“Woodlands at War: The impact and legacy of WW1 and WW2 on Britain’s Woodlands” talk by Clive Mayhew
Talk at Dallington Village Hall, Friday 6th August, 7 pm start. No entrance fee, but donations to cover the cost of refreshments would be welcome.
Description: The substantial contribution made by British woodlands over two world wars has been somewhat overlooked in subsequent histories. This talk looks at those pre-war woodlands,describes the extent of their contribution during these conflicts, and assesses its post war legacy.
By the second half of the nineteenth century Britain’s woodlands were widely considered to be in a state of perilous decline. Markets were depressed as the navy turned away from wooden ships, and the evolving industrial revolutionresulted in the widespread availability of cheap, mass produced goods; in many instances replacing woodland derived products. Urban industrialised wealth also meant thatcountry estates increasingly became centres of recreation. Gamekeepers held sway over foresters, as the importance of woodlands for game cover took primacy over the production of timber and underwood products.
Strategically this mattered little to Britain, as with its wide-reaching empire, and primary position as a mercantile trading nation, it calmly imported 96% of its timber.
At the outbreak of war, the scale of this strategic weakness was immediately recognised. Both the mines and railways were prodigious consumers of timber. While the combined services, fighting an industrialised war, appeared to havelimitless requirements. The need to increase home production was paramount. The first response was to recruit overseas specialists, particularly from Canada, who arrived with the skills and a scale of operation previously unheard of. By the Armistice an area larger than that of todays greater London had been felled; a remarkable feat achieved largely by horse and hand.
The Forestry Commission’s establishment in 1919 was specifically intended to address the strategic gaps in timber supply, so starkly exposed during the previous conflict.However, when hostilities commenced in 1939 the situation was unnervingly familiar: Reliance on imported timberremained at 1914 levels, while sources from continental Europe and the Baltic had been lost, and U-boat attacks in the Atlantic threatened supply lines from the Americas.
However, organisation improved. The Timber Control Boardco-ordinating need with supply, and future stocking wasconsidered before felling. But this war’s need was even greater than the last, with a larger requirement for specialist timbers, such as marine and aviation grade plywood. Again, overseas labour, particularly from Canada and Australiaplayed its part, along with the home-grown expansion of Women’s Timber Crops. At war’s end some 2,100km² of woodland had been felled, with 95% of that coming from private woodlands.
What does the removal of 46% of the country’s woodland look like, both then and now? In 1947 the Forestry Commission undertook a detailed survey, and this forms a stark record of the extent of ‘devastation’ suffered by so many woodlands. A further legacy is the prevalence of Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) supporting post-war softwoods. Also, individual trees provide clues in the form of a ‘living archaeology’, as evidenced by the remarkably young average age of trees in our landscape, or as individual specimens, still bearing scars of wartime activity.
About the speaker:
Clive Mayhew BA (Hons) FArborA MICFor CEnv
Clive has over twenty years’ experience in arboriculture, both in the private sector and within local authorities. He specialises in the role played by trees within historic designed landscapes; their recognition, preservation, management and – if necessary – replacement. A popular public speaker, Clive has been a regular on the seminar and conference circuit for many years, presenting on a broad range of arboricultural subjects. He lives in Robertsbridge.