In rural France, particularly on the plateau landscapes, there are many field woodlands which are predominantly long retention coppice, Sweet Chestnut in the main, with standards, nurse trees or Mother Trees of Oak, Ash or mature Chestnuts (I will adopt the term ‘Mother Trees’ which for me best describes the increasingly realised significance of these large dominant trees helping to protect and nurture surrounding younger generations). These woods are as important to the local hunting syndicate as they are for local timber supply; hunting is a pastime generating significant income. Whilst privately owned the timber is usually sold in lots to firewood suppliers and as all French woodland owners have to submit a management plan by law, the trade is regulated to the benefit of the woodland’s biodiversity and the wider landscape.
These woods do not seem accessible to the public and you will find no way-marked trials, picnic benches or often even a gate to enter. But so long as the hunt is not in progress, which is impossible to miss with as much fluorescent material on show to rival the Rio carnival, these woodlands are usually open to the public at all times.
As with most forestscapes their size belies the fact that upon entering the wood, your horizon changes and you are welcomed into a new landscape, although one very much man made, it is clear this is not at any cost to biodiversity. Coppiced woodland is seen in the UK as a museum exhibit, it is something TV celebrities or journalists feel the need to explain as though they have just discovered the technique deep in a dusty library cellar, despite the fact it survives as a very much alive woodland management technique in the UK. Coppice is an amazing feat of tree physiology – to survive a fell to re grow and then double, triple, quadruple etc., Their stems providing an endless resource of sustainable timber. It is the most ancient form of silviculture and modern horticultural or arboricultural students understand the manipulation of epicormic growth (which coppice is a basic form of) early on in their studies.
The French government want to see these woodlands enter much more intensive management to satisfy increasing demand for wood biomass for energy. These woodlands (as defined plantations) should, according to research, cope well with this change into short rotation coppice, which will apparently not harm biodiversity dependent on these habitats either. But there could well be one major loss – the succession of the mother trees and this loss could have dramatic consequences for the health of these woodlands long term as we now know that much of their importance lies underground, but are also a vital resource of nutrients above ground for secies of fauna and flora.
Many of the Mother Trees are outgrown coppice remnants of a relatively even age. Linking this to the historically regular weather patterns of the plateau when great storms often flatten many of these Mother Trees at one time, the trees fall in an easterly direction due to the prevailing wind direction, creating a crescent, from above similar to a segment of spokes of a bicycle wheel. As traditional French silviculture tends to leave such trees lying in situ, (asides removing easy to reach timber for firewood), stems spout along along the length of the fallen Mother.
Due to the difficulty of felling naturally layered new growth, the mother tree continues. And as the fallen trees rot away these new shoots continue to grow and the Mother Tree moves eastwards, leaving a rich deposit of nutrients from which she can feed from (and feed the regularly coppiced youngsters in her charge also).
If we had access to satellite imagery from the last two centuries would we be able to create time lapse aerial photos of a woodland canopy showing the Mother trees as a front, semi circular waves marching eastwards similar to the pattern seen at the front of lapping waves on a shallow beach?
This would explain the widespread traditional knowledge that eastern boundaries to woodland in France require considerably more maintenance than western boundaries. If the leeward boundary was unmaintained these woodlands would start to march eastwards.
The movement of trees is usually confined to science fiction, but trees do walk in more ways than one with the assistance of climatic influence on the tree itself or more often the soil it is interacting with. Therefore as climate changes, (once in a lifetime storms becoming annual events) and woodlands, that many misconceive to be ancient but which are actually the result of historic human influence, behave increasingly erratically will it alter public perception of woodland and trees in general for good or ill?