As one of the ‘Explore’ writers in the forthcoming 26 Trees project I got the chance to choose ‘my’ tree. And I knew just the person to help me: my brother-in-law, Ross Wingfield.
As a land management advisor for the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), Ross spends his days travelling the beautiful Kent/Sussex countryside and working with landowners. When I asked if he would show me his ‘office’, he said yes straight away.
As you’ll see when the project launches, my afternoon with Ross – and his trusty sidekick Arnold – became entwined with my writing, much like the roots of a tree. But it also gave me the opportunity to find out a bit more about his own passion for our remarkable woodlands…
What does a land management advisor in the High Weald do?
To answer that you first need to know that the High Weald is Europe’s best-preserved medieval landscape – that means it’s got things like irregular-shaped fields, hedges, gill streams, sandy outcrops, woodlands, and, of course, stunning views. That’s why it has AONB status.
So, it’s my job to go and visit landowners who want to know more about how to look after their land with this character in mind. They’re generally interested in a couple of things: how to farm more profitably, and, increasingly, more environmentally, and how to do things that support the wildlife and ecology. Before this I worked as a ranger for the National Trust and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which means I’ve done a lot of those land management tasks and know what works.
What’s your favourite bit of your job?
Talking to people! I get to be nosy, walk around other people’s property and give them advice. It’s about helping them understand all the great things they could do with their piece of countryside. And it’s lovely when you go back to a place and see changes they’ve made as a result of your recommendations.
What makes trees so special?
I think they fix you to a place on the planet at a certain time. I think there’s something in our evolutionary psyche, too. Without trees we wouldn’t have homes and warmth and tools. We’re intimately linked to each other. With climate change becoming part of the national and international conversation, I think people are starting to remember that. Personally speaking, I have trees that I think of as ‘mine’. I used to be able to walk into work [at Scotney Castle in Kent] and every day I would say good morning to a particular oak. I went and said goodbye on my last day.
Do you have a favourite species?
Birch. It used to be oak simply because I grew up with one at the back of my house; it was part of my childhood landscape. But through my career I’ve become fascinated with how hardy birch can be. It’s a pioneer species, which means that whenever you do any work on the land, such as coppicing, birch is often one of the first tree to establish. It can grow 10-15 feet in its first three years. It’s great for invertebrates and birds, its sap makes a refreshing drink and the fine twigs on the lower branches are excellent for starting a campfire.
What role do trees play in the High Weald?
That’s a massive question. You can go right back to Roman times when the iron industry was really starting up and the woodland was incredibly important for making charcoal to go in the furnaces. Then into the 18th century, hornbeam and oak coppice was turned over to sweet chestnut coppicing to supply the hop industry. The branches were used to grow the hop bines up. That caused a fundamental change in species within the woodland.
When that industry died the woodlands were really left derelict. But that’s changing again – people have become more interested in woodland management, partly thanks to wood burning stoves and biomass boilers. That’s a good thing for our wildlife. The woodlands have a cycle in England – coppicing and cutting back lets in sunlight, which kicks the understorey [the woodland floor] into action encouraging this influx of different trees and species for a period of time.
What do you make of our 26 Trees project?
Anything that raises awareness or brings a person closer to a tree is a good thing. Working with you on this has made me think about how to help give trees a voice – what words can they give me to pass on to you that you then interpret through your writing. The beauty of it is you see a tree in a different way to me, which will be different again for each of your writers.