Only 20,000 years ago much of Britain was still in the grip of ice and snow of the Pleistocene Ice Age. Since then, the climate has experienced dramatic change that as influenced and shaped Britain’s landscape. Forces of nature that still continue today, only accelerated by man’s motivation to maximise profit at the expense of the natural world that he inherited. Initially temperatures slowly increased causing the vast glaciers to retreat north, leaving bare expanses of sand and rock, which were colonised by plants culminating in a climax vegetation of high forest and its associated animal life.
Birch was probably the first tree to invade, succeeded by Scots pine. But as time went on, and the climate became still warmer and wetter, broadleaved species, including hazel, oak, lime and elm, became established with alder and willow in more poorly drained areas. A further change brought drier conditions allowing beech, ash and hornbeam to spread on better drained soils and extensive areas of birch and Scots pine were confined to the harsher mountainous regions such as the Scottish Highlands.
Unfortunately, our climax vegetation of native broadleaved woodlands and the remnants of the old Caledonian forests of Scots pine have become much scarcer. Of course, woodland clearance is not a new process and has been taking place ever since Neolithic man arrived on the scene around 3000 BC. The forest cover was removed and used for fuel and to make way for the grazing of livestock, cultivation of crops and the spread of settlements. At first, only the lighter soils were cleared – on the chalk, limestone and sandstone ridges. But with technological progress, from flint through bronze to iron and steel, man’s ability to clear the forest and to plough increased and he was able to tackle the heaviest soils on the clay lowlands. Today less than 10% of the original area covered with forests is still given over to trees, and little of this bears much resemblance to the original cover. This is just one example of habitat loss or contraction, I could list others; over 97% our precious hay meadows have disappeared since the Second World War, the lifeblood of our important wetlands drained for agriculture and development and the rich diversity of our uplands lost through over-gazing, inappropriate burning regimes and illegal persecution, the list goes on!
The only constant factor throughout evolution has been change; a process of ecological succession and more lately the influence of man’s intense meddling in the natural world. The pace and breath of habitat change is key to nature’s ability to adapt and thrive. The rate at which habitats are lost, or at best heavily modified, is important to the survival of the natural world and I include mankind. Today, change is happening at a frightening pace and on a scale unprecedented in our history – deforestation, especially of the Amazon forests, alarming increase of co2 emissions and the global growth in populations are the main contributing factors to climate change. The consequences of which, loss of polar ice, sea-level rises, extreme weather trends and more pollutants from the demands of an increasing global population, paint a sad story of man's inability the recognise the inevitable worst-case scenario for the natural world. Could COVID-19 be nature’s way of giving us the opportunity to pause and adjust our lifestyle? Or will it take one of the planets iconic predators to become the next Dodo or Great Auk before we make some positive changes to protect the natural world, by which time it could be too little too late!
In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkinson from 'Inversnaid'
What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wilderness?
Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.