The history of Poitou-Charentes is an arboreal one; a cultural heritage defined by trees and which played a pivotal role in the use of timber and is the frontline in acquiring the new knowledge needed to combat the threats to all trees in Europe, due to its unique geographical position.
Poitou Charentes is not a wooded landscape, it is the domain of the ‘Arbres Hors Fôret’ – Non Woodland Trees (NWT). It is an arboreal landscape not a sylvan (forested) landscape as the neighbouring regions to the South and East are. It is in many respects reminiscent of the classic English estate landscape.
The geography and climate of the region enabled large trees to march across the landscape, pushed on by prevailing winds, limiting themselves to valleys, filled fissures (cracks in the limestone) and swallowholes (almost perfectly circular holes of varying size – hence the perfectly circular small copses still visible in some locations) as the limestone is unsuitable for the growth of blanket woodland. Trees grew where they could and were stronger as a result.
The landscape since humans arrived here, many believe to have been largely silvo-pastoral – an open wooded landscape with predominantly open grazing. The Pictones, the tribe known to exist here from before 60BCE, were largely peaceful with a reputation to collaborate with whom ever was winning. The timber on their lands was clearly enviable, Sessile Oak, Quercus petraea, strengthened by slow growth yet still straight and as such trade through the port of Ratiatum (Now Rezé) went across the known world.
On the plateau micro woodlands developed – naturally bonsai’d trees growing out of the tiniest of fissures in the stone. One can understand why the druids revered such sites for the very durable juniper, yew and hawthorn wood which could be used for a multiple of arcane uses.
Poitou Charentes can also, arguably, lay claim to establishing the first modern timber industry and there are signs of ancient forestry practice enabling a sustainable flow of such timber through replanting using high grade trees and coppicing in the north and east of the region, whether this was during the same period of time is yet to be confirmed. But it is not a wild assumption to state that the Pictones of Northern Poitou-Charentes were some of the first modern foresters.
The geography of the area is such that is the pinch point of the principal corridor linking South East Europe with Central and Northern Europe. The battle of Tours, which was actually in North Vienne near Vouneuil-sur-Vienne in 732 AD, highlights the importance of this natural route for entering Northern Europe chosen by the Moor army. But it is not just humans that take advantage of this convenient corridor, but many animals and even a succession of plants migrated north after the last ice age. Early humans clearly took advantage of this pinch point and the naturally more open landscape and settled here in significant numbers throughout the history of post Ice Age humans in Europe. Some of the oldest intact human buildings in the world the Tumulus of Bougon lie between Poitiers and Niort, (As such a fitting region to choose when considering where to built Futuroscope).
It is the gateway between North and South Europe, the boundary between the D’Oc and D’Oil languages. And the vegetation is a blend of the main and hardiest types of trees and plants from both North and South. Bridging the hill immediately after crossing the Vienne on the A10 a long range vista opens of the Vienne where the change in vegetation and patterns of growth across the landscape are very different, an intermingling of Northern and Southern species before the more Southern species start to dominate once more South of Angouleme.
It has even been suggested that this was where some genera of trees divided to create species more adapted to either the South or the North, for example the European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and the Narrow Leaved Ash (F. Angustifolia) both of which are common here. A tenuous claim and it will be a long time before investigation happens.
But certainly it is arboriculturist’s playground. In wandering around the countryside close to my village I can be distracted time and time again, (much to my family’s annoyance) by yet another incredible tree. In my canton alone I have seen more unique trees than in all my time living and working in the UK. The myth still perpetuated that no other country can rival the amount of ancient and venerable trees found in Britain has long since been debunked but just walking around here shows how far we are in Europe from identifying all such trees, one wonders whether the task is even possible. (The largest French website for trees is the blog ‘Krapo Arboricole’ where amateurs seek out, photograph and list all of the ancient and venerable trees they can find. It is an unfunded project, run by a Toulouse Chef named Christophe Virat and has English translation also).
However this, yet to be fully recorded and researched, arboreal landscape is under huge threat. The range of tree species and the natural geography mean Poitou-Charentes is the frontline in the natural spread of some tree pathogens. The English speaking world are more informed, if it all, about the imported pathogens devastating the trees of the British Isles and North America. The UK is paying the price for cheap imported plants and materials which had stowaways of the worst kind. The potential damage from these combined threats is far, far greater than Dutch Elm Disease, with every single tree at risk.
Poitou-Charentes trees clearly have more natural resilience to some diseases than their British cousins. There is huge scope for research into deciphering why this is exactly and how we can use this to tackle problems, but there is little funding. The difference in soils combined with the different climate is most likely a huge factor – perhaps because many British trees have grown in rich and very diverse deep soils with a consistent and large water source and as such are too weak to face this onslaught with much of a battle?
But what kills a tree here is likely to be very fatal to trees further North and as climate change squeezes the distribution range of southern pests and diseases northwards it is the Poitou-Charentes corridor they will come through first due to the lower elevation. And thus it is here where many last stands are likely to occur in much the same way as Charles Martel did against the invading Moor army back in 732.