Woods, beasts and people have been inextricably linked in the Scottish past since prehistoric times. Five Thousand years ago, the woods covered half the land surface, perhaps more. Animals grazed within and around then, and men hunted the animals. As farming developed, people kept their domesticated beasts in the woods as well as on the pastures, a practice that continued even when the woos a well as on the pastures, a practice that continued even when the woods themselves became relatively scarce and agricultural crops covered most of the ground available. At one time, not so long ago, every wood in Scotland was still being used for grazing and shelter as well as for wood produce. The balance between the two forms of utilisation was hard to strike: too much grazing, and the wood would gradually disappear; too little, and the herbage wood be shaded out.
The subtle knowledge of how to manage this process well disappeared in the agricultural revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At this point, mixed land use was replaced almost everywhere by division into two categories. Woods with grass in them were permanently enclosed and used for timber production or for sport, so they grew thicker and darker. Pastures with trees on them were treated as any other pasture, and if the woods vanished under the pressure, that hardly mattered as after 1850 timber could e bought for farm work at the nearest railhead. We were largely left with the alternatives of dense enclosed woods or overgrazed open ones.
Such ancient wood pastures as remain to us are precious remnants. As well as being valuable habitats for a great range of animal, insects and plants, they speak to us of human history. They often contain within their bounds veteran trees of great age, symbols of longevity and subjects of legend. They tell us how land was once managed for multipurpose use. With their openings, their glades and their encrusted, twisted trees, they make a dappled world magical and old Unfortunately, they are also largely unprotected by modern legislation. Because the tree canopy may occupy less than 20% of the airspace above them, they often do not come under forestry rules governing felling and planting. Because they are not man-made ruins or buildings, they are not ever protected as antiques.
Nevertheless they are as much evidence of our past as a castle ruin or long barrow, and as valuable to our natural heritage as many a famous forest.
This excellent booklet explains all this, and invites us to know then better. To visit the Cadzow oaks is to stand amongst a group of medieval beings, mature long before Mary, Queen of Scots, and John Knox were even conceived. To visit Glen Finglas in the autumn, when the hazels are laden with nuts and the fieldfares are busy in the rowans, is to visit a scene unchanged in essence since the servants of the Stewarts kings rode through, driving stags into the deer traps at the foot of the glen. These are old cultural landscapes of a rarity and beauty we cannot replicate or easily replace.
But here we are also asked not only to appreciate and protect wood pasture, but to rise to the challenge of renewing it and extending it. Less than 17,000 hectares of wood pasture remains. The greatest enemy of its future is ignorance of its importance, but its management is a problem even for owners who appreciate it, since it remains hard to rediscover the techniques for keeping trees and herbage in balance. Yet, with a will, the life of a wood pasture can be renewed and extended by methods explained here. Even more importantly, a glimpse is shown of how new wood pastures could be a land use for the future. Though they cannot instantly acquire the biodiversity and cultural patina of the ancient wood pastures, they could be a way of reconciling farming and forestry, and are more likely, because wood pasture is so attractive, to win public approval than either a change to dense forestry or to bare sheep run. At a time when we are likely to see big changes in upland land use, it is exciting to see a lesson from history put to modern use.