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Flowers of the Field: Meadow, Moor and Woodland

Flowers of the Field: Meadow, Moor and Woodland

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Flowers of the Field: Meadow, Moor and Woodland

857 pages
8 heures
Oct 3, 2019


From the machair grasslands of the Outer Hebrides to the chalk cliffs of Kent, and from the dense pinewoods of Abernethy forest to the wetlands of the Fens of eastern England, Britain offers a richly varied array of habitats for our wild flowers.

The distinguished science and natural history producer and filmmaker Steve Nicholls presents a visually stunning survey of Britain's best-loved wildflowers, illustrated with the his own beautiful photographs of flora in their habitat. Focusing on three broad habitats – grassland, open land and woodland – he offers a biologically rigorous but engagingly readable account of our wild flowers and the places that nourish them.

He probes deep into the social and cultural history of wild flowers to tell a plethora of fascinating stories, from the 'daffodil trains' which transported Londoners to the 'golden triangle' in Gloucestershire to experience woodlands carpeted with wild daffodils, to the odd case of the Bath asparagus – which isn't an asparagus at all, but rather the edible flower buds of the rare spiked star of Bethlehem, which used to grow in abundance around Bath.

Oct 3, 2019

À propos de l'auteur

Steve Nicholls has spent thirty years making wildlife films, including ten with the BBC Natural History Unit. He holds a PhD on dragonflies. His plant photographs have won several awards in the prestigious International Garden Photographer of the Year competition. He is the author of Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (2009).

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Aperçu du livre

Flowers of the Field - Steve Nicholls







A Secret History of

Meadow, Moor and Wood





Title Page






Woodland Lilies






Wild Daffodils


Snowdrops & Snowflakes


















Butterworts, Bladderworts & Sundews






Lilies of Open Ground


Photographing Wild Flowers




Index of Plant Names

General Index

About the Author

An Invitation from the Publisher

Lady's slipper orchid, one of Britain's rarest orchids.


I’ve always had a deep fascination with nature, in particular with bugs and birds, as far back as I can remember. But until I went to university, plants were simply the things that some animals ate. Of course, in pursuing the caterpillars of different butterflies or moths, I had to learn something of the habits of specific plants. And while in pursuit of birds, I always took time to enjoy the great spectacles of bluebells, wild daffodils or ramsons (wild garlic) in the woods along the River Tees and in the valleys of the North Yorkshire Moors, close to my childhood home in Middlesbrough. But in the early 1970s I travelled to the other corner of the country, to go to the University of Bristol, a decision partly driven by its proximity to Slimbridge, home of what was then the Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). This was set up by my childhood hero, Peter Scott, after he found a rare lesser white-fronted goose amongst larger flocks of greater white-fronts that traditionally winter on this stretch of the Severn Estuary. This area also draws wintering Bewick’s swans from Siberia and a host of waders and other birds, so I spent many happy days there when I probably should have been ploughing through scientific texts and journals.

My decision to study at the University of Bristol turned out to be a good one in a number of other ways too. When I arrived in Bristol I was interested in birds, reptiles and insects, but on my first day there, feeling lost at having moved so far from home, I bumped into David Parker, a fellow zoology student who was to become my closest friend and fellow adventurer into the world of natural history throughout our undergraduate years. And he knew about plants. Gradually, by osmosis, I began to pick up some botany until I reached a threshold of knowledge that finally ignited my own interest. My passion for birds and insects remained (my PhD, also at the University of Bristol, was on dragonflies), but I began to spend more time searching out wildflowers, both rare and common, and delving into their natural history and biology. That lifelong curiosity about the biology of Britain’s wildflowers is one strand of this book.

I spent many happy years at Bristol University, moving on to postdoctoral research after receiving my PhD, and I assumed I would pursue my interest in the natural world from within academia. But the BBC’s Natural History Unit is just a few hundred metres from the university’s biology department, and I was frequently invited to appear on Radio 4 nature programmes as a bug expert. Later I began to act as a natural history consultant for TV programmes, including Living Planet, the David Attenborough series that followed his ground-breaking Life on Earth. During this time, I began to realize that I was far more of a generalist than a specialist. Since procuring grants for academic research meant becoming ever more specialized, I jumped at the chance to join the BBC Natural History Unit when a job came up.

