The British Forests

Welsh tree

The Welsh legends emerged from a particular culture: the Brythonic Celts. They developed over a long period: roots in the Neolithic, then the Celtic Iron Age, the Roman occupation, and Christianisation… Then the Dark Ages and the long retreat before the barbarian colonisation…

I want to discuss Gwyn ap Nudd, and his role as the Lord of the Forests. Before I can do that, though, I need to talk about “forests” because, to quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means“.

That includes me, by the way, because when I thought about the forests of ancient Britain I thought of tall trees as close together as they can be, with a closed canopy of leaves; a dark, silent, forbidding environment with few inhabitants. The human world is outside, a separate world. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, or seen the movies, then I guess Fangorn Forest is a pretty good representation.

It turns out that this image we have is completely incorrect. It owes a lot to the Brothers Grimm, who were actually writing about the conifer forests of Germany – quite a different thing to the deciduous forests of Britain. It owes a lot to the forests planted in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – planted to provide the Royal Navy with long, straight, planks of oak for their wooden warships. This required trees planted unnaturally close together, with animals strictly excluded. And it owes a lot to the modern Forestry Commission, who likewise maintain animal-free plantations to provide materiel for future wars. But these are all that most people today know.

So what did the forests of ancient Britain really look like? They looked something like this:

5BF95273-EB7C-465E-94B0-5CD2CB60B50A

Not with zebra and wildebeest, obviously, but you get the idea. The forests of ancient Britain were open wood-pastures: open land and scrub interspersed with lone trees or small woodlands. Herds of wild horse would open up areas of thorny plants; aurochs, oxen, and wild cattle would then eat the softer grasses that were exposed. Wild boar would rip open the turf, allowing new plant species to colonize the exposed earth. A complex ecosystem, with animal and plant species in a mutually reinforcing relationship. And the key species? The Druidic oak, towering above the other, short-lived trees; the oak, dependent for its reproduction on the chattering jay.

How do we know this? I’ve learned this from Isabella Tree’s fascinating book Wilding, in which Tree documents how and why she and her husband allowed his family estate to revert to nature… and the astonishing results.

I encourage you to read the book, which gives the scientific evidence for wood-pasture rather than closed-canopy forests being the norm in ancient Britain, but here’s a potted summary. It’s really worth watching to get a sense of what the ancient British landscape really looked like.

And here’s a longer version:

They’re both well worth the time to watch them.

Later, of course, things changed. Humans reduced the size of the herds, and drove some species to extinction. Even so, as Tree documents in her book, the British countryside remained mixed, open, Serengeti-like wood-pastures into the early modern age – protected by both royal law and common custom.

And finally… we need to remember that the hills and mountains of Britain were not the bare, close-cropped, deserts that they are today. Before the introduction of sheep-farming, the hills were forested, in the sense that I’ve described here: open pasture interspersed with more or less dense woodland, like the Serengeti…

This is the landscape we need to envision when we talk about Gywn ap Nudd, Lord of the Wildwood.

Morning Mist Dolgellau at the foot of Cadair Idris

Image credits:

Tree roots, Dinefwr Park, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire by Wolfgang Wild on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license permitting commercial use.

serengeti by Marc Veraart on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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