The Diet of A Forest Dweller

Ben Law
Tuesday, 1st May 2001

Ben Law shares the fruits of ten years' experimentation with growing food in the woods – lessons which are also valuable to keen foragers and anyone with a shady area in their garden.

For many years now there has been a 'dividing wall' between the two disciplines of agriculture and forestry in Britain. At best, the concept of growing food amongst the dense shade of a woodland has been seen as futile; yet all around the world forest dwellers have cultivated food and fruit trees as well as foraged and hunted for wild food.

Living as a British forest dweller for almost ten years, my livelihood is dependent on timber and non-timber produce. I have developed a wide range of timber products by adding value to coppice poles and alongside this I have been developing food growing systems, and forage routes as part of a forest dwelling lifestyle.

Wild Food

Foraging is the most traditional technique for collecting woodland food and there is a wide range to suit most tastes. If we start at the canopy, many trees have edible fruits. I harvest sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) in abundance and have an annual surplus to sell. I harvest walnuts (Juglans regia) from within the woods and from trees overhanging local footpaths. Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) berries appear in abundance on the acid soil where I live and are annually made into wine and jam. I harvest crab apples to make jam and verjuice (lemon juice substitute), and relish the winter delight of the flesh of sweet tasting yew (Taxus bacata) berries. Warning: the seed within the berry is highly poisonous.

Then there are leaves... Lime (Tilia sp.), are my favourite, when picked young they form a tasty base for any green salad and those of young hazel (Corylus avellana) and hawthorn (Crateagus monogyna), make a fine addition. The rising tree sap in spring brings the promise of autumn wine. Silver birch (Betula alba), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and field maple (Acer campestre) are all good choices. Tree flowers also offer many options for wines and juices as well as for teas.

As we descend from the canopy, the layers below offer many foraging opportunities, but in most cases there is a need for sufficient light to form any quantity of food. Hence the dark overpowering shade of a closely planted conifer plantation has little, if any, vegetation below it and the only foraging option is likely to be fungi. If we look at the woodland edge, within clearings or along the edges of wide rides (forestry access tracks), the lower layers of the forest provide plenty to forage. Rosehips are abundant often well into the winter, sloes weigh down the blackthorn, ready to be sub-merged into gin, and bilberries are ready on my acid soil for a midsummer picking. Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus), nettles (Urtica dioica), wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and numerous herbs are common along the ride edge, while the more shade tolerant wild garlic, or ramsoms (Allium ursinum), seeks out the edges of streams and ditches.

Cultivated Food

Within a woodland, the general princi-ples of food cultivation apply as they would outside of it. The right choice of plant for soil type, amount of rainfall, aspect and available light. I cultivate mainly perennial food, but I have a few raised beds in which I cultivate summer and winter salads, beans, squashes, sweetcorn etc. The beds are all within a few yards of my door and are raised to protect crops from rabbits, for ease of harvesting and because durable poles are not in short supply in a sweet chestnut coppice!

I grow a variety of soft fruit mainly in a forest garden which after five years is not only producing abundant crops of top fruit, soft fruit and herbs but requires little maintenance. I have mulched the paths in the garden with charcoal fines (pieces of charcoal which are too small to sell as barbecue charcoal) which has many benefits:

  • It clearly marks out the path and bed system.
  • It remains dry, hot and dusty during the summer and slugs won't cross it.
  • It attracts lizards, which bask on the hot coals.
  • It holds daytime heat, which it releases at night ensuring early ripening for the strawberries along the path edges.

The forest garden is on a north facing slope – not everyone's favourite aspect, but this is compensated by planting top fruit on vigorous root stocks at the lower part of the slope, with less vigorous rootstocks as the slope rises. An evergreen belt of holly has been planted to the north of the forest garden to increase solar reflection and improve microclimate while the coppice to the south is cut on a short rotation to allow full sun into the forest garden. Top fruit consists of apples, plums, pears, damsons and quince.

Soft fruit consists of blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries (summer and autumn), gooseberries, worcester-berries, buffalo currants, blueberries, cranberries, juneberries, bilberries, loganberries, sunberries, tayberries, boysenberries, and wineberries. There's also a selection of culinary and medicinal herbs, rhubarb, mushroom logs and bees.

I also grow fruit trees in clearings between the coppice blocks. These I train, prune and tie down to encourage the formation of extra fruit bud and yields have been very promising for young trees. My criteria for successfully growing fruit trees in woodland is as follows:

Choose vigorous or semi-vigorous rootstocks or try grafting onto wild rootstocks:

For apples: M25 or MM106

For pears: pear or quince A

For plums: Brompton or Myrobalam B
Feed well with nutrient (I use the contents of my compost toilet).