Welsh poppy, in the wild a native of damp rocky woods but now so widely grown in gardens that it has become naturalized right across the British Isles.

Making natural history programmes is a very satisfying experience. Apart from travelling to all kinds of places that I would be unlikely to visit otherwise, I discovered that film-making is a heady mix of art and science. I’ve had the chance to work with top scientists in many fields, to showcase their work and to document the very latest discoveries. At the same time, the final programme also needs to be a work of art, to be illustrated by stunning images backed by evocative music and the whole woven into a compelling story.

I had begun to photograph wildflowers during my undergraduate days, mostly as a scientific record of what I had found, but after joining the Natural History Unit, I was lucky enough to work with some of the finest wildlife cameramen on the planet and that helped me to develop a much better eye for images. Not long after I joined the BBC I met my wife, Vicky, who, although a mathematician and engineer by training, is also a fine artist. We would eventually end up running our own natural history production company together, but working with her has also opened my eyes to even more possibilities for wildflower photography. It’s far more of a challenge to try to capture the essence of each wildflower in an artistic way than simply to record where it is living. In this way, I discovered that wildflowers could provide deep satisfaction for both halves of my brain – the logical, scientific side and the aesthetic and artistic side – in equal measure. For me, wildflowers can only be truly appreciated by combining both science and art. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book.

Without knowing it at the time, I think the seeds for this book were sown back in 1989 when I came across a book called The Flowering of Britain, by writer Richard Mabey and photographer Tony Evans. The book also inspired a documentary that aired as part of the BBC’s World About Us series. In both book and TV programme, the idea was to capture the beauty and natural history of Britain’s wildflowers in both words and pictures. Tony Evans admitted that trying to make every image in the book a work of art was something of a challenge, though he succeeded admirably. And when I embarked on the photographic side of this project, my admiration for Evans’ work and his dogged determination only grew.

Another inspiration – and indeed my title – comes from a much older book. In 1851 the Reverend Charles Alexander Johns published Flowers of the Field, a book that became known as the amateur botanist’s bible. His detailed text was illustrated by around 200 engravings based on beautiful watercolours, some by his sisters, others by Emily Stackhouse, a botanical artist who, like Johns, lived in Cornwall. He had already published many other books on British natural history, but Flowers of the Field was by far the most popular. It ran to fifty editions and was in print for over a century. Johns described a wide range of plants along with their uses but was inspired by the beauty of wild flowers as much as by their scientific interest. Many of his early books exhorted his readers to reach God through an appreciation of His works in nature. Flowers of the Field lacked these biblical overtones, so it was ironic that it was so often referred to as the botanist’s bible. In this book, I’ve mixed art and science in a similar way, although using modern technology that Johns could never have dreamed of, and I’ll be more than happy with a fraction of the success of the Reverend Johns’ book.

I spent seven years travelling around Britain to gather the photographs, continually challenging myself to see these wildflowers through different eyes, trying to capture the beauty of individual plants – or parts of plants – as well as their harmony with the landscapes in which they were growing. After more than thirty years of making wildlife films, it should have come as no surprise to me that things are never as easy as you imagine at the start. It’s rare to find the perfect plants growing in the perfect spot and even rarer to encounter this happy scenario when the light also just happens to be perfect! But the task of trying to take better and better photographs over those seven years gave me the perfect excuse to spend long days in the field and to travel to all manner of beautiful locations, from the machair grasslands of the Outer Hebrides to the chalk cliffs of Kent.

There are about 3,500 species in the British flora, which conventionally includes ferns, horsetails and conifers as well as flowering plants. This is far too great a number to cover in depth with either photographs or text, so my first decision had to be which species or families of plants to include. I’ve unashamedly focused mainly on our more spectacular wildflowers. In part this gave me more scope for the photographic part of the project, but these are also the most well-loved and popular of our plants. I’ve devoted individual chapters to our most familiar wildflowers such as bluebells, wild daffodils, fritillaries and ramsons, all of which grow in spectacular and photogenic displays. But the final choice of which wildflowers to include was driven by the scientific aspects of the book too – those plants that have the most interesting natural history stories to tell. Other chapters therefore cover groups of plants (for example, orchids, alliums and primulas) in which the plants, although individually beautiful, are also windows on to some of the most fundamental concepts in biology.

