Sunday book review – From Little Acorns…. by John D. James

This is an account of the history of the Woodland Trust – an organisation which reaches its 50th birthday on 10 October 2022.

I used to be quite sniffy about the Woodland Trust, and I think I was right  because in the past it neglected the importance of management of woodland and seemed to prioritise the extension of woodland cover at the expense of woodland quality. I believe that is still a danger but it seems to be a bit less prominent these days.

Over the years, the Woodland Trust has developed into a more campaigning organisation and grown its membership prodigiously. It is a force for good and a force with which to be reckoned – not quite of the stature of the RSPB or Wildlife Trusts, but getting there.

This book is an account by the Woodland Trust’s first employee and former Chief Executive and is therefore a past insider’s account – which makes it well-informed but not necessarily impartial.  I wasn’t sure whether the author was completely happy with the present Woodland Trust or not, but his account of the first 25 years of the organisation from the inside, and the next 25 years from alongside the organisation was fascinating. It spans a time of great change in the conservation movement and touches on both the internal world of the Woodland Trust and the outside world of how the public, government and other conservationists considered the conservation needs of the UK. We learn about the internal politics between the Woodland Trust’s founder, staff and trustees and between the Woodland Trust and other conservation and statutory conservation organisations. What the growing Woodland Trust had to deal with is very well set in the wider context of what others, including government, farmers and other conservation NGOs were doing at the time.  The author is about 10 years older than I am, and so his memories take me back further than my own, and from a different perspective in the years of overlap.

It is somewhat obvious and somewhat mysterious, both at once, that an organisation about tree cover has so captured the public imagination, but it most certainly has. I’m slightly surprised by how interesting I found this account, and I thank the author for his stimulating account and the publisher for bringing this book to my attention.  If you are interested in the history of UK nature conservation, this is required reading.

Every conservation organisation should write up its history now and again – there are several I’d like to read and a couple I’d like to write, but this one is a valuable, as well as interesting, book of record.

No index, but the chapters are quite short and have fairly useful headings.  The photographs through the book are attractive – even if they are mostly of brown wood and green leaves!  The photographs are well-chosen and do illustrate some points, and certainly look good.

The cover? It’s appropriate and attractive, including the extension of the photograph to the back cover. I liked it and would give it 8/10.

From Little Acorns…: unearthing the roots of Britain’s woodland conservation movement by John D. James is published by Mascot Media

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2 Replies to “Sunday book review – From Little Acorns…. by John D. James”

  1. Interesting and insightful review. I’ve been a member of the WT for about twenty years now so obviously I’m more positive than negative about it. That said there are some significant criticisms that need to be made. You’re right Mark there’s still far too much emphasis on area of land planted and number of trees whacked in. Their tree planting packs are great, but we should have moved beyond sticking in a narrowish range of native tree species decades ago – we need to be planting woodlands which is different, but far better for wildlife and as an educational experience for the people involved. Woody climbers like ivy and honeysuckle should be made available too, and suggestions as to how to include open spaces, habitat piles and dead wood within the planting made to the groups doing the plantings. I find pictures of regimented, close together, trees in plastic tubes and nothing else soul destroying, these won’t be great for wildlife, and a missed opportunity for the people involved.

    I’d also stress I’ve found that some of their sponsorship deals leave very much to be desired. I’m glad to say the WT doesn’t bend or sway in its protection of ancient trees or woodland, but they will take money from companies whose products or services are rather less than the ecological optimum – their commitment is variable depending on topic. Products that could and should have been made from recycled fibre haven’t been, and they once took £30,000 from Highland Spring a bottled water company. Not long afterwards we were hit with the scandalous level of plastics in the sea thanks to Blue Planet II and so in its magazine the WT took the opportunity to promote plastic free picnics. I pointed out that the WT had taken money from a bottled water company therefore supporting one of the most pointless (and avoidable) ways in which plastic and other packaging waste could be avoided – their private sector deals are too often a glaring invitation for own goals. As I recall they were also involved with a company that puts chalets into woodland, they ended that after the Fineshades Wood debacle, but should they have ever been involved?

    I have to say that when we were running wildlife events in a lower income area the WT and RSPB were incredibly supportive in staff time and physical resources. They were absolutely brilliant and I’ll always be most grateful, I only wish that like the RSPB they were more proactive in getting involved in lower income areas to begin with. The more they are needed in an area, the less chance someone from it will approach them. I also wish that ideologically the WT was more like the Northeast Wilderness Trust in the states which is specifically trying to bring back old growth forest by reducing demand for timber and firewood as well as protecting woodland from development. The WT sometimes actively encourages projects involved in ‘harvesting’ products from woods, not because anyone actually has to, because it means they can tout ‘benefits’ to the community. Personally I think healthy, real woodland and leading to an appreciation of nature are what’s best about them – not bags of local charcoal (which you can make from invasive rhododendron) for barbecues. Sometimes we need more faith in people and in nature’s appeal for everyone once barriers are taken away.

  2. The WT has some real problems especially when destroying wild flower meadows just to plant trees as what happened in Cumbria recently. Sadly even though words suggested trees would be removed and the area managed for the benefit of the flowers, the trees still remain! I think they need to realise that ‘Carbon’ is not just in the taller plants!

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