Friday, 30 November 2012

Bears and seeds

When I suggest to people that perhaps brown bears could return to Scotland, I often get a response along the lines of 'maybe, once the forests are restored...' But I think this might be putting the cart before the horse. As well as keeping herbivores on their toes, bears have an even bigger role to play in natural woodland regeneration.

One of the most interesting things I found out while researching my novel Bear Witness is the role bears play in spreading seeds, particularly big woodland seeds like acorns and hazel nuts. When I met Andras Zedrosser and Jon Swenson from the International Bear Association in Norway I asked them what European brown bears' main ecological role is, and their response was 'tree seed dispersal'.

If there are nuts and berries available bears will scoff large quantities and some of them will get right through the bears' digestive tracts and emerge with a good quantity of fertiliser. Anyone who has seen autumn bear scat knows it is berry-laden. Bears have big ranges too, so by the time the seeds are sown, they can be quite a long way from where they were eaten.

So, if we want help spreading our native woodlands, bears could be very helpful. They don't need to live in woods all the time; there are plenty of bears in tundra areas in northern Europe and Russia, for example, so they would probably survive in some of our more open lands and would probably help these lands to regain some tree cover.

I've seen people marvel at the graphs that show how rapidly oak and hazel moved north and recolonised Britain after the end of the last ice age. One of the reasons for this is bound to be that bears were helping the spread of the seeds.

Bears would also help to spread berry trees, like rowans, although right now the huge and wonderful flocks of redwings, fieldfares and waxwings, who have summered in bear-rich habitats, are doing a great job. Everything with yummy seeds (hawthorns and blackthorns, crab apples, wild cherries, hollies, brambles, roses, raspberries, strawberries) would stand a better chance of being dispersed if bears were back in our ecosystems. Many of these species aren't planted at all in the tree plantations that are installed under the guise of 'new native woodlands'.

So I say, if we want more forests so that we can have bears in them, why not get some bears to help? That way we'll be more likely to end up with the kind of woodlands they might like!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Is it time to bring back bears?

Oliver Rackham was recently bemoaning the UK's approach to woodland expansion being so dominated by tree planting, rather than natural regeneration. Not only are the resulting plantations artificial, but the whole process has encouraged the seedling trade across borders that is being blamed for ash dieback disease's introduction to Britain.

One of the main reasons new woods are planted rather than regrown naturally is because we have such unnaturally high levels of herbivores. Young trees can only get away if they're grown behind fences to protect them from teeth and the high costs of fencing and our current system of forestry grants has led to an urgency to get trees established in order to be able to claim grants quickly and recoup the outlay on fences.

I was fascinated to read recently (in The History of British Mammals by Derek Yalden) that Britain's wild mammals weigh, in total, only about 140,000 tonnes (humans weigh in at 3 million tonnes, and our domestic animals at a further 3.5 million tonnes). Not only is it incredible that we and our livestock outweigh the wild mammals 40 to 1, but of those wild mammals, half of the total weight is deer and rabbits. What chance, frankly, does a wild wood have?

So, is it time to think about returning some of our native carnivores, to keep the bunnies and deer under control, and reassert a bit of natural balance in our shattered and fragile ecosystems? This is the question I address in my new novel, Bear Witness, which will be published by Saraband on Earth Day, 22 April 2013. We're allowed  a sneak preview of the cover - you saw it here first!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ash die-back

In case you haven't heard, there is a nasty disease spreading through ash groves around the UK, called chalara dieback (see the Forestry Commission's site for details). We may, unfortunately, be about to experience the massive loss of ash trees that Denmark has been suffering in recent years (see here for more about that).

I can't help reflecting on what this all means. Ash has always been a hugely valuable tree, because not only is it the best firewood but it's also a useful timber, so valuable in fact that in times gone by people caught cutting ash trees without permission could even be hung. However, the significance of ash is not just economic; many cultures including the ancient Greeks and Celts revered the ash as a symbol of one powerful god or another (see here).

No culture gave greater importance to the ash than the Norse people, to whom the ash was (and from the reports from Denmark perhaps still is) the tree of life. Vikings called themselves ‘Aesling’, which means Men of Ash. They believed the first man came from an ash tree (and his wife came from a rowan, sometimes called mountain ash).

One ash tree in particular, Yggdrasil, was the sacred Norse World Tree, the axis of the world, around which the universe achieved harmony. Yggdrasil was believed to hold the earth in its roots and the gods’ houses in its upper branches. Idun, the Norse goddess of life, lived in the tree.

The legend says that when the ash tree dies, so dies the world. Perhaps it is not surprising so many people are grief-stricken at the tragedy of withering ash trees.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

In praise of hazel

Hazel nuts
The most interesting thing I did this week was to look down a microscope at a four thousand year old fire. Incredibly, from the charcoal we dug up at the burnt mound excavation at Stronechrubie (for more of which see we can tell which species of tree they were burning. As well as birch, which we expected, we found hawthorn or apple, which we didn't, as well as lots of alder and hazel. I kept getting these two mixed up, until I learned that appropriately enough, through the microscope, the cellular structure of hazelwood has flame-like patterns of pores that lick up from each annual growth ring.

We also found hazel charcoal in the broch at Clachtoll, where it was used to create the floor of the first storey of the building. The woods here on the croft are still rich in hazel, and they have clearly been coppiced for centuries, presumably to make all kinds of useful things from hurdles to fishing creels. I used it to make the bender when I was writing The Last Bear and I needed to see how Brigid would have made hers. And I used it for the struts of the back-creel I use to bring bring seaweed up from the shore. Maybe it's because it's my Mum's name, but Hazel always seems a special tree to me.

I'm compiling an anthology of tree poems at the moment, and have been surprised at the paucity of poems about hazel, despite its plethora of uses, its importance as the symbol of wisdom in folklore, the sheer beauty of the tree - especially its lovely catkins in early spring - and of course its delicious nuts. G F Dutton wrote a brilliant one - but if you know any other good hazel poems please let me know.

At this time of year, I have a compulsion to gather hazel nuts. My pockets fill up every time I walk in the woods and I sow them in fish boxes then plant them out to grow on in the garden.

However, each year I complain that the nuts are mostly infertile. You can tell by putting them in water - those with kernels sink, the empty ones float. Each year, my pockets yield up about 2% sinkers to 98% floaters. This year I tried picking them direct from the trees and they have averaged more than 60% with kernels. So, I've had to revise my view that the trees are poor producers - I have far too many to grow and have been eating them - delicious! I realise the mice and voles must get to the fallen ones before I do, and they don't need to see if they sink in water to know if they're worth taking home or not - presumably a full hazelnut is, to a mouse, considerably heavier than an empty one.

Despite the low yield of the fallen nuts, two years ago I collected so many I now have lots of young hazels to plant out on the croft. Or maybe I'll replenish some of our more degraded woodlands elsewhere in Assynt. If we ever bring bears back, they'll no doubt appreciate them!