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Lost in the Woods

Guy Shrubsole’s schemes have the potential to unleash havoc in the British countryside.

When I go for a walk on Exmoor, I often think of Guy Shrubsole. Guy, you see, has decided that the woods of the West Country, specifically Exmoor and Dartmoor, are examples of ‘lost rainforest’, and that he is the knight in well-waxed Barbour sent to save them. Every time I feel the familiar drip of water from the epiphytic ferns on a mossy oak trunk running down my neck, or the clinging touch of lichen against my ear, I shiver in the expectation of a new wave of ecological destruction; an ancient crosscut-saw powered by the push-and-pull of ignorance and ideology.

During the pandemic, Guy moved from south London to south Devon, and has taken up various new projects. One is to redefine the acid deciduous wet woodland of Britain as temperate rainforest and to encourage people to map it online as part of his Lost Rainforests of Britain project.

It’s no exaggeration to say that mapping is one of the first actions of a colonial power, from the Jesuit cartography of the Americas to the early consolidation of British power via the Survey of India. Mapping implies power, and directs rule-making from afar by those who are not directly living on the land. By encouraging those who have come across polypody ferns to register areas of woodland online, Guy harnesses volunteers to produce data on his own terms. He is now using it to apply pressure to the government to restructure agricultural payments (formerly £2.4 billion each year) post-Brexit, in the direction he thinks best. ‘Without knowing where Britain’s remaining rainforests actually are, how can we expect landowners and the government to protect and restore them?’ he asks.

He’s asking the wrong question, because landowners, tenant farmers, botanists, ecologists and even the government do know about these places, they just call them copses, covers, coverts, wet woodland, wet acidic woodland, coetir, coille, Atlantic or hanging or ancient woodland. They don’t tend to call them rainforests, which are characterised by a closed or continuous high canopy, because these woodlands are often remnants of coppiced or pollard woodland or have an indigenous name which describes their endless variety. In his new book, Guy tells us that ‘a temperate rainforest is a wood where it’s wet and mild enough for plants to grow on other plants’, which as definitions go is as loose as the relationship between cyanobacteria and fungi in a lichen; it would cover all the woodland of Britain, from the magnificent oaks of Bishop Auckland to the chestnut coppice of the Weald.

It’s a definition that he later backtracks on, taking the life-long work of Oliver Rackham and others (who discerned the remnants of ancient woodland over painstaking years of rheumatic fieldwork), and then drawing a line down the country over the isohyets of the Pennines so that ‘Lost Rainforests’ are found with cookie-cutter cuteness around the sheep-grazed uplands of Devon, Cornwall, Wales, the Lake District and Western Scotland. These happen to be some of the least populated areas of Britain, where investment in education and infrastructure is low. They’re also some of the areas of the UK which have the highest level of environmental protection and National Parks areas where much of Britain (including Guy, we learn) heads for summer holidays. ‘We’re so unfamiliar with these enchanting places, we’ve forgotten they exist,’ says Guy in the first chapter.  It’s a revealing sentence which sums up the problem with his project. He has landed in a place he doesn’t know or understand, and so he sees it as an empty land, a land full of promise where the few ill-educated inhabitants don’t recognise what they have, and so manage it badly. Sound familiar?

I will skate over the clichés which Guy stuffs his text with (trout ‘lurk in the depths’, sows ‘amicably nose up against wellington boots’, leaves ‘glow luminescent green in the afternoon sun’, ecologists – if men – are ‘true sages of the woods’ which come in ‘majestic swathes’) and come to the nub of the matter.  Guy, understanding that white men can no longer simply go and Save the Rainforests, is looking for the nearest soft target in which to set his campaigner teeth, and has found the land of the Romantic poets, the Wild West, where the Atlantic winds ruffle the beards of the lichens, and the dipper warbles its way up a babbling brook. So while Guy intends to listen to people like Dafydd Morris-Jones – a sheep farmer in Wales who says that ‘My concern with rewilding is that it takes the people out’ – he is happier hanging out in his small echo-chamber of friends.

