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It is when our budding hopes are nipped beyond recovery by some rough wind, that we are the most disposed to picture to ourselves what flowers they might have borne, if they had flourished.
-Dombey & Son

Nature’s Green Estate

Trees Under Threat: Green is the color of nature, signifying growth and renewal. More recently this hue has entered politics with multiple concerns for the environment but those of us in Britain are well aware of one green issue that has recently accelerated itself to the top of the political agenda with the proposed privatisation of half of the 748,000 hectares of woodland currently owned by the government backed Forestry Commission.

woodland trees

Winter Woodland

For the historical record, Forestry and Common land represents almost the last bastion against legalised land confiscation that began with the various Enclosure Acts, from the the 16th to the 18th Century. This successive  dispossession destroyed whole villages and independent agrarian lifestyles as acreage was swallowed up by the claims of the wealthier landowners. A recent survey (2010) by ‘Country Life’ has revealed that more than a third of Britain’s land is still in the hands of a tiny group of aristocrats which should provoke a pause for thought when we visit Stately homes and admire the vastness of the landscaped gardens. 1

Whatever one’s political colour,  woodlands are cherished rural spaces and the possibility of  “Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations” 2 in their place has mobilised a public backlash that has put a temporary halt on the Government’s proposals. Of course, public forests and woodlands are not just free to roam land and neither are they just trees. Focusing on two of our most common woodland tree species gives insight into the bio mass and diversity which takes succour from them.

woodland Silver Birch

Silver Birch

Birchwoods: The Silver Birch (Betula Pendula) is a slender and graceful tree  often called the Lady of the Wood, although growing to a height of 30 metres and deep rooted, she does have a habit to lean and seemingly topple easily with age. This is a relatively short-lived tree declining after 60 years which supports a host of insects and their life cycles, specifically the caterpillars of the Pebble hook-tip and the Kentish glory moth. Birds including Siskins feed on seedheads whilst Red Deer like to browse on young leaves and seedlings.  Because the canopy is relatively high and light, the resulting dappled shade  enables Primroses,  Violets. Wood sorrell and Anemones to flourish. In May, the Birchwood becomes a quasi aquatic landscape when English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) bloom in profusion.

Birch woodland biodiversity

Birch woodland biodiversity

The tonnage of leaf fall from the deciduous Betula  not only returns many nutrients to the soil but is itself a habitat for multitudes of creatures that creep and crawl along the forest floor.  An assortment of fungi exist here  in a symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship with the trees, most notably the red spotted Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and Chanterelles, whereby the fungi access carbohydrates directly from the root systems and in return increase and enable the tree’s mineral absorption capabilities. Even in death, Birches support other fungi including polypores, such as Piptoporus betulinus. By breaking down the tough cellulose of the decaying trees, these leathery bracket mushrooms make nutrients available for other organisms as well as being a food source themselves for  fungus (tineid) moths. Only the witches’ broom fungus (Taphrina betulina) is an unwelcome parasite causing an abnormally dense growth of small twigs.

woodland Scots Pine

woodland Scots Pine

Scots Pinewoods: One of the few UK coniferous natives, the Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a green giant of a Woodland tree, growing up  to 90  feet or more and often living to the ripe old age of 300 years. As a dominant keystone tree, the canopy will support a patchy understory of Juniper and Hazel as well as a few wildflowers including orchids such as Creeping Ladies Tresses (Goodyera repens). Vaccinium Bilberries and Cowberries  thrive in the shaded woodland floor.

The fissured, flaky bark and resinous foliage is the specific habitat for several insects and larvae including the eponymous weevil and Looper moth  which in turn are a larder for birds like the Crested tit and Treecreeper. Wood ants (Formica aquilonia) build their mountainous, multitudinous colonies from  fallen pine needles and forest detritus.

woodland mosses & lichens

woodland mosses, liverworts & lichens

A healthy woodland floor, common under Birch and Scot’s Pine, gives rise to other mosses and liverworts which grow in competition with flowering plants and leaf  litter. Thus here they tend to be large and relatively fast-growing, as their names suggest: Big Shaggy-moss; Ostrich-plume Feather-moss. Epiphytic lichens and mosses also live on the bark and branches, taking no nourishment from the tree but  fixing nitrogen from the air. Once incorporated, the nitrogen will in turn fertilise the soil as the lichen falls and decays.

Trees as Threat: On the other side of the coin, Woodland that is unmanaged and allowed to spread soon becomes a threat to other habitats, not least our native Heathlands. With poor sandy soil in which gorse, heathers and short grasses thrive, these lowland open heaths are depended upon by lizards and snakes whilst the rare Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Stone Curlew feed and breed here.

As a pioneer species, Silver Birch trees are often the first trees to become established in heathland especially on burnt areas. Scots Pine readily germinate here too as saplings cannot survive under the parental dark canopy and seeds rely on wind dispersal to find new locales.  Grazing herds and taking wood for fuel was, until a 100 years ago, how heaths were naturally maintained by the local population but without such management, heathland quickly reverts to woodland, and the flora and fauna that depend on it disappear.

woodland heath

Winter Heathland

“But greenest of all that is green
An island Earth did make
And they all call it Britain
Natures green estate”

Egal Bohen

Nature’s Green Estate is one in which we humans have had a significant impact changing the face of the landscape as we settled here but with a burgeoning population in the UK there is a serious threat to rural spaces with piecemeal destruction by urban expansion and profiteering projects.

