Nature 2022 August

Seeing those ever-changing Chiltern views

It would be easy to take for granted features of the local landscape we can see these days: landmarks, woodlands, grasslands, hedgerows and agricultural land have been a constant and perpetual feature in one form or other going back for at least several generations.

For example, the familiar aspect of the crown of trees which mark out Cholesbury Camp. The current large beech trees which mark out the late Bronze and Iron Age earthen embankments are probably around 200 years old. They were planted at a time when arboretums were becoming a fashionable addition to a wealthy landowner’s estate.

The widespread occurrence during the 18th and 19th centuries and even early 20th century of beech plantations (two-thirds of all) and oak woodlands (one third), were often clamorous industrial sites occupied much of the time by bodgers hewing chair parts from seasoned timber. Associated with such scenes would have been immense stores of green timber.

Views across farmland would typically be interrupted by stands of beech woodland or areas of recently cleared plantations. So, like today, long range views across the Chiltern plateau would have been minimal. In contrast to those of more recent time, 2000+ years ago there would, looking out from the Hillfort, have been open vistas in almost every direction. The earthworks would have been an impressive and potentially intimidating sight by those climbing up the scarp from the Vale below. The Chiltern plateau has been progressively cleared of trees and very dense scrub over the previous 4,000 years by peoples of the region who were the first farmers in this part of the world.

Not all the woodlands were cleared as timber as stands of ancient woodland were retained as carefully managed coppices of oak, birch and ash – vital for building and heating dwellings and, importantly, iron ore smelting. For refining metals such stands of woodland needed to be close to places of habitation as the effort to transport timber was even greater than moving the metal ore!

The Domesday Book commissioned by William 1 in 1086 provided an assessment of woodland, its value and its use. By all comparative measures the Chiltern Hills was a very heavily wooded region. It also formed the northern edge of a resource of timber, faggots, billets and charcoal which continued south all the way to London – a voracious market for this valued resource. Beech was the dominant wood and was recorded as being rejuvenated in plantation stands. Such was the demand for this wood by Londoners that it became impossible to fully replaced the felled timber. Gradually such woodland, with the assistance of livestock, transitioned to common pasture then open pasture and lastly grazed grassland.

Until the 18th century most of the farming was carried out using what is called the open field system. In any community there might be between two and six large fields. Under this regime each farmer had strips of land in each of these fields. As farmers developed new agricultural techniques and learnt how further to increase the fertility of soil it became clearer that this open field system was becoming increasingly inefficient. The wealthier farmers recognised that by consolidating parcels of land into their ownership the deployment of these agricultural techniques rapidly increased the value of this land. To protect this land from encroachment by a neighbouring farmer’s animals, the wealthy landowners sought by parliamentary legislation known as the Enclosure Acts to ‘enclose’ or secure large parcels of land. This approach considerably benefitted the rotation of crops and the husbandry of livestock.

In this part of the country this was achieved by planting hedges of either just hawthorn, or a blend of several species. Two or three-hundred years on these once pure hawthorn hedges are today supplemented in the Chilterns by hazel, field maple, sycamore, hornbeam, blackthorn, ash and holly. Prior to the 1970s it would have been common to see quantities of elm. This has largely disappeared because of Dutch Elm Disease, though resistant strains are making a comeback in places. The sign of a well-established ‘enclosure hedge’ is one that is not only rich in trees and shrubs like those mentioned above but also climbers like honeysuckle and ground flora, often closely associated with local woodland, such as bluebell, yellow archangel and wood anemone. During the time when hedges were used as a stock-proof barrier they were periodically cut back or ‘laid’ to ensure they retain their integrity for the purpose they are put to.

What can distinguish the open spaces of the uncultivated parts of the Chilterns landscape is its underlying chalk rock structure which provides the ingredients for the sustenance of calcareous grasslands. The permeability of the chalk results in dry valleys with well-drained valley slopes. Grazing provides an opportunity for chalk-loving plants that do not require very fertile or water-retentive soils to thrive. There is a long list of such plants and a few include: greater knapweed, salad burnet, common rockrose, lady’s bedstraw, hoary plantain, bee orchid, bird’s-foot trefoil, common milkwort and harebell. When in full bloom they provide a rich, often dazzling tapestry.

The views over landscapes which have undergone the most dramatic changes must be those taken across agricultural land. Over the past seventy years farming has experienced both periods of depression and, if not great affluence, at least a more profitable return on investment. The significant moment was in 1939 with the start of the Second World War. The Government recognised the importance of farming to feed the nation at a time when food imports would dry up. Fallow land was put back into production, fertilizer, tractors and harvesting equipment was made available alongside a woman’s land army with farmers committed to take up the challenge of increasing food production. Small fields were subsumed with neighbours by removing hedges to enable the most productive use of the labour and technology.

Post war, legislation introduced guaranteed prices for produce and entry into the EEC in 1973 added incentives for larger farms. Redundant or derelict farm buildings were converted into residential accommodation. More intensive farming introduced new crops adding new colours to the landscape. Chemicals were employed to remove weeds and improve productivity, though ‘Set Aside’ policies allowed some temporary respite for wild flowers.

Most recently, new agricultural policies pre- and post-EU are once again affecting the character of the countryside with ‘greener’ farming practices that support more wildlife and increased diversification that generate new income sources for farmers. Support for increased and hopefully sympathetic tree-planting schemes might see a reversal in the loss of woodlands.

All promise a new outlook across the agricultural landscape. What the future holds for views over the Chilterns, we will just have to see!

Chris Brown BEM
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