Friday, January 28, 2011

well-studied woods

England's forests are in the news this week, as the government is planning to sell them off (it's so hard to keep up with the swing of their wrecking-ball, anyone know what it will hit next week?). Fortunately, that won't affect our local patch, Wytham Woods, as it is owned by Oxford University. Here's my review of a recent book on Wytham Woods, which came out last year and is due to appear in paperback in June:

Wytham Woods: Oxford's Ecological Laboratory
by Peter Savill, Christopher Perrins, Keith Kirby, Nigel Fisher (eds.)
OUP 2010

Going for a walk in the woods, we may naively think we are looking at nature, but in reality, as Chris Perrins writes in the introduction of this book: “Wytham Woods is like a book which records the activities of people over many centuries.” This forest just outside Oxford, like all other forests in Europe, is most definitely not what grew naturally after the ice of the last Ice Age receded. Humans planted and cut trees, erected fences to keep animals in or out, and used the woods for a variety of purposes, including, in the last five decades, for ecological research. As climate change forces us to rethink our relationship to nature, this is exactly what makes Wytham Woods so interesting: While it has always been woodland, it is a silent witness of human interaction with nature, from the arrival of agriculture through to the symptoms of climate change.

Therefore, it is quite appropriate that a proper book should record what we know about this metaphorical book of interactions between humans and nature. This one is pitched at a very academic level (as is obvious from the prohibitive price of the hardback), so the editors have invited experts to review various aspects of the research conducted at Wytham Woods. However, some parts are also readable and interesting to the lay person who may just come to it from a “local interest” perspective. The introduction, detailing the history of this patch of land (which Raymond ffennel, ne Schumacher, donated to Oxford University after the death of his only child) is very accessible, as is chapter 3 on land use changes over time. There are, inevitably, chapters regarding the trees and the flowers of the forest, which I skipped, as I’m not much of a botanist.

What I found very endearing was the section on the badgers of Wytham Woods – apparently the land has the highest recorded population density of badgers in the world, and also the best-studied badger population in the world. At its peak, the badger count was 46 animals per square km, and the latest figure is 37 adults per square km. I learned that biologists are puzzled by the fact that badgers live in groups, even though the benefit of doing so isn’t immediately obvious (they hunt earth worms, which doesn’t exactly require a team effort, and since the disappearance of wolves, their biggest natural enemy is the motor car, against which, again, groups don’t help much). More than once the badgers made me think of human behaviour.

Climate change research, including the ongoing partnership program between the Earthwatch Institute and HSBC, which is now also open to volunteers from the general public (see project page or my feature in Oxford Today), is confined to the last, rather short chapter. The wealth of data already recorded on the plants and animals of Wytham Woods, as detailed in the previous chapters of the book, is a big asset for climate change research. Quite how climate change will affect the forest and its inhabitants isn’t clear yet, but researchers have a good knowledge base to start finding out what’s going on, and this book is a great introduction to this scientific treasure.

I don't expect anyone is going to pay 50 quid for the hardback (I borrowed it from the library, thinking "use it or lose it"), so here's an advance link to order the paperback:

Alternatively, you can read the first chapter on the publisher's site.


Paul said...

Interesting review. Wytham Woods sounds like it would be a worthwhile place to explore.

It is a pity that there aren't many large, wild forests left in central and southern England, but I imagine that the high population density makes it hard to preserve natural areas.

Michael said...

thanks Paul. I'm sure what's left of the forests here will be converted to golf courses if the government gets its way. More news of protest

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