Sea rocket forms large clumps at the top of white shell-sand beaches along the Atlantic shores of South Uist, Outer Hebrides.

Then came the question of how to arrange these chapters in a way that placed the detailed stories in a broader context, and that also highlighted the diversity and history of the broad range of habitats in which these plants grow. And for that, I turned for inspiration to the National Vegetation Classification, known fondly to botanists and ecologists across the country as the NVC.

I’ll deal with more detailed aspects of the NVC in later chapters but, in short, it’s an attempt to create at least some kind of scientific order from the bewildering variety of habitats across the British Isles. The NVC recognizes nearly 600 different categories of habitat, so you might legitimately wonder whether it has created less or more bewilderment. However, it does break down these habitats into a few broad categories, published in five definitive volumes. Broadly, terrestrial habitats fall across three of these volumes and, with a little further simplification on my part, these form the three main sections of Flowers of the Field. Two sections cover the distinctly different habitats of ‘Woodland’ and ‘Grassland’. The third covers the NVC volume that describes shingle, sand, saltmarsh and cliffs. I’ve called this section ‘Open Ground’, since most of these habitats remain open naturally. Most grassland, on the other hand, would revert to woodland if left to its own devices.

I’ve written an introduction to each of these sections, describing the history and variety of woodlands, grasslands and open habitats as well as the unique challenges faced by plants living in each of these places. These introductory chapters also briefly cover the natural history of some of the more conspicuous and characteristic plants of these places that don’t have their own dedicated chapter. The principal players, with their own chapters, are then grouped together in the appropriate section. However, plants are extremely adaptable, and those chapters that tell the stories of larger families inevitably touch on species characteristic of other sections. The orchid family, for example, is at home in grassland, woodland and open habitats but since a small majority (including some of the most spectacular) live in grassland, I’ve included the orchid chapter in this section.

On those cold, rainy days when I couldn’t be in the field with my camera, I began to read through all the scientific papers I could find on my chosen plants, both in the UK and elsewhere in their range. Although the flowers that form the principal subjects of the following chapters are either British natives or widely naturalized here, I’ve also included the stories of these plants beyond the British Isles. This provides a broader framework in which to understand their behaviour in the British context, and therefore deepens our understanding of them. The behaviour of a plant growing in the UK may sometimes be very different from that of the same plant growing in another part of Europe or elsewhere. They may be on the edge of their range here, or vanishingly rare, whilst growing like weeds in other places. And the details of their biology may differ. For example, if a plant is pollinated by different insects in mainland Europe, its reproductive strategies there may be very different.

I make no apology for diving deep into the biology of these plants. Indeed, this was one of the main reasons I set out to write this book. I want to take the reader on a journey through both nature and science, to use popular and familiar wildflowers to explore cutting-edge research and show, for example, that molecular biology and folklore are just two sides of the same coin. Though I’ve tried to tread the narrow line between over-simplification and biological accuracy, general readers may occasionally find that the complexities of such processes as polyploidy or heterostyly make their head spin. But they should console themselves with the fact that such topics often trigger the same reaction in many practising botanists! And these intimate details are part of the joy of our wildflowers.

I love the fact that I can wander through a cowslip meadow or bluebell wood and let the sights and smells still my soul or, in a different mood, let these same plants bring to mind some intriguing and deep biological questions. Primulas inspired Charles Darwin and a long line of botanists since to ponder the reasons for heterostyly (the presence of different kinds of flowers in the same species) whilst orchids are the perfect plants through which to appreciate the intricacies of polyploidy (multiples of the basic number of chromosomes). Without knowing it, many people already appreciate the effects of polyploidy when they revel in the sheer variety of our wildflowers. How much more satisfying are our days in the field when we appreciate just how that diversity came to be.

After thirty-five years of making science and wildlife documentaries, I don’t believe any story is too difficult to tell – so long as it is told well. And, as an avid collector of natural history books, I am sure that some of the stories in the following pages have never been told for a general readership. I hope that more than three decades of making popular wildlife and science TV documentaries has equipped me to do these stories justice and to inspire an even deeper appreciation of British wildflowers.







