The Royal Forest of Dean, on the border of England and Wales, is an ancient forest providing a living for farmers, miners, charcoal makers and iron smelters. The forest, and the traditions of those living in it, has been preserved for more than a thousand years. But this small pocket of wilderness and these rights are under threat.
This week Earth Report visits the heart of the forest and assesses whether it can survive another millennium.
From the time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th century the forest was reserved as a hunting ground for Kings. And the revenues from iron mined and smelted here went into their coffers. As England developed into a naval power, the oak assumed strategic value. In 1633, Charles I created the post of Deputy Surveyor to take overall charge of the forest. Since then there has been an unbroken line of 25 royal Deputy Surveyors Chest.
From a small town in the heart of Dean, a UK government agency administers the Royal Forest, continuing a thousand year tradition of central government protection.
To this day, foresters born here have ancient rights; to keep sheep in the unfenced forest; and to mine coal or minerals as a free miner. Although this right goes back to antiquity, the English King Edward 1 didn’t enshrine it into law until the thirteenth century when forests served him well during his wars with Scotland.
But some foresters believe that their ancient traditions are under threat from new people moving in who aren’t sensitive to the forest’s long history and heritage.
Creating a forest
The forest is Britain’s premier oak forest and it was planted for a purpose – to supply the vast amounts of timber required to build war ships.
By 1800, mismanagement had left the forest in a poor state. When Admiral Lord Nelson visited the forest in 1803, to estimate what resources were available to fuel the Naval building programme of war ships, he was appalled to find that stands of good quality oak had dwindled to 200 acres in a forest more than twenty thousand acres. For the next forty years a massive initiative to replant the woodlands restored its oak stands.
The next great felling came during the Second World War where nearly half of the forest was cleared. This time it was replanted with faster growing conifers.
Today, hardwoods such as oak and sycamore are sold by auction. Every year around 250 hardwoods are felled and replaced by hardwood saplings. All the profits raised fund the Forest Enterprise, which helps the wilderness pay its way. But there’s a problem – saplings are particularly vulnerable to grazing.
There are many things that threaten trees in their lifetime and saplings are particularly vulnerable. In the Forest of Dean, over one million tourists visit the forest – and their impact has to be minimised by providing well-established tracks and attractions. But it’s the forest’s animal population that poses a bigger threat.
Constant grazing from sheep and Fallow deer keep the growth of young trees in check. Forest managers can protect the saplings from deer and sheep by ring fencing but there’s one pest they can’t keep out: the grey squirrel.
A recent arrival from North America, the grey squirrel has not only driven out the native red squirrel but is one of the most destructive animals in the forest – peeling off bark from trees for food. Once exposed, the tree is vulnerable to fungal pathogens, which may degrade its timber or kill it. And there’s no solution to this squirrel pest.
A short respite?
Britain has been in the grip of a Foot and Mouth epidemic. The disease, for which there is no cure, affects sheep and cattle and spreads like wildfire. The only control is mass slaughter of infected herds and strict controls over access into livestock areas.
The Forest of Dean has a sheep population of two thousand. In the event of only one being infected, all would be slaughtered to contain its spread. Even after the forest was closed to visitors, Foot and Mouth found its way into the forest’s flock and all the sheep were slaughtered.
The irony is that with the paths closed and the removal of all the sheep the Forest is having a brief respite. The absence of tourists and grazing sheep allow for a lush spring growth this year. The forest and its occupants have weathered many crises and only time will tell whether the ever increasing number of tourists and alien invaders like the grey squirrel will change this pocket wilderness for good.
Forest of Dean
For more info’ about the work of the Forest of Dean District Council, visit their website.
Foot and mouth
Forest flora and fauna
For nature trails around the forest, see the Bradley Hill walk.