Felling Sticks Walk.
Bird nesting season and they’re chainsawing the wood.
And not any old wood (is there such a thing?) but ours. Our wood. And they are not just chainsawing it. They are eating it up and spitting it out in random patterns with enormous forestry machinery that looks apocalyptic: giant grabs, shears and winches on huge caterpillar tracks.
They came unannounced, without approach, consideration or enquiry to the wood in the centre of our village, all the way from Frome in Somerset. The wood has many names: Post Office Woods, Greater Great Common, The Sticks Walk (our own personal name) and, perhaps more ominously, The Plantation or The Firs. Once common land, the remnant heath and mixed, deciduous woodland has just two official footpaths running through it. Yet, over decades and generations, the whole wood has been explored, ‘desire paths’ have been created, spots within it named and known. The whole wood has become a much loved, much used heart of the village. Children, children’s children and their children have grown up here, built dens, climbed trees, watched badgers, built bridges over and dammed the stream. My own children included.
By the time anyone realised what was going on, the entrance to the wood had been clear-felled, the trees dangerous, apparently. All of them? A kite’s nest in an ash tree had gone with it too. I challenged the foresters. All other villagers had been lied to, up till this point; told they were just felling dangerous trees at the front and that the owner was kind enough to plant new ones. I was more persistent. I know how this works. I asked the foreman where the ash tree had gone, with the kite’s nest in it. No birds nesting here, he said, no ash tree, just some dodgy beech trees, holly and a wonky old oak. I pointed the ash tree out to him. I can tell oak from ash as well as I can tell a hawk from a handsaw, even when it is lying on the ground, branchless. Had I known they were coming, I could have gathered evidence. Taken a picture. But I didn’t. No one did.
There are dormice in this wood. Alerted by a resident in 2011, I recorded their presence, then. But apparently, that record is too old; it needs to be within five years to stop any work that would wreck their habitat. There are adders too – the wood was famous for them years ago and villagers who have been here longer, regale me with tales of ‘adderpits’ of hibernating vipers. There aren’t even those (or dormice) on the Wildlife Trust owned Little Great Common on the other side of the road. But again, all records are anecdotal. I can’t produce them to show the foresters, like a magic trick.
I feel small and insignificant, standing in front of them with my daughter and these wild, bold claims. She, aged ten, has just finished reading the brilliant The Wilderness War by Julia Green and she’s primed for action: ‘we can build dens, treehouses, throw water bombs at them!’ she cries, in her deep conviction that this cannot be allowed to happen. And I have to turn away. I, who have brought her up with such stories. Of how I lay in front of cherry-pickers and breached police lines, stood in front of men wielding chainsaws inches from my face and wrists. But what can I do here?
The foreman urges me to ‘take care of myself’ pointedly, as I leave. I smile a ‘you too’, back at him. He’s been here before, I think. But then. So have I.
My son and older daughter spot the devastation from the school bus window – take pictures, text me urgently. They too are deeply upset and angry. The beech trees formed a stained glass, vaulted, cathedral-like tunnel here, across the road and my son loved to cycle under it. It was one of his favourite places. The beeches opposite remain, undangerously, breaking into leaf, like grief. The lane looks like the aisle of a bombed out, broken half of a church.
The village and Parish Council get together to see what can be done, but there is nothing. It is a private wood. The forestry company has bought the timber and felling rights legitimately. I am told they will not be clear felling the rest, that a percentage of trees will be removed, that it will be thinned and there will be replanting of a mix of hard and soft woods. For what? For felling when my children have children?
The footpath is not closed. Signs go up telling people to keep to the official paths. At the weekend, I go in with my husband for support to have a look. The wood is unrecognisable. Paths formed and followed for at least sixty years, according to one resident (and certainly, much longer) have gone. Favourite trees too, whilst others remain. There is the smell of rising sap, greenwood and mashed foliage. I look mournfully in the trees and at my feet for bird’s nests. The wood is uncharacteristically quiet. Few birds sing. There is no cuckoo.
I watch as a pair of treecreepers shin up the side of an old birch tree and try to be philosophical. The wood may benefit from thinning, woods do: though it is actually quite ‘open woodland’. They haven’t clear felled the lot. They have left particular trees and will replant and put right some of it. It will recover. And we can reclaim it again. Perhaps, I think ambitiously, perhaps we could buy it for the village, in perpetuity? Reclaim the old Common?
But I am angry. I am angry at the way in which it’s been done. The subterfuge. The sudden arrival for which no one could prepare. The complete disregard for local people. They have cynically driven down one of the oldest, most established paths with signs up that say ‘Forestry operations, please stick to the official footpaths’. Most of all, I am angry at the timing. Why now? Why, in bird nesting season, when the migrant birds are arriving? Surely, that is illegal? It’s not. There are ways around what we all believe is the law.
‘The Law allows birds which are not specially protected to be disturbed, or their eggs or nests to be destroyed, provided it is incidental to a lawful operation and could not have been reasonably avoided’.
Over the hill, another example of this is taking place. A little acre of ash, hawthorn and cherry has been completely clear-felled this same week. It is home to one of the last two remaining populations of willow tits in the whole of Berkshire. Felling this wood, at this time of year is an act of extinguishing the almost-extinct. The other willow tit area, just a field away is protected ancient woodland, a SSSI and I hope, safe. I do wonder. It’s remote. The owner (no connection to ‘our’ village wood) owns whole villages and thousands of acres across our three border counties, and is no doubt oblivious (as his Foresters probably are) of the existence of this rare little bird, hanging on by a thread.
I hurt for the children and all our memories of this place and I hurt because I can’t stop it for them. It will recover, yes. But the wood, its familiar paths and the way they swing this way and that, over that old fallen tree, past the one struck by lightning, the way another is worn by so many hands swinging round it – all this is in their blood, set down in their making like rings of grain and rooted here.
Just when the tenderest leaves are unfurling.
Everything is sacred. Nothing is safe.