Forestry is inherently an untidy business. Each summer we come to North Wales to enjoy our woods, the mountains round and sea below, and each year another patch is a (temporary) eyesore. This year is a bad one: the February gales made a shambles of half a hillside, and fishing the trees out from the mess transferred a good deal of it onto the forest track. Ditches had to be scoured, surfaces scraped and loads of new stone spread and rolled in. Luckily we have a good roadstone quarry in the heart of the forest, but I have to admit there is a certain rawness about parts of the place just now.
It is easy to escape them. The bosom of the broadleaves is where I go, where a stream tumbles down white among the black rocks. There is a line of Milton’s that rings in my head here: ‘bosom’d high in tufted trees’. The distinct tufts of well-spaced oaks and beeches, ashes, some sycamores and innumerable birches pattern the hillside opposite like a gallery of portraits, now glowing gold in the evening sun. I have been surprised to learn how often a wood of originally close-planted trees needs thinning to make strong (as opposed to spindly) trunks: perhaps once every fifteen years. I wonder where Milton’s trees were.
Ashes are a worry: Chalara may well be on the way to kill or cripple them. But I never planted many; there are plenty of seedlings, and oak and beech are our favourites. The far bigger worry is the new threat to the larch from the dreaded Phytophthora ramorum that arrived in Wales from the southwest and seems to be heading north. Almost a quarter of our trees are larch, most of them planted in the 1960s and now close to full height. For ten years we have been thinning them; they need maximum light to form strong heads on their elegant bare stems, standing thirty feet or so apart. The forestry plan is to underplant them with beech or Douglas fir (or both), so when they are felled at full size the ground is already well treed. There is a good deal of volunteer oak and birch too. We hate the idea of losing the pale larch-green in spring and warm gold in autumn, born high above the hillsides on graceful poles.
It is strange to remember that larches only came to this country in the 1600s from the Alps. John Evelyn in his Sylva tells how his gardener threw out his first batch of seedlings in the first winter, thinking their loss of needles meant they had died. He goes on to rave about the quality of larch timber, as good as oak for shipbuilding, able to be sliced so thin that you could use it in place of glass in a window and light would shine through.
We visited the biggest larch in the Alps, in the Val d’Anniviers, this spring, a branchy, craggy monster supposedly born in about 1600. Some of Britain’s original trees still grow at Dunkeld, where they were planted 300 years ago by the Duke of Atholl. I can’t bear to think that we could lose all these lovely trees..