There is more than ‘A Pinch of Green’ in this post though I am joining Katrina’s Blooming Friday theme as well as linking up with the first of each month’s Festival of the Trees


UK Woodland Trust Campaign Continues: Whilst the government has temporarily backtracked on the sale of Forestry Commission land, there are no changes to the loopholes that have allowed 850 ancient woods to be threatened by built development over the past decade. Sign the Petition

Note: If we do not use our woods there will be little challenge to building on them – You can find all your local Forestry Commission woods, Woodland Trust woods, as well as other publicly accessible woods at Visit Woods


1. Daily Mail Look who owns Britain
2. Daily Telegraph Minister’s Plan Huge Sell off of Britains Forests

References :
Trees for Life : Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris); Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Plantlife: Key Features for Identifying Mosses and Liverworts

Further Reading:
Dr Gilbert Slater (1913): How the English people became Landless
Simon Fairlie: A Short History of Enclosures in Britain (PDF)


16 comments to Nature’s Green Estate

  • Dear Laura, Your thought-provoking post is beautifully written. Having spent my childhood playing under the silver birches on Cannock Chase, I find privatization of the woodlands very disturbing. You must be applauded for spreading the word. P x
    PS Silver birch is still my favorite tree, so loved your information and photographs.
    Pam’s English Garden read my post..Happy Birthday- Dear Blog!My Profile

  • well done Laura, in Scotland it is the Downey birch which is why I planted 10 in my garden, I don’t have any Scot’s pine hmm think I will have to change that, Frances
    island threads read my the treesMy Profile

  • - thanks you for the back-up Pam as I tremble at their loss. As one who loves Silver Birch trees too, I was astounded by the richness of these woodland habitats winkled out in my research.
    - good to hear you’ve been planting trees Frances – the TFL site noted below has great info on Downey Birch.Not sure the Scot’s Pine could cope with your wetter, windier Hebridean climate though

  • Brava Laura!! Fabulous, important and informative post! No matter the language or terrain . . . how we care for our land is the same the world over. We must all consider the important concepts your raise here.
    Carolflowerhill read my post..Birds in Review Part XIX A Bird Parade Common YellowthroatMy Profile

  • Sometimes I don’t comment on people’s posts because I can’t think of anything worthy enough to write. This should be one of those occasions, but I just want to say that living in London, I don’t think much about forests, and to be honest I am still coming to terms with creepy crawlies (even though I call myself a gardener), but the way you write about these subjects draws me in. Thanks for enlightening me.
    b-a-g read my post..Apple 26 Feb 2011My Profile

  • - thank you Carol – knew you would empathise given how well you care for Flower Hill Farm and your wildlife
    – your comment surpised and amused me b-a-g 1. how do you keep sane in London without escapes to our shrinking rural landscapes? 2. how do you deal with creepy crawlies in the garden ;)

  • Hi Laura, thank you for pulling together so much fascinating material. Birches are my favourite trees too, so it is great to learn about how much they offer in terms of wildlife habitat etc. I was delighted at the government’s climb-down on the forest sale bill, but remain nervous about what they come up with next.
    Janet/Plantaliscious read my post..How not to look after your pondMy Profile

  • Laura, Very informative discussion. It seems every country is facing these decisions, and private citizens have to be on top of what’s happening because developers won’t have any qualms. Carolyn
    Carolyn @ Carolyn’s Shade Gardens read my post..Evergreen Ferns for Shade &amp Stylish Blogger AwardMy Profile

  • Laura, such an informative post. It truly was a disgraceful decision to have even contemplated privatising the English woodlands.Like Janet I am delighted at the government climb down. Here in Scotland we are very sensitive in regards to the Highland clearance which took place in the 18th and 19th century not so much by the English as many Scots may think but by the wealthy Scots chiefs and landowners.

  • - thanks Janet it took me a while to garner all the info but plain to see what would be lost besides trees
    - wondered how much the States is likewise affected Carolyn though you do have lots more land than us ;)
    - well said Alistair it’s the divide and rule ethos. The Engish clearances are rarely mentioned as it was more piece meal. And the Duke of Buccleuch is the largest UK landowner …

  • Thanks for a terrific post! I am always saddened when I see a forest cleared away. I was traveling home today on a highway that was once bordered by remarkably beautiful, lush land. Today it is one shopping area after another. The terrible thing is that many of these shopping malls have with empty, unrented spaces, a complete waste.
    debsgarden read my post..The Underworld of HelleboresMy Profile

  • [...] among other things. Perhaps her work would be of use to Laura, who is concerned about the possible privatization of Forestry Commission land in Great [...]

  • A great post – interesting and important!
    Katarina (Roses and stuff) read my post..Blooming Friday – A Pinch of GreenMy Profile

  • a lovely informative post, thank you.
    suzi smith read my post..Days of Pencil SketchinessMy Profile