The Green Desert

When Jair Bolsonaro was president of Brazil, he was frequently challenged on his encouragement of deforestation. His stock reply was an accusation of hypocrisy; “you have cut down and exploited your forests, what shouldn’t we do the same?”.

Sadly, he has a point.

Britain is by default a forest area. Left to its own devices, some density of woodland would cover almost all the land. Only mountain tops would be bare. But Britain is not an untouched paradise, human beings have been clearing land for farming and housing, cutting trees for ships and housing, and interfering with the landscape for thousands of years. Whereas Britain was once almost entirely covered by trees, now only 13% of the land is wooded. This is one of the lowest woodland levels in Europe, much of which is industrial plantations of non-native softwoods. Woodland in Britain is horribly depleted and regarded as little more than a cash crop.

This attitude ignores the wonderful richness of natural woodland. Trees grow slowly, over many seasons. As they grow, their leaf mould creates a rich, fertile environment for shade-loving plants and fungi. This in turn provides food and shelter for animals from bugs to deer. A woodland can be a beautifully abundant, self-regulating ecosystem if it is allowed to develop and exist naturally, without interference.

The picture above is of the South Downs looking towards Cuckmere Haven. Two thousand years ago, this would have been a forest of oak, beech hazel and alder. Deer, bears, wolves and auroch would have lived here. It would have been a delight. Now it is a sea of grass, home only to sheep and passing birds.

It is right that the South Downs is a national park, to protect it from further development. But what is being protected? The national park is a monument to 200-year-old farming practices. So much more can be done. If the land is protected from the destructive teeth of sheep, it will regenerate and return to its forest state. More carbon dioxide sequestered, more diversity, a thriving ecosystem, more wildlife, and more nature for people to enjoy.

It’s not enough to preserve what is left of the natural world, it needs to be actively restored. A green desert isn’t good enough, we need the return of the wildwood.