There is currently much concern about our trees and woodlands. The terrible toll taken by Dutch elm disease has been followed by a string of further epidemics, most worryingly ash chalara – and there are more threats on the horizon. There is also a widely shared belief that our woods have been steadily disappearing over recent decades, either replanted with alien conifers or destroyed entirely in order to make way for farmland or development. But the present state of our trees needs to be examined critically, and from an historical as much as from a scientific perspective. For English tree populations have long been highly unnatural in character, shaped by economic and social as much as by environmental factors. In reality, the recent history of trees and woods in England is more complex and less negative than we often assume and any narrative of decline and loss is overly simplistic. The numbers of trees and the extent and character of woodland have been in a state of flux for centuries. Research leaves no doubt, moreover, that arboreal ill health is nothing new. Levels of disease are certainly increasing but this is as much a consequence of changes in the way we treat trees – especially the decline in intensive management which has occurred over the last century and a half – as it is of the arrival of new diseases. And man, not nature, has shaped the essential character of rural tree populations, ensuring their dominance by just a few indigenous species and thus rendering them peculiarly vulnerable to invasive pests and diseases. The messages from history are clear: we can and should plant our landscape with a wider palette, providing greater resilience in the face of future pathogens; and the most 'unnatural' and rigorously managed tree populations are also the healthiest. The results of an ambitious research project are here shaped into a richly detailed survey of English arboriculture over the last four centuries. Trees in England will be essential reading not only for landscape historians but also for natural scientists, foresters and all those interested in the future of the countryside. Only by understanding the essentially human history of our trees and woods can we hope to protect and enhance them.
Tom Williamson is Professor of Landscape History at the University of East Anglia and has written widely on landscape archaeology, environmental history and related subjects.
Gerry Barnes MBE is a Research Fellow at UEA and has co-authored a number of volumes, including Rethinking Ancient Woodland (UH Press, 2015).
Toby Pillatt is a Research Associate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield with a particular interest in human relationships with the natural world.
ISBN 978-1-909291-96-6, Nov 2017, 240pp Paperback
“This book has no equal in the historical understanding displayed in how it sets out the life and history of England’s trees. It deserves to be read by anyone with a serious interest in the topic, and ranked alongside the classics of the field.” Paul Warde, University of Cambridge
“This book provides a tremendous resource, with data that can be used and quoted by historians interested in the countryside, and is likely to remain one of the keystones in understanding the English landscape for some considerable time.” Jan Woudstra, Economic History Review
“This book is a must for those interested in the role of trees and woods in past landscapes, but it is essential reading for those concerned with the trees and landscapes of the future.” Jonathan Spencer, Quarterly Journal of Forestry
“This is a fascinating account which complements the scientific sources that we are perhaps more familiar with. The authors make a compelling and highly engaging case for factoring the lessons of history into our future activities… Landscape architects, planners, ecologists, woodland managers and arboriculturists take note!” Mark Pritchard, Chartered Forester
“This is a good read, very informative and providing a useful guide for anyone interested in the country's tree population and its management in the landscape.” Nicola Bannister, Landscapes Journal
“This is a very impressive addition to the literature on the history of trees and woodland. Tom Williamson, Gerry Barnes and Toby Pillatt have written a valuable book which uses evidence derived from the close reading of a wide range of historical sources to make an important contribution to current debates about woodland management and conservation.” Charles Watkins, Landscape History
“This book is a richly informative literary exploration of trees in the post-1600 landscape of England. It is targeted primarily at landscape historians, natural scientists and arborists; however, its value can be extended to anyone with an interest in landscape management, trees as a resource and the history of human interaction with the natural environment.” Jessica Treacher, Journal of the English Place-Name Society
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