Trees may be slow, but forests are fast. That’s how it seemed to me in our Welsh woods last week. We were honoured with a visit from the Royal Forestry Society (or at least its North Wales Division), and it reminded me how much things have changed in the 28 years we have been in charge.
What is still recognisable are the contours; slopes of five hundred feet or so from the valley to a ridge, commanding a huge view across the sea towards the Wicklow Hills, and south to the rocky north face of Cader Idris (a mountain more noted for its bulk than its height). That is the airy mountain component. The rushy glen is the course of the Afon Dwynant, from a few springs high on the hill to a burbling, occasionally rushing stream as wide as a country road that eventually tips into the estuary of the River Mawdach.
The estuary is lined with what is termed ‘Atlantic Oak Woodland’, a precious zone where contorted oaks thrust up from a bed of boulders with only moss and ferns for company.
There had been no rain for three weeks. The hillside springs were dry, with a surprising effect: without moisture they appeared as brown, even scorched, patches in the grass and heather. The rotation of a commercial forest (as much of ours is) is about sixty years. The tallest remaining trees are spruces almost a hundred feet high and larches, perhaps eighty feet but incomparably beautiful, their delicate canopies soaring on ramrod trunks to form airy colonnades.
Foresters talk about ‘yield-class’, a figure denoting the number of cubic metres of timber produced in a year per hectare – depending, of course, on many factors. Inevitably, sadly, the star performers are always the aggressive Sitka spruce, black in the landscape, spiky to touch. They don’t seem to care if it’s bog or rock; you don’t even have to plant them; their self-sown seedlings sprout everywhere. Foresters call it ‘re-gen’, often so dense that it needs ‘re-spacing’.
Our policy is to leaven our money-making plantings of Sitka with admixtures of other conifers,; pines. firs, thuja, usually larch, and a scattering of broadleaves, which could be beech, birch (which comes up anyway), alder, wild cherry or even Norway maple. Oak is very slow in getting started. The lovely Western hemlock, with drooping sprays of bright apple green, is prolific, and can be vigorous enough to hold its own. Then there is rowan, the sweet-smelling gorse, and of course bracken and brambles. To me it is like a garden on a giant scale, its pleasures magnified, too.