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Biodiversity: England's green and well-known land

Nature volume 533, pages 176177 (12 May 2016) | Download Citation

Stuart Pimm extols Richard Fortey's scientific and historical portrait of a beechwood.

The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood


William Collins: 2016. 9780008104665 9781101875759

Fly into London's Heathrow airport, and off to the northwest you will spot a sprinkle of dark-green patches along the undulating fields and hedgerows. The Chilterns are hills sitting on a chalk escarpment, and retain some woodland because of their soils, topography and underlying geology, and the special management that these demand. In 2011, palaeontologist and natural historian Richard Fortey bought 2 hectares of beechwood and bluebells here and began a diary — a “biography”, as he puts it.

The view across the Assendon Valley to Richard Fortey's piece of woodland in England's Chiltern Hills. Image: Rob Francis

In Wood for the Trees, Fortey's story unfolds over two interlaced time scales: one a calendar year, the other two millennia of recorded history. His year starts in April, witness to one of those intense English springs that can follow a long, damp winter. Like Robert Browning's famous paean to the season (1845's 'Home-Thoughts, from Abroad'), which began, “Oh, to be in England/Now that April's there”, Fortey's text is stiff with the names of trees, flowers and birds. There's a pattern here: a very British predilection for natural history. This means that British flora and fauna are exceptionally well documented. I took this for granted as a young naturalist in Derbyshire, only to get a rude shock when looking for field guides in other countries. A well-illustrated guide to the native trees of South Florida (where I write this) was not published until 2014.

It's easier to know the names of species in island ecosystems, of course. They have fewer species than those of larger land-masses; many continental flora and fauna are excluded by what William Shakespeare called Britain's “moat defensive”. There are (arguably) around 30 native British trees, for example. In any case, the passion for naming everything seems uniquely British.

As the year unfolds, Fortey names familiar birds, trees and flowers, butterflies — speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and peacock (Aglais io) — dormice and squirrels. He also identifies moths, land snails, spiders, slime moulds, flies, beetles, mosses, fungi, lichens — and three species of pseudoscorpion. Globally, taxonomists have described only small fractions of the species in these taxa. Fortey's wood is home to more than 300 species of fungi, including the familiar stinkhorn fungus, graced with the unforgettable scientific name of Phallus impudicus.

He notes his sources for identification. For those of us who still struggle with tools such as dichotomous keys, there are picture books, which we can scan for an image of the unknown species. William Keble Martin's 1965 The Concise British Flora in Colour (Ebury) is the landmark. The product of decades of painstaking illustration, ignored by presses worried about the cost of colour reproduction, it became an instant best-seller. In one photo, we see Fortey perusing illustrations to help him to identify a moth at a light trap. He asks colleagues from London's Natural History Museum, where he worked as a palaeontologist, to visit. He brings in experts on flies and canopy insects, and others to listen to the ultrasound of resident bats.

“The wood survives because it was a working wood. Ash made tool handles; cherry, furniture.”

The history of Fortey's beechwood begins in Roman times and runs through the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions, providing an exceptionally detailed record. This is an intensively managed landscape for which the names and personal histories of centuries' worth of owners are known. The wood survives because it was a working wood. English yew trees provided the bows for archers at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Ash made tool handles; cherry, furniture. The woodworkers had names, too: bodgers, turners and the sawpit operators' top dogs and underdogs.

A yet longer history is the geological record. Over the 200 kilometres from Derbyshire to London lie 250 million years of rocks, from the lower Carboniferous period, 300 million years ago, to the Eocene epoch, around 50 million years ago. They sit gently on top of each other, in a perfect sequence, with hills such as the Chilterns marking out major transitions. Without this elegant simplicity and a deep understanding of the natural history that it shapes, would William Smith (see Nature 520, 294; 2015) have produced the first geological map?

An intermediate history is how climate is disrupting nature. From the Victorian era onwards, legions of amateur enthusiasts have done work on species distribution that provides vital benchmarks. This ability to name so many species has meant that Britain has produced the world's largest share of studies of how plants flower earlier now than in the past and how butterflies live further north — feeding on different plants as they change habitats. And that is the true value of all these lists. As Fortey puts it: “Think of it as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interlocking stories.”

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  1. Stuart Pimm is professor of conservation at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and directs the non-profit organization SavingSpecies.

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Correspondence to Stuart Pimm.

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