Author and Journalist Rob Penn tells us why British woodlands are so important header image

Author and Journalist Rob Penn tells us why British woodlands are so important

Author, journalist and Tv presenter Rob Penn tells Grown in Britain what makes British woodlands so important

Rob-pennI am writing this at my new desk. Andy Dix, a local furniture maker, made it from an ash tree felled near my home in the Black Mountains, South Wales. It is both exquisite and functional. It would have been easier to go to IKEA, or buy a new desk on-line but I felt the need to make a point: the pleasure we take from things made from natural materials is an extension of the pleasure we take from nature itself. In a generation, we seem to have forgotten this. 

I’m particularly interested in the European ash (Fraxinus excelsior). It is arguably the tree with which man has been most intimate in temperate Europe over the course of human history and it is now under serious threat. Ash has been used for wagons, ploughs and, of fundamental importance from the Iron Age until the middle of the 20th century, the rims of wooden wheels. The unique combination of vigorous strength, durability and elasticity meant ash was used to make tool handles, ladders, hay rakes, hop-poles, hockey sticks, hurley sticks, walking sticks, tennis rackets, looms, croquet mallets, crutches, coracles, cricket stumps, oars, cups, spars, paddles, skis, sledges, cart shafts, the best blocks for pullies, tent pegs, snooker cues, musical instruments, car bodies and even the wings of airplanes. This list is far from comprehensive, and ash is just one of our native tree species. Yet in just half a century, we have almost entirely forgotten how to use ash timber. Mention ash today and the majority of people think only of firewood. 


We have a strange relationship with woodland in Britain. We like to think of ourselves as a heavily wooded country, yet the UK is actually one of the least wooded parts of Europe and it has been for a millennium. Of the 27 million acres surveyed for the Domesday Book, only 15% was wooded. Today, we have some 12% woodland cover – well below the European average of 44%. We also currently have a poor record of woodland management: it is estimated that 55% of the woodland in Britain is either under-managed or not managed at all. 

We need to manage more of our woodlands and manage them better: to deliver benefits for biodiversity, for leisure and for the rural economy, by harvesting the self-renewing power of our native trees. In well-managed woodland, it’s possible to create a living resource intertwined with the activities of society and deliver all three. Our woodlands are the result of the relationship between human need and natural processes over millennia. In the modern era, we’ve reneged on that relationship, and lost a part of the heritage that our ancestors viewed as a birthright. To reclaim that heritage we need to use our wood. I’ve started with a writer’s desk, but I’m far from finished.

Robert Penn is writing a book about the ash tree, published by Penguin in 2015.