One thing that West Virginia definitely is not short of is trees. From what I am able to see online, there are more than 12 million acres of them in this state. They cover in excess of 80% of the area and are estimated to number over 6 billion trees. That’s a huge figure, yet, looking around at the beautiful place where we live, it’s a figure that’s easy to believe.
Britain, the land I came from, is very different. There, it’s said that only around 13% of the land is covered in forest, and that amount is only about a third of the estimate of the woodland that exists in many other European countries.
Up until about 14,000 years ago, when the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, Britain was practically devoid of trees. There may have been a few, very hardy birch and willow trees interspersed with the occasional pine that lived, precariously, on the tundra at the lower fringes of the ice sheet, but these would have been stunted and little more than scrub.
Archeology shows us that, as the land gradually warmed after the ice had retreated, bigger trees such as birch and aspen appeared. These then formed the dominant woodlands across the country for a thousand years or so before being overtaken by pine and hazel, closely followed by oak, lime, elm and other species. These trees formed the wildwood and covered almost all the land, with areas of open grassland being rare.
There were also people there back then, but they were hunter-gatherers who lived near the coasts and along the river valleys and rarely penetrated into the deep woods. Then, around 6,000 years ago those people began to farm and started to clear woodland for agriculture. This made more food available, the population started to grow and more of the wild woods were cleared. By the iron age, some 2,500 years ago, some experts estimate that up to half of Britain’s forests had been cleared and coppicing, the cutting of young trees to encourage secondary growth, was the prevalent method of managing woodlands.
The trend of clearing trees for crops and farm animals continued for the next thousand years through the Roman and Saxon periods and, thanks to a Norman warlord, we have fairly accurate estimate of the situation at the end of the first millennium. As mentioned in a previous article, William, the Duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066, beat the Saxons in battle and had himself proclaimed king. Twenty years later, he ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book, which listed every town, village and hovel along with their assets. Woodland was then considered to be a valuable asset and is recorded as covering only 15% of the land in 1086.
The book records that the population of Britain at that time was a little more than 3 million; 200 years later, that figure had doubled, and the area covered in woodland had shrunk to a meagre 10%. This was because the ever-increasing human population demanded more agricultural land while at the same time land that had been previously cleared of trees was exhausted after years of growing crops. These depleted fields were unable to revert to woodland because grazing farm animals cropped new growth and humans gathered wood for fuel and building materials, thus ensuring the amount of available woodland shrank.
Some areas, of course, had more trees than others. Eastern England, for example, was recorded as only having about 4% woodland while the midlands, the area I came from, was, at that time, still covered by the vast Forest of Arden. Unfortunately, this, too, soon shrank to a shadow of its former self thanks to population growth and the demands of expanding industry.
In 1349, bubonic plague — the Black Death — came to Britain and the population was reduced to half its previous number. With fewer people, the demand for land and wood was less but, despite this, the area of woodland did not increase and what was left was owned and managed by people. Almost all the British wild wood was gone and as early as the middle of the 14th century, Britain was importing timber from Scandinavia and the rest of Europe to use for building material.
From the early 1500s onward, Britain had a rapidly expanding navy that became the biggest fleet in the world at that time. Ships needed timber, oak bark was in great demand for the tanning industry and the industrial revolution with its demands for fuel was on the horizon. England’s total woodlands fell to about 5%.
This figure improved slightly as other fuels became available but, by the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of Britain’s timber was imported. WWI helped to further devastate the woodlands. Imports couldn’t get through, so further forests were destroyed and, as soon as the war was over, the government, recognizing the problem, formed a new department called the Forestry Commission. They began planting fast-growing conifer forests but, toward the end of the last century that policy was changed. Ancient woodlands, with their biodiversity, are now encouraged to regenerate, grants are given to those wanting to preserve and expand natural woodland, the use of naturally occurring local planting stock is recognized and surviving ancient trees are protected and preserved. It is this policy that has helped Britain’s tree population to recover to its current level.
There are still a number of these old trees that managed to survive the ravages of time and people in Britain. In a churchyard in Fortingall, Perthshire, Scotland there is a yew tree that is estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, while in England there is lime tree at the National Arboretum that is nearly as old. England’s oldest oak tree is called the Bowthorpe Oak; it lives in an open meadow near the village of Bourne, in Lincolnshire, where it has stood for over 1,000 years. Its trunk has a girth of more than 40 feet, is now hollow and was once used as a tea room with a door and roof added. This magnificent tree is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
There are several more oaks and yews that have lasted through the centuries and, as one who was born and raised in a major city where the only trees were in parks, I confess that I love these venerable old giants and hope that they may continue to flourish for many centuries to come.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.