King Canute and the wisdom of forest conservation

Copenhagen is where the world's nations are meeting this month to attend the all-important climate summit. It was also the capital of King Canute's empire and, by a quirk of history, it was Canute who drafted the first forest-conservation legislation almost 1,000 years ago, as king of England (John Manwood A Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest Societie of Stationers, London; 1615).

Manwood's book proclaims “Carta de Foresta, of King Canutus ... in the yeare of our Lord 1016” followed by the list of Canute's 34 Forest Laws. These were aimed at conserving forests at all costs, and especially their wildlife, with heavy penalties for offenders.

Law 28, for example, includes “No man may lay his hands upon the Kings demesne Woods without licence of the Verderor: for if he does, hee shal be aiudged guilty of the breach of the Kings free chase Royal.”

Perhaps each nation attending the Copenhagen conference might agree to create its own new forest — thereby preserving endangered species, combating global warming and honouring Canute's apocryphal command to the seas to stop rising.

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For more about limiting emissions, as the Copenhagen conference approaches, see pages 550, 555, 568 and 570 and

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Short, R. King Canute and the wisdom of forest conservation. Nature 462, 567 (2009).

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