Woodland Lilies









Wild Daffodils



Snowdrops & Snowflakes




We are currently in the middle of an ice age – the Quaternary Ice Age – which began about two and a half million years ago. In its four and a half billion-year history our planet has been through several such extended ice ages, some in the ancient past so severe that the whole Earth, from poles to tropics, was completely buried under ice. During these periods of ‘snowball Earth’ it’s a wonder that life (mostly microscopic at the time) survived at all, to evolve into the rich diversity we see around us today and into a species capable of contemplating that diversity. Luckily for us, more recent ice ages, including the one we are now living in, are less severe and consist of alternating advances and retreats of the ice sheets and glaciers. Longer cold glacial periods give way to shorter inter-glacials, during which the climate warms and drives back the ice to the highest latitudes and the tops of mountains. This distinctive pattern is driven by a variety of factors, all interacting in complex ways. These include the position of the continents on the face of the Earth and the consequent pattern of ocean currents, responsible in part for triggering an ice age in the first place. Added to that, the whole planet wobbles in several different ways as it orbits the sun, like a spinning top as it slows down. This has the effect of periodically warming then cooling the higher latitudes, so driving the cycle of glacials and inter-glacials.

The current inter-glacial began around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, and encompasses the whole of human civilization, from the birth of agriculture to walking on the moon. In the natural course of events, we may only be about halfway through this rather eventful warm period and can look forward to another 12,000 years or more before the ice returns.¹ In fact, our current inter-glacial might last even longer. Calculating how the wobbles affect the cycles of glacials and inter-glacials, some scientists think that our current warm period might last another 50,000 years.² Yet others believe that the human impact on the Earth’s climate might be enough to disrupt these natural cycles entirely and we may never now return to a colder glacial period, at least during the current ice age.³ Human-induced climate change could mark a sudden end of the Quaternary Ice Age.

Ancient gnarled pines in the Black Wood of Ranoch, Perth and Kinross, one of the finest remaining examples of Caledonian pine forest.

Lesser twayblade, an inconspicuous orchid, grows on mossy pillows below the towering pines.

But whatever the future holds, the past has certainly seen equally dramatic changes in climate and consequently in Britain’s flora and fauna. At the end of the last glacial period ice sheets extended right down to southern Britain and those places beyond the ice were bleak tundra. So much water was locked up in these massive volumes of ice that global sea levels were much lower than today and Britain was joined to continental Europe across parts of the North Sea and the Channel. Today, it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of Britain at the end of the last glacial period by climbing our highest mountains. The vast plateau of the Cairngorms, towering over Speyside, is so cold and exposed that it’s covered in tundra, home to plants and animals more at home in the Arctic. Like little snowballs, snow buntings bounce from rock to rock. Dotterels, with bellies that look like they’ve been stained with iodine, are so tame you can walk to within a few feet of them. If the howling wind calms for a moment, the creaking calls of ptarmigan, unseen in lichen-toned feathers, drift across the boulder-strewn plateau.

These areas are too bleak for trees to grow and so remain naturally open. The plants of such habitats are dealt with in the section on ‘Open Ground’ (see pages 349–456), yet as I explore this bit of the Arctic in Scotland, I realize that I’m also striding over the first forests to colonize Britain after the ice began its retreat. Dwarf willows hug the ground with their gnarled stems, creeping between boulders and raising tough leathery leaves just a few centimetres above the ground. In wetter, peaty patches dwarf birch grows in a similar form, natural bonsai specimens shaped by the short growing season and constant exposure to cutting winds.

When the ice began its northwards retreat around 10,000 years ago, it exposed virgin land, scoured and scraped by the slow grind of a mile or more thickness of ice over many millennia. The warming climate allowed less hardy plants to colonize this new land, a blank canvas on which today’s diverse flora would slowly be painted. Meanwhile, tundra species tracked the ice sheets northwards, eventually becoming isolated on the high tops like the Cairngorm plateau. In the wake of the ice, trees began to arrive in Britain from refuges further south. The pioneering forests were made up of species like those I’d seen on the Cairngorms – dwarf birches and willows, along with juniper. At first these were just shrubs, but soon taller birches and willows arrived, together with aspen. Then Scots pine and hazel gained a roothold, followed, as the climate continued to warm, by species now familiar across the country – oak, ash, alder, elm, lime, field maple. The last trees to arrive before rising sea levels severed our land bridge to Europe were beech and hornbeam.

Lower Woods in South Gloucestershire is an example of ancient mixed deciduous woodland.