I worked with Guy on the England Tree Strategy, and he is first and foremost an activist; the palatable sort of activist who has a foot in both camps.  He’s young, urban, privileged, white and fundamentally conservative in his views, responsive on email, present at in-person consultations in London, and charming when he wants your data. But unlike the authorities and botanists he quotes (prioritising those who look like wizards and have beards), he is a storyteller first and an observer second, who goes in with a fixed idea of what he wants. For Defra in 2021, this worked. Lacking political direction, and with environmentalism pressing at them from different angles, it was easy for them to take Guy’s upbeat certainty for scientific proof. As a result, his catchphrases have made their way into government strategies. The real problem with redefinition, mapping and half-truths is that they feed into policy and shift the ground under the feet of people who live off and care for the land.

Guy argues that the future of the Lake District lies with farmers ‘fetching a premium for grass-fed beef rather than loss-making mutton, and supplementing incomes with revenues from eco-tourism.’ This jolly sketch was constructed partly by Sir Dieter Helm, another respected policy maker, who also recently moved to Exmoor from Oxfordshire and laments its degraded appearance. Sir Dieter is an economist in Oxford, who from 2012-2020 headed up an advisory board to the government called the Natural Capital Committee. This committee, and Sir Dieter’s book, proposed that large amounts of ‘marginal’ farmland in the UK should be rewilded and that farm payments post-Brexit should be based on a principle of ‘public money for public good’ supplemented by eco-tourism. By fits and starts this is moving into mainstream policy, but although tourism has been remarkably successful on 3,500 acres of poor clay soil at Knepp Estate, one and a half hours from London, it is less likely to offer a sustainable income stream to the farmers who farm sheep on Exmoor.

And how is this change in ownership going to manifest itself? Well, certainly not in the direction of the many Devonians who are being priced out of the housing market by incomers. It’s much more likely to go the way of the Lincolnshire estate which has been bought by a confederation of Etonians including Ben Goldsmith and Charlie Burrell. The inheritors of the delightfully opaque £300 million Goldsmith offshore fortune like to stand together; so while Zac Goldsmith was hoovering up roles in the government, Ben was controlling the family money, donating it to worthy causes like Michael Gove’s constituency in Surrey Heath. When he was subsequently appointed non-executive director at defra under Michael Gove, the process was overseen by Sir Ian Cheshire, chairman of Menhaden, which happens to be Goldsmith’s investment firm.

Ben Goldsmith is a staunch supporter of Guy’s work, a lover of the beaver, and a firm believer in ruined landscape theory. ‘Here’s a house situated amid one of the most nature-depleted, barren landscapes in Britain.’ he recently wrote on Twitter. ‘Just imagine the possibilities should a nature friendly farmer step up now and buy it… a return to native cattle, scrub-rich wood pastures, wildflowers, birdsong.’

To me, the rhetoric of the rewilders is eerily reminiscent of the 1916 Acland report, which led to the foundation of the Forestry Commission. The report, headed up by Sir Francis Dyke Acland, talked about large areas of upland Britain being ‘waste’ and depopulated; trees would increase upland productivity and ‘demanded a higher rural population’ than sheep rearing. This report led to plantations of conifers being spread across highlands, particularly in Scotland, peat bogs being ploughed up so that trees would grow, and to what Oliver Rackham described as ‘the years that the locust has eaten’; in the third quarter of the 20th century, when about 40% of the ancient woodland in England was converted to farmland or forestry.

The irony is lost on Guy, who on page 260 tells us about his first meeting about restoring the lost rainforests of Dartmoor. He navigates ‘the maze of opulent corridors’ at Killerton House, which he tells us belonged to none other than Sir Richard Acland: the ‘baronet-turned-socialist’, and the donor of the house and associated woodland to the National Trust. Guy is either ignorant or ignores the fact that he was also the eldest son of Sir Francis, and therefore considered the choice of meeting place auspicious, as he looked for support at a meeting of today’s huge landowners; the National Trust, The Woodland Trust and the Devon Wildlife Trust. They end up, predictably, on his side. After all, it’s easier to try to stop grazing on Duchy land than it is to deal with the property developers building extensively around Abbotsham.

