The woodland of wild Cornwall
Trust President Tony Stebbing looks back over the history of our ancient woodland, which has declined from a position of dominance to become a small - but extremely important - fragment of today 's landscape.
When Britain was freed from the Ice Ages ten millennia ago, about 60% of our islands became clothed in "wildwood", that natural prehistoric woodland unaffected by man. But with the coming of Neolithic peoples from France 3,500 years ago, early forms of agriculture were brought to the South West. These people kept sheep and cattle, and grew cereals which they could store over winter in pots. They not only brought with them the skills for making pottery, but could also make flint axes, using them to fell trees for burning and clearing the wildwood for their crops and pastures. By 1086, when the Domesday Book gave the results of the first survey of England, the cover of wildwood had been reduced to 20%. At the end of World War I just 4% cover remained.
The Trust's LIFE Project and the data now on the Geographic Information System (GIS) show that the loss of woodlands and other natural habitats continues at a rate of 4.5% per decade. Clearly this cannot be allowed to carry on indefinitely.
Our woodland is not merely trees: it provides a habitat for much plant and animal life; many birds, mammals and insect species are most abundant in woods. A mature oak is home to as many as 300 species of insect, providing the many subtle niches that make their co-existence possible. Insects are not often high on the conservation list, but it is important to remember that they evolved in parallel with the flowering plants. Their beauty is designed to attract their insect pollinators rather than appeal to man. Some 85% of all plants are insect-pollinated, so a significant loss of insects would take away much that we love about the countryside. Woodland also provides a habitat for many of the lichens which festoon the trees, indicating good air quality in Cornwall. The bluebells and wild garlic that cove the floors of our woods in spring and early summer are limited to our maritime climate, and are much rarer in Europe than we imagine. The woodland floor and fallen timber provide food and habitat for a rich fungal flora.
Any view from the air, or a glance at an Ordnance Survey map, reveals that the remaining tree cover in Cornwall is restricted to small isolated woods, often marking the courses of streams and rivers, or bordering lanes as overgrown hedgerows. The Trust's GIS shows that 100 kilometres of Cornwall's hedges are lost each year, and with them the wildlife that has adapted to make hedgerows rich habitats for plant and animal life. Less than 2% of the wildwood that grew up after the retreat of the ice and glaciers has survived with its nature relatively unchanged. Since much of our fauna and flora depends upon woodland, we must do our utmost to preserve what remains. If we can retain as much of our woodland habitat as is practicable, the life within it will look after itself.
Tony Stebbing is currently enjoying (we hope) his first year as President of the Trust. As a leading marine biologist Tony has much to offer the Trust, and he will he giving a talk on his work at this year's AGM (26th October - see diary).
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