ALLOTMENT FORESTRY: A FORGOTTEN
Allotment Forestry is a term we originally coined to describe the small
scale growing of beanpoles but have subsequently used to describe the
growing, management and use of 'micro' woodlands; individual trees, hedges
and small woodlands, to produce all types of wood products. Some aspects
of Allotment Forestry are well developed, such as Garden and Allotment
scale Fruit tree growing. Other aspects are poorly developed and there
is a need to encourage these. This has not always been the case and for
many centuries Allotment Forestry was a common practice and shaped distinctive
landscapes still enjoyed today. Revitalising the traditions of Allotment
Forestry is one way of using 'micro woodlands' and the individual tree
in promoting truly sustainable lifestyles in towns and cities today.
Ask most people today how much woodland there was in England at the time
of the Doomsday Book (1086 AD) and they will say 70-90% of England was
woodland. The actual figure is thought to be only 15%. Even by today's
standards where 11% of England is woodland, England was sparsely wooded
a 1000 years. The reason for this is that land was needed to grow food
and to grow more food required more land. Some woodland was, however,
required to meet a range of essential needs such as fuel to cook and wood
to build fences and houses with. Trees and shrubs however were not only
to be found in 'woodlands' they were also found as individual trees, hedges
and small woodland plots elsewhere in the countryside
THE ALLOTMENT FORESTRY TRADITION
An impression of how this 'Allotment Forestry' landscape may have looked
can be gained from Breugal the Elder's painting 'Hunters in the Snow'
.The only 'woodland', on the left of the painting, is found on the difficult
to cultivate soils and slopes of the brow and the upper slopes of the
hill, a common place to find Ancient Woodland in long settled parts of
England today. We cannot tell this from the painting but in all likelihood
the wood, and also small 'copses' elsewhere, will have been coppiced.
Most British trees and shrubs regrow when cut down, producing a forest
of shoots from the cut stump. Man in Britain has made use of this characteristic,
called coppicing, for at least 4000 years. Coppicing was the main form
of woodland management in the British Isles until well into the 19th Century
with long established techniques for using the small sized material for
all manner of jobs, the most important of which were as a fuel and for
fencing. We can however see other productive trees in the painting.
A line of unnaturally unbranched open-grown trees takes
the viewer down into the painting where along the road at the centre of
the painting are similar trees. The regular removal of side branches of
trees for poles or leafy fodder was once a common practice and is known
as shredding. Shredding no longer occurs in Britain but it is common elsewhere,
especially in peasant based farming systems.
By the houses closest to the viewer in the centre of the painting and
also elsewhere can be seen short trees with a full round crown, the classic
'lollipop tree' of children's drawings. Such trees are a common feature
of parts of England today and they are the result of pollarding, the practice
of cutting trees at between 5 and 15 feet above ground and leaving it
to sprout new shoots from the cut top. These shoots are cut again when
they get to useful size and sometimes the old hollow stems were felled
and used as culverts or as the lining of wells.
HOW IMPORTANT WAS ALLOTMENT FORESTRY
Today no trees in Britain are managed by pollarding or shredding to produce
useful products. Coppicing, while still practiced, is largely hanging
on as a tradition through its beneficial role as a 'woodland conservation'
practice rather than as a means of producing useful products. Given this
state of affairs how important were the products arising from micro-woodland
management in people's lives in the past?
There are frequent references to micro-woodlands in old charters; as landmarks
and sources of complaint against, for example, some poor soul 'stealing'
firewood. So much so they had to be of more than passing significance.
Ancient micro-woodland features such as veteran pollarded trees are still
found in many parts of the country today. Trees such as Oak, when pollarding
is maintained at regular intervals, live longer but a delay of only a
few decades can mean the demise of the cut tree. That these trees are
growing today as are medieval hedges is evidence of many centuries of
sustained and regular cutting with any arisings finding a use.
many parts of England the practice of collecting/cutting wood became so
established that people acquired the 'right' to do it under particular
Traditions such as 'Common Rights' allowed free or cheap access to key
resources such as fuel that helped to 'prop' up the lives of a large number
of country people. The wide range of folk traditions associated with many
plants typical of woodland also suggests that micro-woodlands, which were
often close to where people lived, were relatively intensively managed
for wood products as well as for many other products such as leaves and
herbage for livestock fodder and bedding and fruits for food, pickles
FREE WOOD OR NEW COMMON RIGHTS
While most traditional common rights have largely been lost or have lapsed
new 'commoning' opportunities are developing. All these offer opportunities
for cheap or free access to wood the harvesting of which benefits the
environment on our doorstep.
Most towns in England will not be far from a volunteer conservation group
that works in woodland during the winter months. Equally across the country,
parish councils and other local authorities are keen to encourage local
people to look after footpaths and other public amenities in their area.
It is common practise for volunteers to take wood home if they need it.
Derelict allotments can provide cheap opportunities for people to obtain
wood. For a peppercorn annual rent, the typical 10-rod allotment plot
will allow you to grow at least 200 hazel plants as coppice.
This is modern jargon for the age-old practice of 'gleaning'. In 1995
68, 808 m3 of waste woody green material was generated in London, 51%
of which was sent to Landfill and 11% incinerated. At the same time even
larger quantities of useful sawn timber in pallets, packaging, refitting
of shops etc is sent straight to landfill without any attempt to reuse
it. 'Gleaning' wood from others waste is a less obvious but very important
source of woody raw material and is an important part of a local wood
It is not just wood that can be grown. Every year many of us require a
Christmas tree. The average Christmas tree is about five -six year old
and it is relatively straightforward to grow your own by having a tree
planted for each year of the cycle. An enlightened landscape architect
planted a cobnut tree on the verge in the housing estate near our house.
For the last three years for 10mins effort with our two children I have
got a carrier bag of nuts from it. People walk by and laugh at us. How
much funnier is the fact they are paying £10 for the same quantity
of nuts at the local superstore! Elsewhere fruit trees can be grown and
indeed some parts of the country have a long-standing tradition of establishing
fruit trees on verges and edges, eg see the article on Streubst under
European Traditions below.
THE ROLE OF ALLOTMENT FORESTRY TODAY
The high cost of land in our towns and cities means that most new urban
woodlands will be small. The traditions of allotment scale forestry in
the British Countryside shows us how we can manage these micro-woods in
a way that helps protect the worlds forests by increasing our consumption
of home grown wood and at the same time as improving our own environment.
With very little effort we can all be more self reliant and less wasteful
in our use of wood products. In doing so we invest time in the care of
our environment from which wildlife, neighbours and the planet all benefit.
The small size of the 'woods' and the expansion of individual opportunities
to grow and use or reuse wood may seem small and insignificant but it
is the only way most people can get direct involvement in caring for woodlands.
As a result their importance as an educational tool for promoting the
wider development of the woodland industry is considerable. Allotment
Forestry allows us to grow and access a wide variety of forest products
at a scale and in a manner suited to the urban environment and to the
people of the urban environment!
Shaw Woodland Tradition