A Wood Pasture Landscape

‘Rewilding’, to some, suggests an attempt to re-create the past. Clearly, though, we can never return to what has gone before. Our world is so changed, mostly by humans, that today’s conditions are vastly different from those in recent, let alone distant, times. But we can use some of the drivers – like grazing animals, keystone species like beavers, and the restoration of natural water systems – to kick-start more dynamic, biodiverse ecosystems.

Understanding how our landscape once looked, how our ecology evolved, informs how we can conserve for nature in the future. It is not only Frans Vera who sees the primal landscape of Europe as more open and diverse. Other scientists in the UK have reached the same conclusion from other directions. What they envisage is a kind of dynamic wood pasture system, characterised by large areas of grazed savanna and thorny scrub with groves and open grown trees.

 
 
Keith looking into Cerambyx holes in Romania

Keith looking into Cerambyx holes in Romania

Saproxylic beetles

Dr Keith Alexander, an independent specialist in saproxylic beetles, argues that sub-fossil saproxylic beetle evidence has been interpreted – wrongly – to describe a landscape that was, in the past, predominantly closed canopy forest. In his view, the beetle evidence – when properly analysed - clearly shows the opposite:  a landscape characterised by open-grown trees.

 
Mike thinking deep thoughts on his snails at Stonehenge

Mike thinking deep thoughts on his snails at Stonehenge

Chalk grassland snails

A similar picture emerges from the fossil evidence of chalk grassland snails. In the late 1990s, just as Vera was completing his thesis, environmental archaeologist and conchologist Dr Mike Allen, lecturer at Oxford University and research fellow at Bournemouth University, began questioning the prevailing archaeological belief that the chalk grasslands around Stonehenge, Avebury, Dorchester and Cranborne Chase in Wessex were blanketed in postglacial woodland.

 
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Lichens

The lichenologist Dr Francis Rose, former lecturer at King’s College, London, had scratched his head over closed canopy theory from the 1970s until his death in 2006. His work is largely concerned with epiphyte forest lichens and for thirty years he studied them, in particular, in the New Forest. He noticed that very few species of lichen – or, indeed, mosses or liverworts - could be found inside dense stands of trees. Almost all require light and are found on either open grown trees or trees along rides and the edges of glades or ‘lawns’.