The conifer war


We have it here, too, but in France the argument between the virtues of coniferous trees on the one hand and deciduous trees on the other has been sharpened since the disastrous storm of pre-Christmas 1999, when their forestlands were devastated by a hurricane. The damage was on a scale never before seen. A photograph in a magazine shows a scene like something out of No Man's Land in the first World War - a ravaged site covered with broken-off tree-trunks, spiky and uneven, not more than a few feet high.

But, there are arguments for the conifer. It is claimed that the extent of the devastation did not come from the nature of the trees but largely because of the way they were planted - too close together and in too rigid lines. The wind was to sweep them down as if they were a shaky hoarding. This seems to be recognised. And, you hope will be rectified. On the other hand, the winds were quite exceptional and also felled other trees. Near Nancy, this article runs, a forest of beech was 50 per cent destroyed. And in the Limousin country copses of oaks and chestnuts were torn down.

Conifers were often planted on poor soil, shallow soil. But too close planting is the main cause, thinks the writer, all of one species. The closeness meant that they cut off light from the soil - and all the year round, of course, as they don't lose their leaves in autumn.

Thus, not only does the darkness make sure that there is no undergrowth below them, it also inhibits wildlife. Again, because they grow quickly, the conifers (Les resineux in French) drain the nutriments from the soil.

Hunters or shooting people are against these dense populations, as are anglers, who claim that not only is the darkness inimical to their sport, by inhibiting spawning and preventing the growth of beneficial weed. It also cuts down on the fly life and life of all invertebrates.

Is there nothing to be said for conifers? Of course, planted less densely they provide commercial timber, which is a necessity, and they have been useful in holding down sandhills on the Atlantic coast. And, if it seems a contradiction, of helping to dry out inconvenient, marshy and swampy areas.

In the south, of course, the pines - especially, perhaps the maritime pine and pinus pinea come into their own. Great pines adorn postcards and books. Roads are sometimes built around them to save the giant. The awe which is evoked by a big oak in Ireland, for example, is similar to some of the southern, lone-standing giants of the coniferous world. Much more to be said about this all. The French will not make the same mistake twice.