Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 18-22.

Pressmennan's Wand

Defending the Ancient Oakwoods

Landowners. The Federation of Landowners. The National Farmers' Union (NFU). The old boys' network. Freemasons. MI5. The Forestry Commission (F.C.). The timber industry. These are the main predatory forces responsible for the destruction of what's left of our natural habitat - ancient woods.

The Forestry Commission was set up during the First World War to ensure that sufficient hardwood was accessed from within Britain, since import ships were frequently sunk. Nowadays they serve landowners, who are viewed as the "client base" to whom the FC funnels masses of taxpayers' money under several guises, but generally to encourage the maximum 'release' of timber onto the market.

Our conservation body/corpse is the Scottish Natural Heritage. Yet another useless - if not harmful - government quango, which provides a facade of protection while in reality it eases the way for industry past environmental "restrictions". It is completely powerless, and unable to do more than help facilitate compromises which enable landowners to liquidate their 'business assets' with an added touch of greenwash.

Magnus Magnusson (obviously the greatest brain in Britain) helps prop up the establishment by acting as a figurehead for the SNH. The Pressmennan campaigners have been privileged to receive Magnus pacifiers in the form of letters applauding our efforts but detailing the landowners' "legitimate financial requirements".Picture Landowners are allowed to make money out of every part of their land no matter what's on it. We challenged Magnus recently with a small community action, protesting his hypocrisy in unveiling a statue of John Muir.

Government papers repeatedly reassure landowners that environmental legislation will only be applied according to the "Voluntary Principle". For a habitat or a species to be legally protected is meaningless in the face of business interests and our present social power structure: rich at the top, wildlife at the very bottom. It's not anti-humanist to support the underdog - it's instinctive common sense. As our local police pointed out when requested to intervene in defence of Pressmennan's large and rare bat populations, (Daubenton, Pipistrelle and Longeared), any injury to bats or damage to their habitat is merely a "by-product" of a business "operation", and therefore negligible. Even in European courts - the last legal line of defence - "socio-economic factors" can override conservation laws.

The head of Britain's Forestry Commission, politician and businessman David Bills, often refers to the new "Forest Standard" in his regular propaganda letters to the press. According to an unexpectedly honest and therefore rare Forestry Commissioner [who must remain nameless], this is nothing but a political tool, comprising a watered down and even less binding version of the existing completely unrestricting guidelines. The Standard is going through its consultation process with who else but the N.F.U. and the Federation of Landowners, just in case it does anything other than maintain a steadily increasing flow of financial perks, (cunningly bypassing recognised social and natural requirements), to these earth destroyers and exploiters.

Ancient woods are the last surviving fragments of our native ecosystem and habitat. These average in size at a measly 6 hectares, 60% of which exist on privately owned land. Britain as a whole maintains less than 1% of its original wildwood, East Lothian, the home of Pressmennan, less than 0.1%. [All figures are from the Inventory of Ancient, Semi-Natural and Long-Established Woodlands, and do not include ancient woodland sites that have been replanted with conifers.] The FC actively encourage their exploitation with grants such as the recently drafted scheme to "bring previously unmanaged woods under a course of management." This includes as much felling as they can get away with and 'replanting' with plastic tubes. Landowners receive about £600 per hectare per year to maintain these tubes (usually containing the fast-growing sycamore), occasionally carrying out chemical weeding to keep at bay that terrifying beast nature, and to eradicate the last surviving plants of the murdered forest which lie dormant in the soil.

There is arguable justification for sensitive, sustainable management which includes some felling in commercial man-made plantations - but this is neither applied, appropriate or necessary for the conservation of ancient woods. The favoured catchphrase used by the FC to shut up the masses is "felling for regeneration". As if nature couldn't manage before we came along! Particularly the Masonic god-fearing/god-aspiring landowners seem to genuinely believe that nature is inferior, imperfect, and exists for man's use, sport and improvement.

Felling for regeneration is the modern term for deforestation [similar to "salvage logging" in the US]. As a member of Broadleaf Resistance in Wales retorted, "I wouldn't like to be in a tribe where you kill off the elders to make way for the next generation!" Elitist pseudo-scientific jargon distances the FC from the ignorant and overly emotional public. Woods are accused of having "native flaws", of needing management in the form of mass felling to protect them from "freak weather", and of being dangerously near to roads. One expert claimed that since many of Pressmennan's trees were 'twisted', the "correct arboricultural solution" would be to clearfell the entire 6000 year old wood and replant the site with genetically improved stock, (in straight lines and plastic tubes of course). They also stated in an interdict (Scottish for injunction) that Earth First! was "violently opposed to anything practical or useful" - interesting...

