A week before the shortest day of the year. The sun is a weak, watery presence just above the horizon and yet it manages still to dapple the Scot’s pine plantation on the edge of my survey site. I walk ten, fifteen metres in between the bronzed red bark and find, to my amazement that the insipid sun has heat too; the temperature drops as the shadow strobes of individual trunks slip into one and the shade is complete.
I had been surveying hedges and trees, identifying species from their winter buds, their bark and form and features. Out there, not a leaf remained but in here, green is always in vogue. These dense conifer plantations are not inert, just highly depleted. A few species can make a living here but the abundance which can be found on every level of a well-structured broadleaf woodland is reduced to a canopy of green needles above and a carpet of brown needles below. It is quiet but not abandoned – jays and long-tailed tits caw and flit between the branches whilst excavations show that badgers pass through the darkness by night.
A recent talk I heard from a Woodland Trust officer described Planted Ancient Woodland Sites – PAWS for short – as ‘damaged but not written off’. Even if a woodland is razed and replanted with a thousand clones of an alien species, changing the biotic and abiotic conditions beyond recognition, elements of its long history persist. Remnants of the ancient woodland. These could be fallen deadwood from fifty years ago, patches of primroses and herb Paris, old oak pollards or ancient woodland banks. This is an immensely exciting notion – there is treasure in them there plantations! And it is a reassuring notion too as these relics can often be recovered and restored with the right interventions.
Deeper within the woodland, something different looms. It is an oak tree concealed within the pines, not ancient but older. I once heard these older specimens called ‘wolf trees’ and I love the title – trees which pre-date those around them and which have a growth pattern of their own to which their newer neighbours conform. Beneath this oak, light reaches the earth where its leafless canopy has kept the conifers at bay, and here grow red campion and wood brome. These alone do not demonstrate antiquity, but who knows what other species might also emerge from the cold ground in spring, when the woodland flowers bloom?