Country diary: A tidy forest floor betrays a lack of imagination

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It’s a bright and blustery October day, and I walk up the Chevin escarpment through an autumn soundscape: the dry, susurrous rustle of crisping oak leaves in the wind; the rattle-cackle of fieldfares as they raid a hawthorn for its red bounty; the delicate chatter of a flock of linnets, newly banded together for the months ahead.

I walk into a swathe of woodland I used to love as a kid, full of millstone grit boulders and makeshift rope swings. It is dominated by hundreds of beech trees, some perhaps 30 metres tall, creating a high, cathedral-like canopy. The dark, slate-grey trunks are spaced far enough apart that you could slalom a bus through them, and they have a kind of gothic grandeur: stone columns supporting a huge, vaulted roof of green and gold.

Today, when I walk into this hall of beeches, the wind recedes to a high whisper, and there is an oddly comforting sense of both enclosure and spaciousness. But at the same time the light darkens, and as always I am struck by how bare the forest floor is. That dense foliage – and the carpet of beechnuts that it sheds – has the effect of suppressing growth in the understorey.

Beech is classed as non-native outside southern Britain due to its absence at the end of the last ice age (although recent scholarship in Scotland has challenged this), and is sometimes removed by foresters. But to contextualise beech, I wonder if we need to look back even further. In the forests of the deep past, where beech evolved (along with all our woodland species), the grazing, tramping and disruption inflicted by now-extinct megafauna – including elephants – would have fostered diversity by constantly creating dead wood; paradoxically, one of the best ingredients for new life.

Woodland ecosystems evolved to adapt to this creative destruction, and it remains the case that the best way of encouraging biodiversity in forests is to recreate the sort of messy havoc these giant beasts would have inflicted – but we tend to be averse to untidiness in our natural spaces. In looking at empty forest floors like this, perhaps we shouldn’t see a tree species that “doesn’t belong”, but more a failure of our own imagination.

With thanks to River Six

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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