  • Planting on unfavourable aspects can be successful as woodlands are sheltered and late blossoming helps avoid frost.
  • Avoid frost pockets.
  • Keep competitive timber trees clear of fruit trees (rule of thumb is the felling distance).
  • Watch out for bullfinches in early spring stripping fruit bud (use bird scarers).
  • If growing in coppice, keep coppice on short rotations to the south of fruit trees.
  • Think about position of fruit trees in relation to timber trees. Timber trees will grow large and need to be felled. One inaccurate felling could destroy ten years of careful fruit tree nurturing.
  • One tree that has been successful on the edge of clearings is the red mulberry (Morus rubra 'Illinois everbearing') available from Clive Simms, a vigorous hybrid of the black and white mulberry, producing after three years.

Fungi

The cultivation of fungi on logs is a valuable source of food and income for anyone living in or working woods. The concept of being able to store food within a piece of wood (by inoculating it with spore) and then 'shocking' it into fruiting by immersing it in water greatly appeals to me. I am currently cultivating shiitake, tree oyster, chicken of the woods and lions mane on hard-wood logs and experimenting with ground inoculation of parasol and wood blewitt. I am trying shiitake on a wide range of native hard-woods to gauge its viability in different forest management applications. I also harvest wild fungi from within the woodland and nearby woods and I am building up a good understanding of what I expect to find where and when, within my locality.

Bees

Bees are an essential part of a forest dweller's life, both for their help with pollination and of course the taste of woodland honey, one of life's many sensual delights. Ensuring there is a succession of nectar flow is a key element in ensuring a good crop of honey. After the cold of winter, my bees emerge and start with goat willow blossom, and then continue with almond, rowan, plum, pear and apple. Then lime flower and a lot of chestnut. Wild blackberries as well as the cultivated varieties are good providers and now my neighbour is in organic conversion, the clover leys he has sown end up on my larder shelf. I keep my bee management to a minimum, so I allow swarming – it is a natural process and within a woodland causes no problems to neighbours. Catching the swarms allows me to increase my number of colonies. I also do not treat for verroa, allowing the bees to build up their own natural immunity. The majority of my honey is home consumed, a little is sold and some I ferment on into mead.

Meat

I don't cultivate meat in the woodland. There is a place for pigs or wild boar in the cycle of forest management but only where the ground is being prepared to encourage natural regeneration. Pigs or boar which are overstocked or confined to a particular area of wood-land are totally destructive to ground vegetation and young trees and can cause substantial damage through root exca-vation to larger trees. I eat rabbit and occasionally pheasant and woodpigeon. Pheasants are keen to crop soft fruit in a woodland if they find it, so I prefer to crop them first. Woodpigeons will occasionally 'flock' on to a fruit tree and eat the lot – pigeon breast is one of the finest tasting of all meats. Rabbits can cause extensive damage to young trees or coppice regrowth and if I didn't eat rabbit it could affect my livelihood. Deer are potentially the most damaging of wild animals to young trees and coppice regrowth and keeping numbers in balance is an essential part of good woodland management. Finding a sensitive stalker is commonly the best solution for deer control and the added yield is venison.

'Silvi-Aquaculture' – Fish

This is a new project for me. I have a large puddled pond within the woodland and this year I am stocking the pond with carp. Carp are well suited to ponds as they can cope with lower dissolved oxygen levels than many other fish, including trout. They also can grow well on a poorer diet than many fish and can tolerate quite high stocking rates. They enjoy the warming of ponds during the summer and their peak growth rate occurs at a water temperature of between 28º-30ºC. My plan is to smoke the carp and sell them along with fungi and fruit to local restaurants and shops and eat them, of course, as part of my own home grown protein supply. All forest dwellers I have visited around the globe have either a meat or fish protein base and for me it has to be a more sustainable approach than importing soya beans.

Conclusion

Living as a forest dweller, it is possible to cultivate and forage a wide range of food from within the woodland. Success depends upon constant observation and management of surrounding trees, particularly in relation to light levels, and involves skilled directional felling. Having a diversity of species, a knowledge of bio-time (nature's own time clock) and a connection to the local landscape will ensure you won't miss the walnuts falling on the footpath or the chanterelles on the woodland ride.

Afternote

Before considering cultivating food in a woodland, I would like to clarify that I am not advocating growing food in every woodland. Many woodlands are unique habitats in their own right and the introduction of species could upset the balance. However, with plantations or monocultural woodlands, the addition of well placed fruit or nut trees should be seen as a benefit.

Ben Law's book The Woodland Way, presents a radical alternative to conventional woodland management and demonstrates how to create bio-diverse, healthy environments, yield a great deal of value added products, provide a secure livelihood for woodland workers and benifit the local community.

Ben Law's has also written a book about the building of his house called The Woodland House and a 'How to' building guide called Round Wood Timber Framing, for which there is an accompanying DVD.

His book, The Woodland Year is an intimate account of Ben's yearly cycle of work, his naturally attuned lifestyle and deep emersion in the very fabric of the nature of his woods.

Ben Law runs courses and open days at Prickly Nut Wood for details see www.ben-law.co.uk. 

Theresa Wood |
Sun, 06/02/2011 - 16:30
Ben Law is a true pioneer. This is a great article. Looking forward to the PDFs of all the back issues so I can see the photographs.
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