I am standing in dappled sunlight on a woodland path in early May, and the sense of growth is almost overwhelming: honeysuckle, bracken, tree saplings and most of all brambles are reaching out in a smothering embrace. This is an urgent season and they are hungry for space.
Ynys Hir, the RSPB’s beautiful reserve on the Dyfi estuary in mid Wales, has a fascinating and complex mixture of habitats: heath, grassland, wetland, saltings and woodland. Where I am standing was once an ornamental part of the old estate and the mossy stone walls still elegantly set-off the rocky woodland.
A large tree recently smashed down by a gale has cleared an unseemly space in this bucolic order – a disturbance and an opportunity. Several young trees have been summarily uprooted by its fall, but already new growth is filling the space. Death must be the corollary of all this growth. A pool (no other word will do) of bluebells at the base of a hazel seem ‘exactly right’ to me, a microcosm of how I would like the wood to be. But they are no accident of nature, more a product of past land use (cutting of underwood, grazing by stock) which held back all this rampant growth. And anyway my assessment rests on a misty cultural memory of how woods used to look. Approvingly I notice that dead wood is everywhere: twigs, branches, and even whole trees – these certainly would not have been left to rot back then. ‘Dead’ is a complete misnomer as they bulge with the living, from woodpeckers down to barely visible invertebrates and fungi, and beyond that into the teeming invisible biota which seem to tip from science into the miraculous.
A grey squirrel, not ten yards away, runs so lightly along a fallen tree trunk that it seems to float soundlessly just above the surface. This grace is shattered when it stops abruptly to scratch, a hind leg rotating frantically like a mechanical toy. In some parts of England grey squirrels eat such a high proportion of the hazel nut crop that the future of hazels is in doubt. This dynamic animal is seizing an opportunity and changing how things ‘ought’ to be.
Meandering between the trees the path is charmingly fringed with bluebells but a yard or two in is a hungry quilt of brambles amongst which a few straggling stitchwort hint at what has been overtaken. Yet in other places the woodland floor is clear of brambles and thick with young trees: birch, rowan, oak, sycamore – hundreds of them. Until recently these were the missing link in so many overgrazed Welsh woodlands but now some woods have been fenced and the sheep removed. Following that, you could of course, let the wood get on with it; allowing the whole dynamic business of living and dying to roll on indefinitely. Advocates of re-wilding would say ‘amen to that’ and go home and play cards. The trouble is that we place a value on species, and habitats and then feel obliged to maintain or create the desired state. Follow that logic far enough and nature conservation could become like any other land use designed to produce a crop: Sitka spruce, wheat, pied flycatchers. It’s a hard road.
A small swarm, perhaps fifteen, newly emerged damselflies drift across the woodland floor like undersea creatures – so ephemeral they barely seem to exist. By contrast a pied flycatcher fussing about in the tree above me is very much ‘here’, although his singing seems a little half hearted in the chilly wind. Between the trees I can glimpse the wild expanse of the estuary and the northwest wind carries harsh cries of Canada geese, hinting at a quite different world. This is another species shouldering out the natives and changing how things ‘ought’ to be.
Lower down in the wood young holly trees are growing in claustrophobic thickets, another species that has seized an advantage in the now ungrazed woodland. Until recently (ecologically speaking) holly seemed to be ‘comfortably’ scattered through Welsh woodland but recently it has been regenerating ‘uncomfortably’ fast. I come to a place where the reserve managers have been clearing it out, the pale teeth of cut stumps contrasting with the sad dead foliage, bleached like abandoned wreaths on a grave. Nobody is quite sure why brambles or holly are now growing so vigorously, although there is undoubtedly a response to the sheep being removed and all their supplementary feeding and dunging which will have left the soil enriched. Perhaps the warmer winters that come with the changing climate are playing a part – brambles don’t like freezing conditions or persistent snow cover. Also the insidious increase in atmospheric nitrogen, a pollutant from traffic and agriculture, is likely to be in the mix. But here is the rub: various species that we value, such as pied flycatchers, wood warblers, bluebells and some specialist lichens and mosses prefer a wood with an open floor. They don’t thrive amongst brambles and thickets of young trees – but on the other hand the wood must have new trees to ensure its continuity. The RSPB is trying to square this circle by a year or two of cattle grazing and browsing followed by a fallow period when young trees can get established. Getting this balance right is not easy and it is only one of the many habitat management problems in a place as diverse as this.
Gnawing at these dilemmas I come across a large white butterfly amongst the bluebells, idling back and forth it stops occasionally to sip nectar from an open flower before drifting on again. Its demeanour reminds me with a pang of a way of living that often seems just out of reach. Perhaps I should become a re-wilder and just enjoy the bluebells until the brambles overtake them.