The more I go back to our woods in Wales, the more I regret the need for conifers. Above all for Sitka spruce. Nothing creates useful strong timber so fast: joists, rafters, floor boards… Nothing else will make sour boggy land productive. And yet its black, prickly presence (don’t try to touch a shoot – even a young one) makes our forests grim, forbidding places. Back in the 1960s the Forestry Commission actually tried to kill off our lovely mature oak woodland by underplanting the oak with spruce. As they grew (sometimes as much as five feet a year), they starved the oaks of light. Their lower branches died. Their tops sometimes survived, struggling upwards among the dark spears of the Sitka.
But the native flora below, the oxalis, mosses and ferns, wild raspberry, bilberry, feathery grasses, sometimes bluebells, that signify ancient oak woodland was gradually eliminated, replaced by a brown needle carpet with the occasional fern.
We have been able to salvage several remnants of the old woodland by felling and removing the conifers, but they are a pitiable sight. We plant new broadleaves, oak and beech, among the scrawny old trees, hoping our piety will be rewarded. Conifers are so fertile, though, that their self-sown offspring outgrow our new plantations – and weeding them out is a painful process. Larches I don’t mind (and in fact I love the pale, fragile-looking saplings; being deciduous they are less of a challenge to broadleaves). Sitka, Douglas fir, the useless lodgepole pine, the handsome but economically hopeless western hemlock and the worse-than-useless Lawson cypress are just pests.
The other perennial pest is bracken. It seems much more invasive since foot and mouth disease drastically reduced the number of livestock on the land. It covers stretches of hill that were grass with heather and bilberries with its dull blanket. It has always been a problem here in Snowdonia. Farmers’ letters and diaries of two hundred years ago complain of the August drudgery of cutting and gathering it – at least it made good bedding – under the hot sun. They didn’t know as they breathed its dust and spores that they are carcinogenic. The one herbicide that kills it is difficult to obtain and difficult to apply. And yet the hills are beautiful. I climb them to look out into the wind and the clouds towards Ireland and feel grateful to be alive.