The dog needs a haircut.

And a bath.

The dog needs a haircut and a bath and a firm bit of dragooning.

His moustache is over long, and messes with his food. His foppish ears with their King Charles leanings remind me of a dishevelled sixties flower power student: the creature needs a short back and sides.

And he has had too long on that folly of the dog walker’s world, the extendable lead.

It works thus: a telescopic nylon cord, wound up in a handle-box, he must pull like the clappers to extend it so he can smell the choice offerings of the friendly (and less friendly) neighbourhood canine inhabitants.

In short, the extendable lead teaches Macaulay the dog to throw his weight about.

Now, because he is a dog and not an Oxford graduate, he is lamentably unable to discern between when he should, and should not, heave like a drunken sailor.

Walks are now trying affairs, with me doing a John Cleese sergeant major act between here and the forest. We have wait-for-it moments when he has the grace to pause and shuffle backwards, glancing shiftily up at me like a wayward private on the parade ground. While he complies, he is not happy about it. Reproach is a way of life.

But once we reach the forest all is well. A slip off the lead and he hurtles, delighted and rocket-assisted, up near-vertical ramparts on our iron-age fort. This morning I was on one rampart, and he on the opposite: we were separated by a steep gully. He is not ungifted in the wily department, and he realised I was powerless to stop him digging out a rabbit or a badger or two, over there on the opposite side.

Earth flew. I could no longer see the dog for showers of dirt.

I marched up and down on my side, barking orders to no avail whatsoever. He feigned deafness: in fact he feigned being in a different universe. Until the moment I began to charge down one side of the ramparts and up the other, and he realised his number was up and forsook his new project. I’m off, he communicated telepathically, there’s pheasants over there.

Ah, the forest. What would we do without that space to walk and dream and breathe?

Strange to think that,  for much of its history, the forest has been fighting for its life.

Once upon a time a squirrel could travel from Lands End to John O’ Groats without touching the ground, they say. When my iron age fort was built Britain was more than half covered in forest. That squirrel could, I think, have made a good attempt to traverse the island at that time.

But by the time of the Romans, half of that woodland had disappeared.

The subsequent thousand years were not good times if you were an oak or a yew. Britain’s strong, durable hardwoods were ideal for the building of cathedrals. Salisbury Cathedral alone took 26,000 tonnes of oak to build, harvested from 160 acres of woodland.

The Vikings cherry-picked the best native wood for their longships. And the Normans’ castles were not initially stone: wood was the preferred material as 1066 came and went.

The Domesday Book, written at the same time,  records forest as taking up roughly one seventh – 15 per cent – of England.

In 1215 King John sat under the Ankerwyke Yew which still stands at Runnymede today, and signed over forests to powerful landowners.

And still, the pillage of the forest continued.

By 1300 forest cover was down to one twentieth of England. Hunting forests were de rigueur, and sheep grazing, which destroyed seedings, was entrenched.

The yew longbows of Agincourt, Caxton’s early printing blocks: all were made from wood. Finally in 1457 an act was passed encouraging more planting, followed by another which allowed landowners to fence off woodlands to help them regenerate.

Henry VIII acted in character and declared a large tranche of woodland his own: Crown Lands. These still exist today, liberally contributed to by the dog.

As 1700 came and went we were buying the stuff in. And still we consumed, fuelling the furnaces of the early Industrial Revolution and furnishing our brand spanking new railways with wooden sleepers.

The Napoleonic wars saw our forests at an all-time low. Charcoal was needed for gunpowder, and we continued to harvest, with a government appeal to landowners to please, plant some trees.

It worked: sort of. The beginning of the twentieth century saw woodland taking up about five per cent of this little group of islands.

And then came the first world war, the war to end all wars, and it might have ended our forests too, stretching the demand for our own wood to breaking point, had Prime Minister Herbert Asquith not appointed a committee to look into wood supplies.

In September 1919 the Forestry Commission was born: specifically to build up a strategic reserve of timber so we would never have to rely on imports in wartime.

And the rest is even more history. Land became available, the commission bought it up, forests were planted: and as we crossed the millennium mark we could boast 12 per cent of our British Isles was covered in forest.

These days we supply one fifth of all the wood we use. Forestry here provides 35,000 jobs. We as taxpayers pay about  30 pence a year each for the limitless pleasure of wandering in a forest. Endangered species like goshawks, nightjars and red squirrels have been coaxed back from extinction in England’s glades.

And now, Dear Reader, things could be about to change. Possibly, not altogether for the good.