David Bills: It's the only language he 'understands'.

David Bills took over as Director-General of the Forestry Commission in December 1995. Prior to that he had served as President of Australia's National Association of Forest Industries, and as general manager of North Forest Products since 1986. North are scum - "number one among Australia's destroyers of old-growth forests", and the world's biggest exporter of wood chips, liquidating thousands of hectares (2.5 million tons) of Tasmanian temperate rainforest every year. Bills himself is "absolutely detested" by those who seek to end this slaughter, not just as one of its main architects but because he is also seen as legitimising the widespread violence perpetrated by loggers against protesters, which has included shootings and firebombings.

In 1993 he argued that "If violence does emerge, before passing judgement we should take time to understand the perspective of somebody being driven to financial ruin... as opposed to recruited demonstrators on a Tasmanian holiday." He still stood by these words in 1995, insisting that protesters "go out of their way to provoke a violent response from loggers", and describing their "so-called passive resistance" as "a very cynical exercise". And this bloke is now in charge of the UK's largest landowner, the Forestry Commission! (Sources: Guardian 4/10/95; Independent on Sunday 3/12/95; "Green Backlash", Andrew Rowell).

Only once the FC's top expert George Peterken stated the obvious candidly in his report did the "felling as treatment" bullshit related to this particular case recede. For the record, the relevant quotes are that "the canopy would gradually open naturally and self regeneration would occur", and second, that "While there are financial benefits, the thinning is of no silvicultural benefit...will exasperate windthrow...[and] is a high risk management option." The conservation strategy written by the campaign group, with the help of genuinely intelligent and sensitive people (including highly qualified foresters), was skillfully excluded from meetings, reports and consultations. It did, however, fulfil all of Peterken's advice and criteria, it just didn't entail the felling of any ancient trees. All of the local community associations supported our plan.

Often there is an argument for human intervention as being useful, to compensate for previous negative influences - eg. the control and gentle restriction of acidic spruces and non-natives which decrease and damage natural diversity. In some cases, scarification and the protection of seedling counter excessive grazing from unpredated deer, or sheep.

The reintroduction of wild boars [see p.9 ] would help woodlands infinitely more than any human intervention. These walking woodland regenerators aren't king of the forest for nothing. They scarify, dig and protect as their role in the previously balanced ecosystem. Appreciate and contribute and set us free, say the wild boar. They survive very well even in a modern agriculture-dominated landscape, as Pumba, a local bacon-butty escapee recently proved. We forget how intelligent and wily these creatures are. (Note wily/wild and creatures/create). Pumba, who escaped when poachers were attempting to steal him, lived happily, healthily and harmlessly, and lonely, around East Lothian for months. The too romantic and beautiful living legend came to a sudden end with a bullet in the head from a police marksman. He was grazing peacefully in a field with some horses he had befriended.

Wild boar bacon is apparently becoming trendy. Boars are being brought to the edge of wilderness separated only by a fence. A bit of liberation - changing boars' destinies from a bolt in the head to a bolt for freedom - would do a lot for conservation, boars and the human spirit.

The main problem with reintroducing wild animals is the lack of potential habitats. Ancient forests are of course the mother of all habitats, yet the most aggressively threatened. The rarer the timber, the higher the price, the harder the sawmills try to get their greasy, sleazy little metal hands on it.

Two years ago when our campaign began, timber company A & J Scott from Wooperton, Northumberland sent scouts to locate remaining oakwoods in East Lothian. Several farmers were approached and offered around £30,000 for access to their woods. They were advised to hire "management consultants" to organise grants and front the operations. Thus, A & J Scott's monopoly was concealed.

A & J Scott dominate the timber scene on the east coast. They are the only company big enough to afford the most advanced machinery and force small sawmills into dependence, having to buy through them. Most surviving wildwood fragments exist on steep inaccessible slopes, making it hard to extract. However, the technology now exists to enable cost-effective mass extraction, releasing hardwood as Gross Product onto the global market. The timber of several sessile oakwoods was to be shipped in bulk to Germany, where the ancient woods are protected. (Oh yeah, FC quote:-" We view all woods as crops.") Since most of these forests are hidden in valleys, their disappearance goes largely unnoticed until it's too late. Oswald Dene, another ancient woodland, was completely clearcut by A & J Scott. It was on the edge of a main road, and so was noticed by shocked commuters, forcing the FC to be seen to be doing something about it. After media exposure the FC agreed to prosecute. "A small fine", we thought cynically. Worse! They got off on a technicality, claiming no one actually saw them carrying out the illegal felling. Someone (with a bulldozer) may have snuck in and felled the trees under cover of darkness! The case was thrown out and the FC seriously scolded for not gathering any evidence. Tidy!


