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Friday, 8 June 2012

Wood Pasture in Scotland

Recognition of upland wood pastures as a distinct habitat came about through my work as a woodland adviser with the Forestry Commission in Scotland in the 1990s. I was attempting to give management advice on very open woodlands in Highland glens, often with massive and characterful veteran trees. These upland sites were clearly analogous to the better known lowland wood pastures which are usually situated in the parks associated with post medieval castles and mansions.

Upland wood pastures usually comprise locally natural tree species with no traces of past planting. They seem to have a high biodiversity, combining species of woodland, grassland and heathland habitats in a mosaic, often over extensive sites. They are important for the species of deadwood and old growth woodland. Open unenclosed wood pastures contrast strongly with the historically enclosed and often coppiced native woodlands dominated by oak that foresters at that time were beginning to understand better and to develop sympathetic management for.

My interest and researches into woodland history began at this time, since the structures and origin of wood pastures could not be explained through ecologically based woodland classifications alone. Even after ten years of such studies, the past management that helped create the structures and features that we see in today’s wood pastures are still poorly known. There is no simple documented history of Scottish upland wood pastures and little or no folk-memory of their management. Perhaps there will never be a single typical history of Scottish wood pastures, only a series of perhaps widely differing local site histories.

Through raising awareness we are seeing many historians and academic researchers turn their attentions to this topic. Under the leadership of well known historian and writer Professor Christopher Smout we have seen nearly 15 years of the presentation of historic woodland research to a mixed audience of foresters, conservationists and academics in Scotland, and this work continues. Many of the papers have dealt with veteran trees and the history of wood pastures, including their often hunting forest background.

A readily available technique which helps understand the origins and changes in wood pastures over the last 2 or 3 centuries is through analysis of old maps.  In Scotland we have available online (through the National Library of Scotland website) the Military Survey of 1750 by General Roy, and then around 1860 a much more accurate coverage at six inches to the mile scale in the First Edition of the Ordnance Survey. Comparison of these maps with later OS surveys demonstrates changes in woodland density and extent, as far as the limitations of the cartography permit. On some estates detailed plans were drawn up in the late 18th C by private surveyors prior to farm improvements, and these plans are invaluable in studying woodland history. Map studies are best combined with research into the documents of past landowners and noble families contained in local and national archives. Documentary research is time consuming and skilled work, needing knowledge of archaic language and writing, but can be very revealing.

A more specialised field and lab based technique is dendrochronology. Working with dendrochronologist and landscape historian Dr Coralie Mills we have investigated a small number of case studies, while others are ongoing. It is not difficult to obtain tree ring samples, but like documentary research the subsequent analysis of the data is time consuming and skilled work. Dendrochronology studies have given us for the first time accurate tree ages, and helped us understand the formation processes of the current (often bizarre) tree forms, and past management of the trees. Dendrochronology is primarily an archaeological technique and our work has helped build tree ring data sets or chronologies, which are used for example to date timbers in medieval buildings.

The study of wood pastures has itself become a branch of woodland archaeology. Not only are the old trees a type of living archaeological feature, but they tend to be closely associated with old and often long abandoned settlements and field systems. The trees with features and tree-forms indicating past working of course tend to be those closest to those old farms and settlements. We are still in the process of recording and classifying these features and training others in their recognition.

What have these studies taught us so far? That upland wood pastures are often the remains of previously more extensive woodlands of natural origin, which are often un-mapped, and therefore un-recognised in national woodland surveys. Their past management has usually involved cattle grazing at least seasonally, and often they are associated with medieval hunting forests. Sometimes they have also been used extensively in the past for timber production, and have not been subsequently protected or restocked as forest land.

The future management of upland wood pastures is uncertain, and many alternative strategies are being followed, not always with good results. Seasonal cattle grazing and at the same time control of deer numbers is likely to lead to the sporadic tree regeneration necessary to ensure the survival of these ancient habitats. This type of management does not normally fit in well with either traditional agri-environment or forestry grant aid schemes, and there is a long way to go in encouraging and assisting landowners to manage these biocultural resources sustainably.

But first it is essential to encourage recognition and understanding of semi-natural wood pastures by all the stakeholders involved with them. Only then can we explore options for the future management of open woodlands based on better knowledge of their past.

Peter Quelch, independent woodland adviser, Argyll, Scotland
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Nicole said...

It interesting to discover a new perspective on these kinds of ecosystems. I am working in similar settings here in the United States and I find them very vexing. This is largely because I have a strong attachment to wild lands. It is startling to discover how much of an influence my California culture has on my research perspectives. Until now, I viewed these landscapes as wastelands. A wholly unacceptable bias that does not serve me well as a researcher. Hence, I appreciate this blog and look forward to upcoming posts.

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