A British cultural factor with regards land management has spread across the channel. The division of land in the UK was born out of historic controversial policies, in particular the Enclosure Acts, which have installed field and property boundaries as a quintessential element of the British rural landscape and is particularly noticeable with regards forest and woodland design due to their naturally imposing stature in the landscape.
When a field is planted with trees, it remains a field planted with trees.
The continuing obsession with equal spacing, equal height canopy is likely to remain installed in the British mindset for many years to come. Such a pattern of planting fragments the biodiversity of the landscape leaving only hedgerows and chance natural regeneration to fill the voids. Massive new planting schemes such as the National Forest help to dispel this, but are still beholden to an approach which is unavoidably based on a parcel by parcel delivery system with a hope that one day all the fields of trees will interlink, although the field boundaries will remain a visual line of force well after the trees reach maturity. This is inherent now and will define the visual aesthetics of UK woodland for many generations to come.
But what cannot be allowed and what is causing concern in France and Spain is that British expats, which number in their hundreds of thousands, are happily exporting land management practices which do not fit in with the cultural landscape to which they have moved to. The firmly rooted ideals of using often newly defined property boundaries installed by a system to cater towards the expat £ to define the limits of their chosen land management system have disturbed the landscape, its biodiversity and the social and cultural aspects of rural landscapes which were so appealing in the first place to the British seeking a new lifestyle.
The differences are becoming all too obvious now and when considering the significant amount of land that has been acquired by expats abroad the problem is a large one. What is clearly acceptable and normal for the British, (after all even mature conifer plantations are now deemed aesthetically pleasing by large amounts of a predominantly urban British, particularly English population) does not work in a foreign landscape.
When I first started in forestry the technique in designing a forest was still stuck in the days of using an OS map displaying the obvious property boundaries, and simply marking the species selection based on percentages to suit FC guidelines or as in the case of native broadleaf new planting to match a similar ‘case study’ ASNW nearby.
As the work of Simon Bell started to influence the Woodland Grant Scheme (WGS) criteria for design, scalloped edges and asides considerations for broadleaved riparian strips required a much more lateral approach, a viewpoint was needed and this view point was the definitive point from which to map out and survey new planting and felling to allow for broadleaf planting to soften the edges of block monoculture conifers. Surveying in a young conifer plantation the boundary where the conifers would meet the broadleaves was a test of skill with regards using a compass and translating the difference of land incurred when transposing a percentage created by a map onto what was often steep sloped resulted in visibly scarce broadleaved planting compared to the neighbouring conifers. The resulting image, although a huge improvement, was noticeably unnatural and the glaringly obvious boundary lines remained far too visible.
This is Haldon Forest, near Exeter:
It is easy to see the imprint in the conifer plantation in the background of the historic field boundaries creating distinctive parcels of enclosed land remaining within the forest. Historic management field by field resulted in changes to the soil which affect the tree growth, however subtly and will remain as the trees reach maturity are felled and even the second generation will be affected.
This is a photo of a forest landscape in Limousin:
Here the differences in tree planting follow natural lines in the landscape, contours, streams, escarpments etc., these lines were also property boundaries. The cultural history of rural French land ownership, as with most other European states, used natural boundaries as an easy method to define the boundary. Although land with a similar pattern to that in the UK is found in France and elsewhere, the ‘bocage’ landscape in particular, it still bases major landscape features such as large scale forestry on using patterns defined by the more traditional natural lines.
I am not suggesting a change to the now generic method of woodland design in the UK, one where we now accept the boundary lines and with often measured spacing between even new native mixed planting. But this system does highlight still further the difference between remnant ASNW and post Evelyn planting. Furthermore it inevitably leaves a scar following clearfell, despite the best efforts of retention lines, which the public clearly dislike. We cannot tolerate the export of such planting patterns. And when any British expat tells me they are planting up their fields with trees, however much this should be appreciated, the resulting cacophony of species in dead straight lines is hardly an appropriate new addition to the landscape in which they have settled and the French are increasingly concerned when this is combined with another favoured technique of the British expat and other new landowners who are keen to stress their boundaries by fencing. Unregulated tree planting is not always a good thing.
However as the British increasingly use French urban planting as a template for new urban planting, we do need to realise that this system is currently being re thought in France, because such systems are highly susceptible to disease spread and threats from climate change. Interestingly the ideals advocated by Simon Bell & others are now being introduced into new urban planting more and more in France, to some stunning visual effect.
And I wonder how much better a forest designed using the French system would be in combating the threat poised by pests, diseases and non natives? If proven to be more effective how quickly can the UK step out of their comfort zone box to adapt forest design to meet these threats and introduce planting that transcends boundaries, if indeed possible at all?
The need for knowledge transfer across European boundaries is vital in coming years to help defend against pests, diseases and climate change threats. But we must be very careful as what should be exported and what should not. As modern times are defined by fashions, including within the world of forestry, we need to take careful stock of the cultural ties with the landscape and their effects on design which in turn effects modern perception of design even for a forest landscape.