Our ancient woods are so badly neglected that they were quickly labelled as a priority habitat after the Rio Summit. A document entitled "Upland Oakwoods: A Costed Habitat Action Plan" (CHAP) was urgently drafted - Britain signed it. CHAP outlines targets for protection, expansion and management on a minimum intervention basis. This implies no unnecessary felling. So CHAP is ignored, twisted, transformed and unenforced. Seemingly this document has no effect unless officially adopted by local councils. (Something to encourage). Then and only then can landowners be legally restricted from felling. Only one council in Scotland has done so, curiously the one which is presently attempting to evict Faslane peace camp.

The FC claims to account for CHAP by using the word 'minimal' (instead of minimum) in their guidelines. Felling plans are described as minimal if any trees are left standing. CHAP also states that if necessary, legislation must be changed/introduced to ensure its enforcement. Landowners must be made to expand and protect ancient forests as part of a much needed natural zone. The natural zone would be left as wild as possible. A sustainable zone of non-ancient woods can allow for interaction, reconnection, learning, crafts, and harmonious mutual benefit between humanity and nature. An intensive zone of existing offensive plantations (not ones being restored) can satisfy existing needs while society evolves and eventually grows out of dependency on mass productivity and monocultures.

Since every piece of land and the nature that grows on it is unique, the wildlife evolving and adapting for 13,000 years, it is essential that all remaining fragments of ancient wildwood are recognised as vital cores for biodiversity. Oak trees support more life than any others. Natural life and the sadly disconnected - therefore hungry - spiritual life of humans have a right to exist and be nurtured. The deforestation of the land and Highland Clearances to favour sheep, twinned with the oppression of our language - Gaelic - were the harshest deathblows dealt by pirates and thieves. Gaelic speakers have no word for, and therefore no concept of, ownership. The alphabet is based upon native plants and their annual sequence of budding. Children were beaten at school when caught talking in their own language.

The druids (oakseers) were no fools when they argued that oakwoods (the sacred groves) were the only real teachers. They still are. Teachers of harmony, diversity, transformation, living. They provide practical working metaphors for almost everything. Fundamental emotions and clarity of thought can be experienced in such woodlands, where life energy is strong and we are as one with the rest of ourselves. Unrestricted by human constructions - geometry, artificial noise and dysfunction - we are centred in our natural habitat. Ninety nine per cent of the life in this country has been destroyed. The land is relentlessly battered, poisoned and abused. "

Us too, we are painfully disconnected from our roots, and the roots of nature in this country are these tiny, fragile, beautiful forests. Folk have to reconnect, even if it takes art or birdwatching to get them there.

The Germanic tribes were renowned for their holy groves and Tacitus, the Roman writer, refers to them in his "Germania". In the 8th century a tree known as Jupiter's Oak was cut down in religious zeal by a Christian missionary, St. Boniface, at Geismar in Germany, but paganism continued long after. The old German laws exacted a terrible punishment for those who committed the crime of peeling the bark of a tree. The offender's punishment was to have his navel cut out and nailed to the damaged part of the tree, after which he was made to walk round and round the tree until his intestines had wrapped themselves around the trunk. Thus living tissue replaced the wound the perpetrator had inflicted, a life for a life." From: "In Search of Herne the Hunter", Eric L. Fitch, Capall Bann 1994.

While these wildwood fragments still survive, there is a chance to redress the balance by allowing to return what has been stolen and murdered. The life force exists, it just needs to be liberated. (Loads of farmland has to be set aside anyway.) I'm loath to say that a start could entail the introduction of grants to encourage expansion, and the abolition of those grants which encourage exploitation. Meanwhile, there's plenty that the individual can do. Get a copy of your local Inventory of "Ancient, Semi-Natural and Long-Established Woodlands" from English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage or whatever. See how many of the registered ancient woods are left and check them out. Identify any that are under threat by checking Woodland Grant Applications (WGAs). [Although please remember that these are not the only source of danger - it is worth keeping an eye on development planning applications as well, for example.] These can be found by accessing the FC Internet site or by visiting your local council's planning office. It may help to arm yourself (with the Freedom of Information Act leaflet). If large areas of broadleaves are listed for felling in valuable sites, demand a copy of the full WGA from your local FC office. Make sure they don't tippex out vital parts of information (as is their habit). Don't believe their propaganda, and prepare to publicly tear it to pieces. Order surveys, offer alternatives, hold the FC to their guidelines, then ask the wood what it wants you to do next. If it is privately owned, it will be well nigh impossible to get anything but background support from established conservation bodies, given the political nature of the campaign. They won't risk losing funding or jobs by challenging the establishment. Be wary of those who offer 'professional experience' - they are liable to seriously land you in it at a later date.