But what he is doing is dangerous, because so many plants, ultimately, rely on sheep. Take the example of Wahlenbergia hederacea, the ivy-leaved bellflower. It creeps along the side of Exmoor streams, and sends up its delicate blue flowers in damp Augusts. Like so many other rare plants found in spots of moorland, it requires the grass to be close-grazed – otherwise it will die out. There are others that grow with and alongside it and also require more light and a close grazed environment; the bog pimpernel(Anagallis tenella), the lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia), the horseshoe vetch(Hippocrepis comosa) and even plants like the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) which grows in woodland, often requires grazing to allow enough light to reach the woodland floor.

Most botanists know this, notably the legendary Margaret Bradshaw, who monitored plots of land in Teesdale over the course of 50 years, and saw their diversity falling when grazing pressures were reduced. The flora there are some of the oldest and most endangered in Britain, a relic habitat of the last Ice Age, and her hypothesis that sheep act as proxy for the earlier grazing animals such as aurochs. ‘You’ve got to understand the broad picture, the history of the area.’ says Margaret in an inteview with Sophie Yeo. ‘In some places you need grazing.’

You also need humility, and to proceed with care. Guy’s hubris peaks in the sublime myopia of his book’s final chapter, when he lays out his plans: it’s simple! he asserts. If left to regenerate, in just 20 years Britain’s rainforests will double in size. ‘What’s more, we can restore rainforest without impinging on food production. British rainforest appears to thrive on rocky screes…’ It’s such a sweetly naive statement. Were sheep to be excluded, yes, in 20 years, young oak trees are likely to grow up into formerly grazed areas (as long as peat reserves have not been allowed to build up and the seed bank or acorn spread can support this). But other things happen too. Shrubs and brambles will grow up and shade the earth, various species populations will collapse, not least the bryophytes that Guy affects to adore, and others will take their place. As with all young ecosystems, it will be a species-poor patchwork, nothing like the incredibly complex network of species that builds up over hundreds of years in ancient woodland. Were this to be implemented around every wood that Guy chooses the result would be a large amount of scrub of the same age, wiping out an essential ecotone, the woodland edge.

Through the lens of Guy’s ideology, in which farmers have created an ecological desert, it is ‘irrefutable common sense’ that getting rid of sheep and reforesting the uplands will solve our ecological crisis. But Guy’s view is not a dream, it is a fairy-tale. ‘Woodlands, after all’ he says ‘wait patiently to be resuscitated like Sleeping Beauty.’  Unable to dream of the restoration of truly degraded landscape like the huge arable fields of Hampshire or the fair land of Berkshire where he went to school, too wet to tackle the problems of funding the excellent conservation systems which already exist but are not implemented, and too conservative to envisage a true co-operation of humans, technology and nature in heavily populated areas, he wants to slap SSSIs on every little patch of green he sees, double them, and make them conform to his stereotype of biodiversity.

To do this he intends to erect fences. The Enclosure Act of 1773 had an extraordinary human cost, as people were displaced from the land they could no longer afford to farm by landowners, often funded by loans from outside, but much of this was a by-blow of the reason it was passed – the improvement of land at a crisis point for British farming. Guy believes that his proposed ‘exclosures’ are a different matter, and that they won’t exclude anyone apart from grazing animals.

But what about Devonians who live off this land and the animals that graze it? This is the nub of the matter. These landscapes do not exist in isolation and land ownership does make a massive difference, for better or for worse. Guy uses I went for a trespass with the upbeat emphasis of a dog pissing against a tree, but ancient woodlands exist because ‘we’ – farmers, botanists, farm labourers, hunters, poachers, absent landlords – use them, learn from them and, as he will learn soon, fight for them – over and over again.

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