission), English Nature - and the main purpose of the occasion was to present Mr Workman with a Centres of Excellence award in recognition of the way in which he has consistently produced first-class timber while at the same time maintaining an environment attractive to plants, wildlife and humans alike.

A vigorous-looking 70-year- old with a shock of silver hair and suitably weatherbeaten complexion, our host welcomed everyone with a speech full of down-to-earth common sense sharpened by a few acerbic swipes at bureaucrats and bigots. His family, he explained, had been in the area for five centuries, and from 1790 owned a timber mill in the village of Woodchester, a few miles away. His great-uncle had bought woods as stocks of standing timber, to ensure long-term supplies.

He (John) and his father had between them managed what is now known as Workman's Wood for 90 years and, although he in effect still directs operations, it was because he is a bachelor and most of his family now live abroad that he gave the wood to the National Trust three years ago.

Mr Workman offered living proof that an individual can stand up against the huge organisations which, more and more, have control of our countryside. He conceded that his methods are not always those of the giants, and he observed that 'it is not easy to manage a place when, to do anything at all, you have to ask permission from three huge b . . .' The word which nearly came out was 'bureaucracies', but at the last instant he commuted it into 'bodies'.

Years ago, he recalled, his family had considered giving the wood either to the Forestry Commission or to English Nature's forerunner, the Nature Conservancy. 'Sometimes I smile in bed,' he said, 'as I wonder what would have happened if either of those ideas had been implemented.

'The ultimate horror would have been a forest of Corsican pine on the one hand or, the alternative, a wilderness totally dead and smothered with old man's beard.'

His father, he said, had been against public access of any sort. 'Every gate was kept permanently locked and men were actually employed to make sure that no member of the public got in.'

Now things are very different, for one of his maxims is that reasonable public access has no effect on flora and fauna. Thus he insisted that, when the National Trust took over, it should continue to sanction the various invasions he had allowed every year: two car rallies, two motorcycle rallies, two orienteering events and two meets of the local hunt. Such things he regards as important 'because they form a point of contact between conservation and ordinary people'.

Fired with his precepts, the company went forth to walk the woods. Beech trees, with trunks as slender and straight as gun- barrels, climbed the steep slopes on every side. His father had wanted beech only, Mr Workman said; he himself, fearing that in the end a monoculture might lead to disease and impoverish the soil, has encouraged ash as well, and oak wherever there is clay.

Some of the beeches were 200 years old and well past the stage at which they should have been harvested but, as our host remarked, they were so beautiful that he could not bear to see them cut down. Besides, all round them a phenomenal amount of natural regeneration was taking place - young trees, self-seeded, growing up to form future generations.

One reason for the excellent state of the wood was the skill with which thinning and felling had been carried out. Light had been let in at the right time, and in the right amount. But a vital element was the suppression of grey squirrels, which have destroyed or maimed millions of broadleaved trees all over Britain.

As an aside, Mr Workman remarked that he was locked in argument with Bristol City Council, which he advises on the management of 750 acres of woods. 'They've got to make a nasty choice,' he said. 'Do they want trees or squirrels?

'The councillors can't bear the idea of killing those furry little pets. But I've told them there's no point in spending money on their woods unless they do. If they decide to have squirrels and no decent trees, I shall simply resign.'

The farther we went, the more evident it became that our host knew and loved every tree of his own. 'Those beech have never recovered from the drought of 1976 . . . Here we used to have larch, but they all snapped off in that storm of 1981, when we had a foot of snow, frost at midnight and a gale at dawn . . . These yews all suddenly grew in the late Fifties, when the rabbits had been wiped out by myxomatosis. The seeds must have been dropped by roosting birds . . .

'Some funny old things in the Forestry Authority still claim there is nothing in genetics for broadleaves. Well, there is, and this wood proves good trees come from good seed.'

The splendid straightness of the trunks set off a discussion about whether these beeches could have stemmed from seed brought back by English officers returning from Waterloo, as local rumour claims. Mr Workman is convinced that such a connection is not only possible but probable. 'I've stood at Waterloo,' he said, 'and I can see the same variations of bark and branching.'

His emphasis throughout was on the fact that production of high-class timber does not war with nature. The wood is a national nature reserve and, as he pointed out: 'The same insects live on good trees as on bad, so you might as well have good trees and make money.'

We all went away buoyed up by the feeling that here was an operation being run superlatively well. Not only does Workman's Wood look magnificent, its output of high- grade timber is helping to cut down the nation's vast bill for imports, at the same time reducing - no matter how marginally - the pressure on tropical rain forests.

Tomorrow sees the publication of a new handbook, Woodlands to Visit in England and Wales, which gives details of more than 130 private woods open to the public, many for the first time. Published by an independent charity, the Forestry Trust, the booklet aims to tell people where and when they will be welcome, and what they can expect to see.

Copies can be obtained from the Forestry Trust, the Old Estate Office, Englefield Road, Theale, Reading, RG7 5DX, price pounds 2 plus 50p p&p.