These broadly different types of forests – Arctic shrubs, birch, willow and aspen forests, pine forests and broadleaf forests – all moved north as the climate continued to improve – waves of vegetation following their favoured climactic conditions. Today, dwarf forests of birch and willow are found high in the mountains. Scots pine grows in a broad swathe across Scotland on poorer soils (though this tree has been widely planted elsewhere) where it forms the great Caledonian pine forest. In the past, the Caledonian pine forest was more widespread and may have had different origins in different areas. Some of the earliest fossil evidence for Scots pine after the Ice Age comes from Loch Maree in western Scotland. This may be where the Caledonian pine forest first grew, some 9,600 years ago, and today pine trees in this area are genetically distinct from the trees elsewhere in their natural range. It seems that, in the wake of the retreating ice, pine trees arrived in Scotland from two distinct refuges. The western trees, which colonised the area around Loch Maree, probably survived the Ice Age in Ireland, although the origin of the other trees is still unknown.⁵ By 1600 these natural pine forests had been reduced to scattered fragments, to much the same extent as we see today.

Red squirrels are still common in Scottish pine forests and across Ireland but confined to a few scattered places in England and Wales.

The Caledonian pine forest couldn’t be more different from plantations of Scots pine. In natural forests, ancient twisted pines grow from carpets of heather or bilberry and domes of colourful mosses, and they are full of special plants and animals. Red squirrels and crossbills prise open cones to feast on seeds, crested tits churr from the branches and below, orchids like creeping lady’s tresses or lesser twayblade nestle in mossy pillows.

Further south in Britain, broadleaf forests predominate. Within this broad pattern there are many different types of forest, depending not only on climate but on local geology and topography. Every woodland is unique, but scientists trying to understand basic ecological principles and make comparisons and contrasts need to impose some order on this natural diversity. In the 1980s ecologists developed a comprehensive classification scheme for all of Britain’s habitats. Called the National Vegetation Classification (or NVC for short), it was the first systematic survey of British vegetation and is built on a numerical analysis of the species present in any particular habitat. This has resulted in more rigorous definitions of communities and sub-communities of plants. There are twenty-five woodland communities: W1 to W25 (though only eighteen are true woodland, the others being scrub communities). Appended to this rather prosaic description are the Latin names of some of the characteristic plant species. So, the remaining fragments of Caledonian pine forest are known as W18 – Pinus sylvatica Hylocomium splendens woodland. Not perhaps as evocative as ‘The Great Wood of Caledon’ but more scientifically useful as W18 can be divided into a number of sub-communities allowing ecologists to see, among other things, which kinds of pine forest are most threatened. But the NVC is not the end of the story.

Hazel catkins brighten up the days of early February.

Wistman’s Wood, on Dartmoor, Devon, one of the highest oak woods in Britain, is an elfin forest of gnarled English (pedunculate) oaks.

The NVC recognizes eighteen main types of woodland. George Peterken, a woodland ecologist, has classified woodlands in a slightly different way, into twelve distinct ‘stand types’,⁶,⁷ yet none of these classifications fully capture the variety of woodland in Britain. In the mild and wet conditions along the very westernmost fringes of Scotland and Ireland, Atlantic hazel wood forms part of the Celtic rainforest. Here, hazel grows into multi-stemmed trees without any interference from humans; elsewhere, as we’ll see shortly, multi-stemmed hazels are usually the result of the traditional practice of coppicing. In Atlantic hazel woods, hazel grows densely enough to shade out most other plants, but in the clean, damp air blowing in from the ocean, these woods abound in rare lichens and mosses. Such forests seem to be unique to Britain, yet they don’t feature in any of the main forest classification systems.⁸ Elsewhere, these western temperate rainforests consist of oakwoods, yet these also miss out in formal classifications of our woodlands.⁹

For small islands, the British Isles has (or had) an astounding variety of woodland types. At one end of the spectrum, Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor is an elfin forest of gnarled and twisted pendunculate oaks growing amongst huge moss-covered boulders. It’s one of only three high-altitude oak woods on Dartmoor and looks like it should be home to moorland sprites or fairies. In complete contrast, entering one of the great beech hangars on the chalk hills of Hampshire is like walking into a cathedral. Smooth trunks rise like pillars to an arching green canopy, dense enough to shade out all but the most specialized plants. The forest floor is covered with a carpet of golden beech leaves, with few shrubs or other plants in the way to obstruct the long view of a beechwood’s spectacular architecture. Although herbaceous plants may be scarce, these beech forests are famous for their fungi. Large fairy rings are common and there’s always something magical about finding an earthstar, Geastrum spp., peeled back to reveal what looks like an egg sitting in a nest, the structure which contains the fungus’s spores.

