We ask Derek Niemann some questions about his latest book, ‘A Tale of Trees’, a fascinating history of our nation’s ancient woodland, how we have valued it over the centuries and how we came very close to losing all of it in the space of just 30 years.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt in your research for this book?
I’d expected to find plenty of evidence to show how after the war embryonic conservation bodies were unable to oppose woodland losses. But I wasn’t ready for approval of what was being done from unlikely sources. A whole host of senior people within the National Trust were in favour of removing ancient woodlands and replacing them with conifer plantations, for example.
There are lots of stories in your book of individual people in history who have helped to save pockets of woodland – is there any one story in particular that stands out or you particularly connected with?
The story of my local wood outside Cambridge has particular resonance for me. Two-thirds of it had already been cut down when a local botanist was tipped off and began the process that led to the rest being saved. Had he turned up a few weeks later it would all have been gone. There are a few desperate rescue stories in the book and this is one of the most dramatic.
Can you recommend any hidden away, beautiful woodland walks in the UK?
Every woodland is hidden until you get into it and that’s part of the charm… and the beauty too. Just look for a wood with a footpath and away you go!
What is your favourite tree fact?
Probably what goes on out of sight. Underground fungi ‘roots’ called mycelia tap into tree roots for the sugars produced in the tree’s leaves out of sun and water. In return, the fungi feed the tree minerals in the soil, such as phosphates, which the tree would not otherwise be able to get. How’s that for a partnership?
Praise for ‘A Tale of Trees’ : ‘Derek Niemann cleverly weaves a cast of captivating characters into this meticulously researched, pacey account – landowners and officials bent on ‘modernisation’ , and the woodsmen , ecologists and conservationists who sought to preserve these wild spaces.’ BBC Wildlife Magazine