Having successfully helped my mum pack her house into an articulated lorry, and bring her down here to Dorset yesterday, I have to admit to being a bit knackered.
However I’m looking forward to buying a copy of George Monbiot’s new book “Feral”, and he has been having a fine time this week publicising it, including a piece on Newsnight which I am looking forward to watching on iplayer later.
I commented on a draft of the book for George last year, after we had a lively twitter conversation (or spat as it was also described) on the pros and cons of re-wilding vs conserving semi-natural habitats. Reading the draft certainly gave me a lot of food for thought and challenged my own preconceptions and accreted dogma around conservation.
Without going into the argument of conserving open habitats vs closed forest cover (for the moment), there is one particular aspect of re-wilding, in the sense of restoring natural woodland to the uplands, which I cannot get past – hopefully you dear reader will be able to help me. Bear in mind my knowledge of soil development is a bit thin.
After the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago, there was tundra and soils, such as they were, were not able to support forest cover. Soils then developed very slowly over a period of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, thanks to plants like Mountain avens and its amazing fungal assemblage.
Mountain Avens growing like a bonsai tree over a boulder in the Burren, Republic of Ireland (copyright Miles King)
Eventually soils developed to the point where forest trees could establish, and the holocene forest was born. This was then slowly removed a few thousand years later through first mesolithic, then neolithic clearance for hunting, grazing, timber/wood exploitation; and crops. Those original soils were lost as a result of this land-use. The consequences were that peat soils started to form in the wet north and west of the British Isles, while elsewhere, different soils developed in response to grazing, cultivation and woodland management. We still have tiny remnants of ancient forest soils in ancient woodlands of varying ages (but I don’t think any have continuous woodland cover back to the original holocene forest)
So we now have in the wet north and west 6000 years of peat growth on top of whatever soil was around at the time that people started to alter the land-use beyond hunter-gathering. There’s a fantastic example of this at Ceide Fields north of Connemara in County Mayo, where the oldest known field system in the world was discovered under thousands of years of blanket bog peat growth.
I was struck by the lack of soil in the Burren last week. Tiny stunted trees peeked out from between the limestone pavements, where it is grazed. Hazel scrub is developing rapidly as grazing pressure decreases, but in the absence of much soil it is a very different beast from the original forest cover – oak and wych elm are almost entirely missing for example.
When the Forestry Commission tried to reforest the uplands in the 1970s and 80s they had to use deep ploughs to break through the peat and then drainage channels to keep it dry enough for trees to grow.
So that is my question – how do we recreate the post-glacial holocene soils that would support something like the pre-neolithic holocene woodland again, regardless of where we find the elephants.