Bud burst in the forests of the lower Wye Valley, along the border between Gloucestershire and Gwent.


Before human activity altered natural dynamics it used to be assumed that most of Britain was forested, though as we'll see shortly that may be too simplistic a view. Today, forests across Britain are made up of different trees in different areas, reflecting local geography and geology as well as a long history of human management. But how much of this variety can be traced back to variations in the wildwood? Was there ever a period of stability during our current inter-glacial when the northward march of trees slowed and a settled pattern of different types of natural woodland established itself? Can we look back to a period when we can discern such truly wild woods? If we can it would probably be over the few millennia of the Atlantic period – a time of optimum climate in our part of the world which began around 8,000 years ago. But during this time, humans became part of the equation. So, was the wildwood truly wild?

Autumn in a Cotswold beech wood.

Humans lived across northern Europe even during the height of the last glaciation, using their intelligence to survive by hunting and gathering on land free of ice. With the retreat of the ice, these small bands of people could move north and adapt to a less harsh life as Britain’s forests took root. At first these Mesolithic cultures would have had little effect on the nature of the wildwood. Doubtless, they dug waterholes or cleared off brush to allow grass to grow, to draw in game for hunting, much as North America’s Indians were doing when Columbus arrived in the New World in the fifteenth century. In fact, American Indians probably had much bigger effects than Britain’s Mesolithic hunters since British trees are much harder to kill. Indians killed trees by ring-barking and the dead timber and stumps then burned readily. Using such techniques, they converted large areas of forest to lightly wooded grassland, which drew large herds of deer. When the first Europeans landed on the east coast of America, they found great tracts of forest that looked more like parkland, with trees spaced widely enough that, as Giovanni da Verrazzano declared in the early years of the sixteenth century, he could have driven a carriage through it for hundreds of miles with great ease. Britain’s forests don’t burn (except pine forests), which limits the impact of Britain’s Mesolithic cultures on the wildwood. All this would change when farming arrived on our shores around 7,000 years ago, but before then, with perhaps just a light impact from small numbers of hunter-gatherers, it’s a natural question to ask what the wildwood looked like. What would it have been like to explore a more or less natural forest?

Wild boar were once key creatures in the wildwood, rotavating the forest floor and helping to create the ever-changing mosaic of grasslands, scrub and woodland that characterised truly natural forests.

That turns out to be a surprisingly hard question to answer. If any fragment of wildwood has survived intact, it will be on tiny uninhabited islands in large lakes or other remote locations – hardly typical and even this is doubtful. Perhaps the Atlantic hazel woods are remnants of the wildwood, but if so, they are so specialized that they certainly aren’t representative of the rest of Britain. Yet the quest for the wildwood resonates strongly with many people beyond the world of professional ecologists. Thanks to ancient folk tales that have found their way into Europe’s great fairytales, the wildwood, with its wild beasts and wicked witches, has terrified generations of children. Yet this is a wildwood of the imagination, not the real thing. By the time such tales were being told, Europe’s remaining forests had been completely altered from any natural state by generations of management for their valuable resources of timber and wood.

Today there are two competing visions of the wildwood among ecologists. One, the Tansley model, named after the influential British botanist and ecologist Arthur Tansley (1871–1955), sees the wildwood as ‘trees forever’ – a continuous canopy of trees with perhaps small glades created when trees die and come crashing down. The other, the Vera model, was developed more recently by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera for northern Europe.¹⁰ This model sees the wildwood as a mosaic of woodland, scrub and open grassland, created and maintained by big grazers and browsers, like aurochs, horses and bison, present in Europe at the time. Vera developed this idea to explain the curious abundance of pollen from grassland species in ancient lake deposits when conventional wisdom suggested that the land should have been almost entirely covered in trees.

