I spent Valentine’s Day on Brownsea Island with a pitchfork. No, sadly not at the head of a Medieval peasant lynch mob; instead I was part of a volunteer conservation team that spent three hours sort of ‘tidying up’ a pine forest.
To the outside observer, we must have looked very Sisyphean: raking up tonnes and tonnes of pine needles and dead bracken only weeks before the spring growth and in the spitting teeth of the inevitable autumnal drop.
So why, why, oh why — tea and biscuits aside — were we there?
There are a lot of Scots, Monterey and Maritime Pines on Brownsea Island, a small island in Poole Harbour, Dorset. Pines grow quickly and tend to dominate. Very little flourishes in their shade, not least due to their poisonous habit of needle dropping.
Beautiful as they are, pine forests aren’t known for their biodiversity.
Two plants do thrive beneath the needles of Brownsea: bracken and rhododendron. Both of which are arguably even more antisocial than the pines who shade them.
There is, however, one unsung habitat on the island that is both a nourishing hotbed of biodiversity and, coincidentally, vanishing under the cities, forests and motorways of the mainland: heath.
Heath, as a landscape, is kind of meh. Underwhelming at best, if you’re not an ecologist. You can sort of see why it gets ripped up and paved over. Sorry.
We all love walking barefoot on the tickly needles of a pine forest, gazing up in awe at the shelfing branches, watching red squirrels scamper up and down the ruddy trunks.
But heathland is all scrubby with plants that are either prickly like gorse, knobbly like ling and bell heather, or slippery like moss. Basically: heath is a bit annoying to wander through if you’re not wearing full body armour.
I’m told, however, that the heath is positively teeming with life: butterflies, bees, spiders, lizards and invertebrates of all flavours. It is the amenable counterpoint to the inhospitable pine forest.
You can see where we’re going with this one, can’t you?
On Brownsea, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust are working (with the help of brute unpaid labour like me) to extend and connect the pockets of heath on the island, creating corridors down which the wildlife can mooch.
That’s why we spent three hours today raking and pitchforking bales and bales of dead bracken and rhododendron from the forest floor.
This work is a precursor to a ‘thinning out’ of the pines (the winter storms have made a start — I counted six felled trees in our little working acre alone) and a human-assisted return to open heathland.
Heather seed is everywhere on Brownsea, but in the forest it’s buried under a foot of mulch and will never taste the sunshine it needs to pop out and start singing.
I did find one tiny sprig of heather as I raked over the forest. The green filagree shoots were roundly cheered and the pathetic, heroic stem became a sort of totem for the work we were doing. You can spot her in the proud parental photo above.
But, hang on — knee-deep in a climate emergency, doesn’t it feel a bit wrong to be putting so much energy into felling trees? Shouldn’t we be planting them?
In general: yes.
However, also: no. At least, not here.
As one Brownsea conservationist explained to us, heathland is arguably more important to the health of the planet than the dominant, almost monoculture of the pines — and not only because heathland is a vanishing habitat, rich with life.
We all know that the headline climate crisis is too much carbon getting released into the atmosphere. Trees are good because they ‘capture’ (‘sequester’ if you want to get fancy) carbon. Ergo: plant more trees.
But did you know that most of the carbon captured by trees is stored in the soil and litter on the forest floor, not in the trees themselves? (I didn’t until today, to be fair.)
And — here’s the topper — the soil under heathland captures more carbon per hectare than the soil under forests does.
You could argue that, rather than interfering with conservationist projects like the heathland conversion on Brownsea, we should ‘let nature do its work’: let the pines march triumphant across the land, let the rhododendron and bracken crowd out every other species.
But for me this smacks of the similarly bogus ‘let the markets decide’ logic that some conservative economists are fond of trotting out.
No. We’re already interfering in nature for we are nature. The rhododendrons were brought here from Nepal, for goodness sake. Some of the pines were planted as a fuelwood crop. The cattle, pigs and ponies that once kept the Brownsea forests at bay were kept animals, not nature’s own convenient gardeners.
If we want to promote biodiversity (and bloody hell we really do), then we need more interfering.
Dorset Wildlife Trust run volunteer conservation days on Brownsea Island every Friday. They’re very welcoming to idiot newbies like me. Peruse their events page for these and other opportunities across the county.
If you don’t live in Dorset (who does?), then seek out your local wildlife trust and volunteer. You won’t regret it. Unless you take a wrong turn with the pitchfork and get burned alive as a witch.