Forget the happy pills. . . take a walk in the woods

OVER to Furze Hills at Mistley in a freezing easterly, to look at the gnarly ancient oaks there.

This year I finally found the one supposed to be the oldest of them all, Old Knobbley. He’s reckoned to be up to 800 years old, although there are others nearby which must be almost his age. The Furze Hills wood has a flavour and atmosphere all of its own. It still feels like the larger forest which it once must have been. “Many of Essex’s villages and towns were originally in forest clearings,” the author Ronald Blythe told me last year. “We were woodland people.” It lately transpires that at heart, we still are.

True to form, almost as if prompted by some primeval collective memory, there was a seismic reaction to recent news that the government is planning to privatise some 620,000 acres of the country’s ancient woodland. I’ve been e-mailed about it, and asked about it. I don’t know what they all think I’m going to do. As if I’d immediately leap off my chaise longue, don my Homburg, march over to the nearest government minister and bark in best 1950s clipped R.P: “You there! Are you thinking of privatising the nation’s forests? Well stop it, right now. Or there’s going to be a dickens of a song and dance – you mark my words.”

It strikes me that this is an emotional issue rather than a political one. After the recent news had broken, however, the Sunday broadsheet which made the biggest fuss – strongly supported by a cadre of worthies, celebs and other national treasures – was not a woolly one, but a tweedy one. Tricky customer, Johnny Politics. If, as was once said by their opponents, Labour wasn’t working, under the Trades Descriptions Act, there’s probably now a case for bringing the Conservatives to book because they appear not to want to conserve anything. The Ministry for Fixing Things Which Aren’t Broken, however, has never recognised any political barriers.

Threaten our old greenwood, and whatever political colours we sport, we’ll rise up out of the bracken together, like the woodland outlaws that so many of us feel that, underneath, we still are.

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I assume, in our straitened economic times, that the two questions prompting the privatisation moves are that if we have all this woodland: a) How much money is it all costing to maintain? and b) How much money might be harvested from it?

So, I ask myself, who mostly uses the woods nowadays? Dog-walkers, was my conclusion. I used to be one myself and spiritually, I remain so. Three times a day, nearly every day for almost 15 years, I was in the woods. Most dog walkers, however, aren’t just there for the dog-walking. Once you get to know a patch of woodland, it becomes a little like a soap opera – you daren’t miss it. No two days are exactly the same, not in their light, not in their weather, nor in their general activity. On one day, the woods might be in their own way, as busy as Piccadilly Circus. The wood pigeons blunder about, there’ll be a tree-top drama going on with some squirrels, a strange dog might come racing out of the undergrowth and then two runners will thunder past you and disappear. And, all of this time, the sonic backdrop will be one of the wind combing the fleece of the canopy overhead. The whole woodland will be open for business. On another day, however, the place may be eerily still, with not a leaf stirring. Then, it can seem as if a bomb has dropped somewhere and that you and your dog are the last living things on the planet.

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I have a theory about some of these government announcements. Making an announcement is probably a lot cheaper than conducting a poll. When you make your dramatic announcement, unlike with a poll, you immediately cut out all your Don’t Knows. What you’ll yield instead, is a great tide of instant emotion from people who care passionately about the matter in hand. Then you can gently backtrack, customising your original ideas according to what you may now feel you can get away with.

But you can’t go mucking about with the woods, too much. You mustn’t charge people for going in, for instance. It’s inadvisable to put up too many signs, fences or to have the place overly-patrolled or administrated. Nor do you really need to create any heritage walks, or boards proclaiming that the place is now ancient woodland rich in bio-diversity. The punters already know this. It’s why we go there. In fact, apart from getting a few experienced lads in once or twice a year to coppice them – which has worked ever since Saxon times – the woods will mostly, look after themselves.

If a pest or parasite comes to threaten a particular species, let it. In the end, another species will take over. Nature abhors a vacuum and so, nothing happening isn’t an option. And the woods are very good for us. Do we need to save money? We could save an awful lot on the NHS, if instead of prescribing expensive happy pills, GPs instead, wrote their patients prescriptions for a pair of wellies and twice daily walks in the woods. The woods are where children used to go before adventure playgrounds were invented. But if you really want to know what to do with our ancient forests, don’t ask a business guru or an ecologist, ask the nation’s dogwalkers.

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