To get a clearer idea of what this new vision of the wildwood might look like, Dutch ecologists are trying to recreate it at Oostvaardersplassen, an area along the coast east of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, several of the key big grazers – aurochs and wild horses or tarpan – are now extinct, so have been replaced by konik ponies and Heck cattle as ‘ecological analogues’ of those wildwood grazers. Heck cattle originated in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s when the Heck brothers attempted to back-breed the extinct aurochs. Their methodology, however, is generally seen as flawed and the end result, though an impressive beast, is no more an aurochs than the Spanish fighting bulls which formed a large part of their breeding stock. At Oostvaardersplassen Heck cattle and konik ponies are joined by red deer in an area known now as the Dutch Serengeti. The animals are left to their own devices and nature is allowed to take its course in a new style of management called rewilding. Most forms of conservation management are targeted to achieve certain aims – either to create and maintain particular habitats, like flower-rich meadows, or to benefit particular species. All of these conserve habitats and species deemed important by humans. In rewilding, nature takes the driving seat and is allowed to develop as it will, even if it doesn’t necessarily produce conventional results. As ambitious as the Oostvaardersplassen project is, it might not satisfactorily answer the question of what the wildwood looked like as there are no big predators here and studies elsewhere have shown that the presence of predators drastically alters the behaviour of their prey and therefore patterns of grazing.

The woodlands of the Wye Valley have a rich diversity of tree species, including both small-leaved and large-leaved lime, the latter now a scarce tree in the wild in Britain.

Some scientists are so convinced by this new way of managing en vironments that they are no longer content with using ecological ana logues as grazers. They are trying once again to bring back the aurochs to help rewild new areas. And they are having more success than the Heck brothers, thanks to modern scientific techniques. Some years ago I met with biologists at Wageningen University who showed me how they had sequenced the genetic code of the aurochs using sub-fossil remains from various parts of Europe. Not far away, on an area of polders, cattle breeders have assembled a herd of primitive breeds from different parts of the world. Each of these old breeds preserves some part of the aurochs’ genome and the aim of the breeders was to selectively mate these cattle to reassemble as much of the original aurochs’ genome as possible, using the template created at Wageningen University as a guide. To distinguish these modern animals from the historic aurochs, the scientists and breeders call them tauros and the venture itself is known as the Tauros Programme. It’s an extraordinary endeavour, not quite Jurassic Park perhaps, but I still found the concept amazing as I drove around the polders with one of the breeders, looking for the offspring of those first experimental crosses. We eventually discovered one, a tauros standing proudly on a small rise surveying his domain, and it looked uncannily like an aurochs, even just one generation down the line – enough to send a small shiver down my spine.

Unfortunately, the Oostvaardersplassen experiment, which continued to rely on Heck cattle and konik ponies, has suffered a recent setback, at least in terms of public opinion. Several mild winters allowed the grazing herds to increase in size but in the hot, dry summer of 2018 they began to starve and many animals had to be culled to avoid further suffering. This caused a public outcry and drew a critical official report. Yet this, of course, was what the experiment was all about. Nature often goes through boom and bust cycles which might even have been important factors in structuring the wildwood. Perhaps we’re not quite ready yet, in our minds and attitudes, to hand back control to nature, even though it had been doing a pretty good job for three and a half billion years before we came along. And we still don’t know whether big numbers of grazers could or did create the mosaic of grassland and woodland that Frans Vera suggested.

Some lines of evidence suggest that grazers and browsers may not have had such big effects on the wildwood. Ireland was cut off by rising sea levels even before the rest of Britain, so many plants and animals moving north from Europe never made it as far as Ireland. That included many of the big grazers that roamed Europe’s forests. So, using the Vera model, it might be expected that Ireland’s forests would contain less grassland, which should show up as less pollen from grassland species in ancient peat and soil samples collected from there. In fact there is little difference in Irish samples and samples from further south in Europe.¹¹ There’s still the puzzle that grassland species are present in all areas in remarkable abundance, but the effect doesn’t seem to be due to large grazers. Instead, the scientists that carried out this survey suggest that we humans had already begun to open up the forest during this period and provide habitats for grassland species, as we’ve continued to do ever since.¹²


In the story of Britain’s – indeed Europe’s – woodlands, the true wildwood has long since vanished. If our Mesolithic forebears had only small impacts on the endless forest, all that changed when farming arrived in a Neolithic revolution. Agriculture arose independently in several different parts of the world – the Far East, New Guinea, South America – but our farming heritage began in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, an area fittingly called the Fertile Crescent. This revolution began just as the glacial period was coming to an end, a time when global climate and weather patterns changed dramatically. It was once thought that these new farmers migrated across Europe and into Britain, replacing hunter-gatherer cultures, though it’s more likely that it was the idea and techniques of agriculture that spread, to be adopted with enthusiasm by local cultures. In any case, agriculture needed open fields and the clearance of the wildwood accelerated.

