COLUMNIST: LIFE ON THE ISLES OF SCILLY

PUBLISHED: 10:55 19 January 2016 | UPDATED: 12:42 30 August 2017

Cornwall Life's Isles of Scilly columnist David Mawes shares his insights into life on Britain's sub-tropical tip

Our Isles of Scilly columnist David Mawes continues to share his insights into life on Cornwall’s sub-tropical tip...

I sometimes try to imagine what Scilly would be like had it never been visited by humans or effected by our influence on ecosystems and climate. Most of Scilly was once very different: beautifully pristine, wild and wooded, brimming with life and diversity. The oak, hazel and ash - dripping with soft mosses, lichens and liverworts - would have been stunted and wind-sculpted, particularly around the windswept margins. The deep forest floor would have been riddled with seabird burrows. Where exposed to salt-laden spray the leafy canopy would have given way to open, thin-soiled maritime grassland. Boulders, shingle and sand, thrown up into banks and bars by stormy seas, protected marshy swamps and saline lagoons. Only the low lying windswept Western and Norrard Rocks, and other bare stacks and rocky islands, devoid of permanent vegetation, would be recognisable.

Scilly’s early settlers rapidly cleared large tracts of forest to create and expand their farmland. The pollen record, itself left behind in the peaty remains of several millennia of growth, death and decay of forest vegetation, tells of clearance then potential abandonment. Could it have been that this early activity was not sustainable?

The clearance of forest led to a treeless environment. When the precious resource of wood had been used up, the inhabitants turned to cutting peat to fuel their fires, and took stone from the ground to build their houses, all the time dramatically shaping the landscape around them. Deforestation quickly leads to soil loss through erosion from wind and rain, which would have made exposed areas extremely difficult, if not impossible to cultivate. Only the hardiest of plants such as heathers and gorse, survived in what we now call maritime heath, clipped and sculpted into waves as woody stems protect more tender growth. Sheltered valleys with deeper soils must have been highly valued for growing crops, with livestock left to forage on windswept headlands, higher ground and coastal fringe.

The relationship between the aspect of the land and its ability to sustain human existence must have been high in the minds of the prehistoric Scillonians. Maybe this is behind the lines of stones that resemble field boundaries in barren landscapes such as Shipman Head Down. They seem to follow contours, and, along with associated cairns, meaningfully depict the landscape. The idea that these were walls to contain stock or shelter crops seems improbable, as the soils are so thin, and there doesn’t seem to be sufficient stone to build them high enough.

The earliest photos and historic references portray a virtually treeless Scilly. Shrubs such as pittosporum and coprosma, later introduced to shelter fields for growing cut flowers, rapidly spread where not regularly cut. They are creating scrubby forests in abandoned farmland and have started to colonise some of the uninhabited islands. These, and other introduced species, threaten some of Scilly’s special wildlife. With so few trees, faggots of heather and gorse were harvested to fuel fires - I like the idea that continental visitors would have seen the natives burning heather and the western gorse that grows within it, and told of their much mightier French furze’ (European gorse) that grew taller with a much woodier stem, that could be cut as firewood.

I also sometimes try to imagine how Scilly would change if humans abandoned them to nature’ once again.

This article first appeared in January 2016 issue of Cornwall Life

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