Our choice to dress seven different species of trees with words taken from a poem along the trail in Glencoyne Park came about because we wanted to celebrate the diversity here. Every time we walk in these woods we take delight in the number and variety of trees, and in the environment around them (which harbours grasses, sedges and flowering plants including reasonably rare orchids and birds eye primroses, vetch, heather, wood sorrel, eyebright, wild garlic and many more). Earlier this year, we walked here with Cath Marsh from Natural England who has spent fifteen years working in this area. And she is in agreement with us in celebrating the biodiversity: ‘It’s doing great. This is as near perfect conditions that we can get.’
We have walked through the woodland identifying species along the way, and ending up at the Glencoyne Pine. Cath hasn’t noticed this tree before, and takes in the scene. ‘This tree has a great view over the woodland pasture. In fact, it’s got a good view of what the World Heritage Site bid is all about, hasn’t it?’
The wind is blowing strong and cruel and we have our coats zipped up to our chins for warmth. Occasional gusts have made it hard to stay upright so we are now sitting down, our eyes level with the crown of the Glencoyne Pine. Below us Ullswater stretches out like an enormous ink blot, the well of inspiration that has fuelled so much writing since Dorothy Wordsworth wrote about the daffodils on the lake shore, and her brother William wrote the poem that has become the best known verse in the world. The sun is playing through clouds throwing the spectrum of greens around us into light and shade, and renders us momentarily speechless.
We are here, however, to talk, and we discuss the range of trees that are growing here. Cath points to a dead standing tree. ‘Some farmers might think, well what’s that dead tree doing there, you need to get that down, tidy that up. But that tree is still a fantastic host for wildlife, insects, you name it, it’ll be living in there, woodpeckers, everything. That’ll take a long time to decay and it’s a valuable biodiversity host.’ Dead trees – lying or standing – are in fact written into prescriptions for wood pasture when it comes to the agreements that are part of upland farming stewardship schemes. Each parcel of land requires specific types of management, and working with farmers to negotiate grazing numbers, tree planting and other land management as part of the schemes is Cath’s role.
‘My job is helping farmers and land owners to access the scheme that is on offer and advising them as to what we want to do, what they can get out of it and the benefits that we are aiming for. I started working in this area in 2001. I’m still working in the same patch, with the same farmers, the same land. Having that continuity is a good thing I think. They can just pick the phone up and ring me, and sometimes it can take a couple of years from me suggesting an idea to a change in practice. It’s a trust thing, a relationship and it’s a long term thing.’
Rob and I have sat many times on the outcrop above the Glencoyne Pine and watched the Hodgsons working with their sheep in the yards and fields down below, and then followed up with a cup of tea with them in the kitchen and learnt more about their passion for their flock and the measures they have taken to encourage the growth of woodland here. It’s something that helps us understand the way the land here is intimately bound with farming practice and the people who know it, quite probably, better than anyone else. It also adds depth to the connection we feel with this place. It’s the same for Cath. ‘I see the countryside where I work as family farms. When I’m driving along, or when I’m walking, I’ll think, that’s Mr So-and-So’s field, and I’ll notice the changes, and remember talking to him years ago. I see every field as an individual and this area as a map of farming families, and the personalities involved.’
Glencoyne Park has been managed by many families over the centuries and a lot of the trees that stand today were planted in the early 1800s when the area – like neighbouring Gowbarrow – was a deer park. These trees stand now among the veterans that help to make this wood so rich, but there are younger trees here too. Last week when we met Stephen Dowson from the National Trust, who has been a woodman in this area since 1981, he talked us through the different sections of wood, and pointed out those that have been planted since he came along. Each one carries with it a story that is part of the history of this land. One of them, Bill Riley’s Wood, was planted in the 1960s to remember Bill who worked here as a woodman for many years. But not all woods have a wide age range. Some, such as oak woods, have such thick canopies that younger trees cannot get a good start, so management is important. ‘It’s fantastic to see a big old tree,’ says Cath, ‘but you know, they don’t last for ever. Unless you’ve got a young one to replace it, once that old tree’s gone, it’s gone.’
With the threat of ash dieback (Chalara) Natural England, like other organisations, has had to rethink its planting policy. ‘We can’t plant ash at the moment because of the risk of disease, which is a real shame. If you were to do a photo montage of trees, take away the elm first of all, that we’ve lost, and then if you were to take away the ash as well, that is such a huge loss on the landscape. We need to look at other species that are going to cope, such as aspen.’
Natural England, together with the Forestry Commission, has targets to plant more trees – to introduce trees into hedgerows or encourage natural regeneration. The challenge, says Cath, is to keep the momentum going. I ask her for her thoughts on how to do this, particularly now that the UK will be leaving the EU. ‘I think we have to find the money to put into planting more trees – The right tree in the right place. Although there are some people who will, the majority of people won’t see it as a priority in the difficult farming business situation that we’re in. It’s almost a luxury. Normally, tree planting means a loss of grazing land, and that is something that people won’t want to do. If an organisation such as Woodland Trust or Natural England and the Forestry Commission can come along and try and make the process smoother, and have grant money available, then I think that’s absolutely essential.’
We find that we are generally in agreement about trees, biodiversity and working towards a balance of trees and livestock grazing in Cumbria, but Cath is disappointed that we haven’t got an ash in our family of seven trees for The Long View. ‘We are in Patterdale, which is iconic for its pollarded ash, along with Borrowdale, which is another area that I look after. They’re fascinating, and I’m really passionate about them: they are beautiful trees and they have history, a personal link. Farmers, ancestors of the farmers I work with, have been pollarding them, feeding the sheep with the leaves in the autumn, using them for fence posts or firewood – it’s a cycle and you need to keep that pollarding cycle in place. Ash pollards can be hundreds of years old. I think they are fantastic.’
We explain that we had found a spectacular ash tree in the early stages of this project, but had not been given the farmer’s permission to feature it (he was concerned about having too many people on the land). Our inclusion of a towering ash tree in the seven we are featuring in this installation is one way of giving the ash a place in this project. The tree we have chosen is a maiden – it has never been pollarded – and commands a view that’s just as good as that from the land above the Pine. In fact, all the trees do, even where that view is one of what’s just feet away from your eyes.
Cath shares what happens to her in an area of rich biodiversity: ‘Instead of walking around looking at the view you’re actually walking around seeing how many species you can find, and that’s great!’ So we ask her why it matters, in her view, to safeguard biodiversity, and why she has chosen to do the job she does.
‘The potential is there in the seedbank. Given half a chance, it’ll come through. And then you see what there is to offer – the diversity, rather than monoculture. It matters. It’s hard to answer, because of course it does – but how do you explain it? Can what you do open other people’s eyes to how you see things, rather than them going, well that’s the way it’s been, it’s always been like that, not going to change. Can you make a difference? Hopefully we can, and it will continue, it will be there when you’re not.’
To find out more about our plans for the installation, read our previous blog Haiku in the Trees.
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