The Scots pines growing around Loch Maree in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland are genetically distinct from those growing elsewhere and were probably the first to recolonise Scotland after the end of the last glaciation.

No single person has done more to tell the complex story of Britain’s woodlands across the millennia than Oliver Rackham (1939–2015). As an historical ecologist working at the University of Cambridge he debunked many myths about woodland history and developed the concept of ‘ancient woodland’, the richest and most diverse types of woodland. Despite the serious inroads into woodland made by those early farmers, Rackham always professed to have a great admiration for the rapidity with which they carved out extensive fields. Clearing trees in Britain is not easy. In many places, for example the eastern forests of North America, the forests burn readily, making the job of creating fields much easier. In the New World, cultures that were essentially Stone Age had widespread impacts on the great eastern forests. Most British forests are very hard to burn, so trees had to be cleared by laboriously felling them, at first with primitive stone tools.

With the advent of metal tools in the Bronze Age, the wildwood disappeared even more quickly, and by the Iron Age, it’s estimated that only 50 per cent was left. These clearances took place during an extended colder and wetter period in the climate which allowed vast bogs to form in upland and western areas when trees were cleared (see Introduction to Part III, Open Ground, pages 360–361). And during this time, the composition of the remaining wildwood changed. An event called the elm decline, recorded by a drastic fall in elm pollen around 5,000 years ago, may have been due to diseases carried by bark beetles. We have seen a similar event in more recent times when Dutch elm disease ravaged our countryside. In reality, this may be a more frequent occurrence than we think. Recent research has found evidence for a drop in elm pollen as long ago as 7,300 years and the same scientists found the remains of two kinds of bark beetle (Scolytus striatus and S. multistriatus) in these early samples. These beetles are known vectors of Dutch elm disease today, suggesting that a similar epidemic was responsible for the widespread loss of elms 5,000 years ago. But there’s also evidence in the samples of increasing human activity, so it’s likely that the elm decline had multiple causes.¹³ Lime also declined in the wildwood, probably owing in part to continued changes in the climate, but here too humans doubtless played a role. Lime leaves make excellent fodder for livestock.¹⁴

Forest clearances continued under the Roman occupation of Britain and although there is evidence of forest recolonising deserted farms after the Romans abandoned their northern outposts in some places, the general trend was only one way. During the Norman period only 15 per cent of our land was forested and by the fourteenth century the figure had dropped to 10 per cent. From this point, the overall percentage of forest cover seems to have remained stable since the remaining woodlands had become tightly integrated into both local and national economies.


As soon as people began to try to clear the wildwood they would have noticed that simply chopping down a tree won’t kill it. Many British trees regrow quite happily from the stumps, often sprouting a dense crop of thin poles. And if these are chopped off, they will soon grow back yet again like a hydra’s head. Those same people would also have realized that this regrowth was very useful – for building or for making charcoal, their main fuel before coal. Big trees also provide big timber, useful for building the great cathedrals and then later for ships as Britain built her navy.

The River Wye marks the border between England and Wales for much of its length. Along its lower reaches, it has carved a narrow limestone gorge whose steep slopes are clothed in rich deciduous forest.

Chopping off trees at ground level became an established technique for managing woodland. This practice is called coppicing, and the frequency with which the regrowth can be cut depends on the species being coppiced and what the regrowth will be used for. Birch is a fast-growing colonizer of open ground (as it was after the ice retreated) and can be cut every three or four years for faggots (bundles of sticks used for fuel). Oak coppice needs around fifty years or so to produce oak poles suitable for building. But the most frequently coppiced species is hazel, which can be cut every twenty or thirty years, sometimes sooner, and the poles used in many ways, from fencing and building to making charcoal. This form of woodland management has been practised for thousands of years, certainly since the Neolithic,

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