Pressure from ramblers' groups has led to the introduction of grants to encourage public access in private woods. I have noticed that nearly all the recent WGAs include funds for creating and maintaining paths. Of course, the public is told nothing and is completely unaware that their taxes are legally gaining them access to local beauty spots. Many of these paths are probably mythical but should be checked out, publicised and used. The FC is a brick wall, so we just have to use and abuse them. Playing stupid or taking no shit are good methods of gaining information. Write everything down and keep dated records.

Our campaign started with great local support, weekly local press coverage, petitions, then adoption by the council. Eventually a Tree Preservation Order was placed on the whole wood - we thought we had won. The private sector don't like to be told what to do by the riffraff. The ultimate aim was for the permanent protection of Pressmennan with a precedential Compulsory Purchase Order. CPOs are usually used to build roads, so this would have been a wonderful use of the system. Hopefully somewhere else will manage to pull it off. The opposition closed ranks and took to using the law as a weapon. Thousands were spent on lawyers, letters and threats. Intimidation was flying around aimed at whoever they could hit. Eventually the council was nobbled when a key character (their representative) suddenly and mysteriously backed down at a crucial meeting. This left them liable to huge financial compensation to the farmer for inconvenience and loss of income.

Sexism, male ego, hidden motives and serious shit stirring eventually caused the original campaign group to disperse. However, individuals continued to campaign and a legal case was compiled, the basis of which was laws which protect rare species (bats) and habitats (oakwoods). Unfortunately, the Trust which is meant to be fronting the case are in fact neutralising and restraining its use because they are overly bureaucratic, land owner arse-licking, uninspired, unimaginative,ignorant, apathetic wankers who kicked out the only trustee unwilling to compromise the forest (ie. allow trees to be felled) - the originator of the legal trust! Their bigotry can be illustrated in a quote from a member who shall remain nameless: "Single women shouldn't be in trusts". Compromising kills campaigns. Don't back down!

The camps were great ideas, one for woodland awareness, the other reclaiming common land. Both ended in disaster after increasing torment. Consequently neither site is available for use when we really need them. It was difficult to deal with dodgy characters who distracted and diverted the campaign. They refused to work within the organic, 'democratic', sharing, attentive, sensitive, positive energy which was flooding from the wood (Pressmennan is also on a leyline). Excessive confrontation, bullying and aggressiveness trashed the campaign and nearly reduced the mainstayers to a wreck. Much public support was lost during that period unnecessarily. Group agreement and careful consideration of tactics is vital, as is cooperation. If we have to have another camp, let it work with and for the wood.

Post-camps, and after much deliberation, it was decided by some that perhaps the least damaging and most certain method of defence was to devalue the timber. Ceramics are undetectable and break expensive sawmill blades. Apparently, a number of trees were carefully spiked, clear warnings were also marked throughout the wood. The opposition claims to be unperturbed, but the trees are still standing.

Update: Victory at Pressmennan!

As of late January, Pressmennan's so-called 'Management Committee' appears to have acknowledged defeat, announcing that "an indefinite hold has been put on the felling of the oaks"! A half-hearted attempt to trash the wood earlier in January served as a dry run to test the strength of local people's opposition - and the response then was more than enough to frighten A & J Scott off. They now argue that the police were unwilling to protect the chainsaw crew from the big bad eco-activists, leaving them no alternative but to withdraw. A more likely explanation might be the thoroughly deserved humiliation they've suffered at the hands of the Pressmennan campaigners. They were terrified by the prospect of even more unwanted publicity - over the ultimate destination of the timber,for their bullshit 'management' proposals, for the tree spiking, and for a host of other damaging revelations uncovered in the course of the campaign and so far kept secret. Yet more bruising legal battles were also in the works.

A watchful eye is still being kept on the wood, but at this stage things are looking good. As one WAND activist says, "We never gave up, even after two and a half years. Direct action has saved the wood." Positive vision wins out!

No matter what happens, we've raised masses of awareness, had an education, saved at least hundreds of trees and empowered the local community to the extent that they are becoming more active - finally. Meanwhile WAND's going to keep doing everything possible to protect Pressmennan - may it expand through the valley and contribute to reafforesting the world.

Contact: W.A.N.D (Woodland Awareness and Network of Defence) 01368 850630

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