A bill has been trundling through the UK Parliament called the Public Bodies Bill. A couple of clauses would give the government power to sell off woodland “for any purpose, or without condition”. King Hal was not the only one who could do what he pleased, it seems.

In ten years, or twenty, or thirty, our money problems could well be just a memory.

But by that time our woodlands might have been subsumed by private owners for whom profit is the bottom line.

The government proposes setting conditions to the sale: but having changed the law once, who is to guard against changes which keep us off the land we bought and painstakingly husbanded during the 20th century?

Will we raise our heads in 2050, and look around, only to realise that a nice-but-dim government has sold off the one heirloom which is utterly irreplaceable?

Methinks that squirrel better save up for a stout pair of walking boots.


25 thoughts on “Woodlands

  1. Scary, isn’t it, Kate? The woodlands are such a treasure …
    Your dog sounds like a pure delight! Love your descriptions of the two of you engaged in extendable lead combat!
    Sunshine xx

  2. Woodlands. This really jumped at me because this is the name of the Townhouse condo complex in which I live. The association is near collapse because of foreclosures and people not paying maintenance. We collect only 70% of money to run the place. There are many Caribbean immigrants here and they have the system beat because it takes years to evict them. I listed the place for sale for investors. I will get about 35 cents on a dollar. Quite a hit for my life savings investment and will now have to rent when my place here is paid off. So my Woodlands is bound for death as well as may yours. What a coincidence for being here on the other side of the world in Woodlands, Miami, Florida, USA.

    1. Really sorry to hear about your Woodlands Carl. Sounds as if it has been an unequal struggle, and as if a lot of your hard-earned savings will be swallowed up…I’m crossing fingers now that the rental place you find will be as restful as this has been stressful.

    1. The earth needs it, and we need it, Sidey: you are totally right: but try telling the ex-Etonians who are running my country right now! (Having said that, I AM trying to tell the ex-Etonians who are running my country: a copy of this has gone straight to number 10 although I don’t think they’ll listen)

  3. We do battle often on similar ground here, Kate, and it always amazes me that what I consider the common good is always at peril from power and money.

    Thought of you bright and early this morning as a red fox scampered about for quite a long while across the landscapes here, a red dart on the white snow. I hadn’t seem him in a long while, so, am glad he’s about, though I wondered if he was eluding the pack of coyotes.

    1. Oh, lovely, Penny! I wonder what drives them closer to us than they would normally come. Hope he fares well in the time between now and Spring.

      Yes: there seems to be no limit to what can be proposed here at the moment. I am beginning to find it harder to watch the news than usual…

  4. The cut down all the trees,
    and put ’em in a tree museum.
    Then charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.
    Don’t it always seem to go,
    We don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone?
    They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
    ~Joni Mitchell

  5. I can’t imagine life without woodlands.

    Well done for sending a copy of this to those in power… I really hope someone listens. Maybe it would be worth researching if there is one particular parliamentarian who may be sympathetic? (You’ve probably already done that. Who was it?)

    By the way, any signs of Spring in your neck of the woods? I have snapped a few snowdrops for you.

  6. What a post, Kate ~ from the exhuberance of your delightful pup to the dismal state of politics on both sides of the sea. Haven’t we come far enough along the trail to lose our myopic view of the treasures of the earth?

    “The forest is dead. Long live the trees upon which our dollars and pounds are printed.”

    Quick fix: Once upon a time a squirrel which could travel from Lands End to John O’ Groats without touching the ground, they say. ~ omit which?

    1. Good plan -D
      It seems history’s lessons are not linear but cyclical, Nancy. I suppose the Romans should have shown us it is possible to regress and forget what we have learned. Ho hum.

  7. What an adorable pic, Kate – love it!! Awful, though, to imagine possible pillage of your beautiful forests – may it never come to that!

  8. That is frightening. There must be a better way to solve the current economic problems. Selling off woodland is probably faster and easier, but is it really the best thing to do in this situation? I should think not. Besides, what happens when it is all gone and there is no more to sell? A not very well-thought out plan, methinks. I hope someone comes up with something much more sustainable.

    My dog needs a bath, too. Only I can’t bring myself to do it.

  9. How on earth did you get him to sit for that photo?
    did you pay him?
    did you drug him?
    did you threaten to take away his food privileges?
    did you have to call a summit meeting?
    it’s a ,’ butter wouldn’t melt’ moment.

    i would be impressed with him kate but i know him and guess that there’s, drugs, money or food involved.

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