Back in the days of Julius Caesar, as, for example, vividly recreated by Robert Graves in “I Claudius”, the Welsh landscape was very different from its present stark, sheep reduced panorama. Read the chapters on druidic initiation training to take you there!
Historically it was a time of slow change but Britain was long since settled and had been an off shore island to Europe for maybe 5000 years. Sea levels were similar to those of today – probably a foot or two lower, so it would have been that much easier for Caesar to cross the channel. As I’ve written previously, the ice age had only driven back the previous dwellers on the land. There are finds dating back a long time earlier of human settlement. During the glacial periods, it seems there was seasonal visitation, foraging and, of course, unimpeded by a sea boundary. Humans, animals and plants could traverse the vast expanses of Doggerland joining the present UK landmass to the European mainland from France up to Denmark.
Since the eventual complete retreat of the ice, then, there had been a good ten thousand years for a settled population to develop. There are clear signs of human impact and dwellings from the Scottish islands and the NW coast of Ireland to the Isle of Man and throughout the mainland UK dating back to those days. As farming emerged quite late in this era, for a long time our predecessors must have lived using hunting , fishing and gathering to provide their foodstuff. On a now solely grassed island off Arran are found buried large caches of hazel shells around settlement sites indicating its use as dietary staple in pre-sheep-grazing times . Not squirrel, by the way, as the shells have been cracked with stones and the shells used on fires.
Prof Michael Williams, Oxford, wrote of the use of fire in a different context – to drive animals out of woodland cover and into the challenge of our ancestral hunting skills, like primitive gillies, I guess! He saw this as having been used by the earliest settlers in America, resulting in a decimated large animal biodiversity and greatly opened woodlands long before European colonisers arrived – be they Viking or Pilgrim Father. Presumably these skills had been well exercised in the old world of Africa, Europe and Asia over a much longer period and so re-colonisers of Britain 12 000 years ago would have used it as second nature. In America, truly then a “New World”, they were able to use skills developed over tens of thousands of years on an ecosystem wholly unused to humankind
Essentially an early form of “Slash and burn”, this technique would have cleared a lot of land pre-agriculture. Presumably regrowth and colonising species like bramble would have been very useful additions to their diets. It must have helped lead the way into actually seeding an area and so growing crops. From early on, most surely, there must have been frequent clearances and much relatively low, regrowing trees and shrubs. It is easy to imagine their moulding the vegetation of the landscape to best suit the hunting methodologies.
I have yet to develop a clear picture of the accumulative rate of forest loss over the ten thousand years up to Caesar’s arrival on our shores. But an abiding pair of images stay with me from schooldays. First that the lowland island of Anglesey was cloaked in oaks and full of Druids when the Romans came and secondly that ancient Brits used to shelter up in the mountains of Snowdonia and their foothills, hiding in that sanctuary when necessary from all manner of invader.
Obviously I need a lot more data but I am aware that of the UK’s 24.4 million hectares a large percentage would still have been wooded. A piece of random evidence is found at low, low tide in the pretty coastal town of Borth, near Aberystwyth, where you find the stumps of a forest drowned maybe 4000 years ago, towards the end of the post-glacial-melt-caused-sea-level-rise. Slightly deeper, off Pembroke, are even greater acreages of oaklands. One pictures the opposite to the present state of scattered islands of woodland and the occasional forest. Instead there would have been dotted settlements and clearings with developing field systems within the predominant landscape feature of continuous forest, being linked by drove roads and local tracks.
The uplands would have been largely virgin forest at this stage with no need to harvest, no need to hunt such areas and no pressure on emergent seedlings from grazing livestock flocks. Plenty of room to hide from invading Romans, Vikings (them again!) even the Beaker people a long time earlier and others drifting West for whatever reason. In the later years, certainly, there was much settlement on the upland plateau, around 1000 foot (300metres) with Tre’s Ceiri hill fort near Nefyn, Gwynedd, being a superb example. Way pre-Roman this enclosed, iron age hill top settlement of around 150 dwellings was also protected by a strong stone wall There’s a similar but smaller such site on top of Conwy mountain from the same era.
So, hill forts amongst the wooded uplands looking down over developing agriculture and trade – copper, for one, from Parys Mountain and The Great Orme, both in North Wales and exporting in pre-Roman times– safe from invading hordes. Except:
“Domestication of wild sheep took place by 7000 BC in central Asia (E. J. W. Barber (1991). Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton University Press) and, possibly, considerably before. Ryder, who has written extensively on the history of sheep in Britain, suggests that the first domestic sheep were introduced into Britain by Neolithic settlers around 4000 BC and that these were probably horned brown sheep, similar to Soay. Preserved wool from the Bronze Age appears to be Soay. M L Ryder (1981). “Medieval sheep and their wool types”, in D W Crossley (ed), Medieval Industry.”
Thus before these human invasions the ultimate destroyer of the upland landscape had already been introduced! Replicated on a global basis this has lead over two millennia and more to a world where the non-urban landscape is very frequently dominated by provision for ruminant animals. Over 50% of the UK is now so designated (12.8×106ha out of 24.4 x106ha = 52.5%).
In contrast, forestry uses 12% of UK landmass = 2.93 x106ha. Most of this is 20th century coniferous plantations, of little biodiversity or other ecological benefit and frequently both environmentally hazardous and visually obtrusive, jarring and alien. They are the forestry equivalent of oil seed rape, which word can also be used in its alternative understanding accurately.
Before the great industrial onslaught of recent years this was not really an issue and it was not comprehended how such heavy dominance of our diets by meat and milk products had so damaged the integrity of our environment. But not only are livestock producers of greenhouse gases (digestive methane and nitrogen oxides from fertilisers ) but this use of land has removed half the forest reserve with most of its carbon removed from the terrestrial carbon cycle on a permanent basis. Now the heavy overuse of fossil carbon and the resulting overload of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere finds the terrestrial buffer greatly underperforming. Gaia is overloaded you might say. (Read the eminent James Lovelock’s “Homage to Gaia” for much more on this!)
Just think if we could all retreat to the sanctuary of the hanging, upland cloud forests to escape from all this, refresh ourselves and come down to repel all these new invaders. But, of course, that’s what that forest would be doing isn’t it? So by bringing back the Welsh Upland Rainforest we create atmospheric sanctuary to surround us – even in the Lowlands!
Snowdonia, Yr Wyddfa – land of the eagles, at the heart of the Green Restoration.