The Future Sylva

Gabriel Hemery


In 1664 London, even while copies of John Evelyn’s magisterial book Sylva were rolling off the presses under the auspices of the Royal Society, news of another major plague outbreak on mainland Europe reached the city. Evelyn’s mission for King Charles II was to inspire a revival of interest in silviculture, including more afforestation in Britain. His work was driven by a strategic need for timber to aid recovery from the civil war and to support Britain’s growing ambitions on the world stage. Fast forward 356 years, the world is facing a new pandemic in the form of Covid-19. Britain remains one of the least-wooded countries in Europe and has one of the lowest tree counts per citizen anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, our knowledge of forest ecosystems and understanding of the complexity of the natural world, such as the microbiome, is helping us care for our forests with increasing competence. Advances in bioengineering are bringing ever more efficient applications for woody biomass and cellulose that might help us mitigate and adapt; to live more sustainably. Yet, the world teeters on the threshold of a climate emergency while globally an area of natural forest seven times larger than Britain is deliberately deforested every year and millions more hectares degraded by wildfires. This paper explores the notion that is not silvicultural knowledge that impedes sustainable development but human culture. As the saying goes, forestry is more about people than trees.

John Evelyn

The father of forestry, John Evelyn, was born on 31 October 1620 at Wotton in the county of Surrey, England. Among those of us with a passion for trees and forestry, Evelyn is known to us as the author of Sylva: or, a Discourse of Forest-trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties dominions.

His family home was at Wotton House complete with a surrounding country estate founded on the business prowess of his father Richard who established a successful gunpowder manufacturing business. This strategically important business, plus his father’s role as Sheriff of Sussex and Surrey, meant that the family was well connected, and such factors undoubtedly ‘greased the wheels’ for Evelyn later in life. However, he almost didn’t make it to adulthood.

Evelyn was a fastidious diarist and although overshadowed by Pepys, he documented life more comprehensively and for a longer period. He commented in one entry recounting his early childhood in 1625:

This was the year in which the pestilence was so epidemical, that there died in London five thousand a week, and I well remember the strict watchers and examinations upon the ways as we passed; and I was shortly after so dangerously sick a fever, that (as I have heard) the physicians despaired of me.

All of us reading this in 2020 may understand such sentiments much more than we would have less than one year ago.

In 1641, England was in turmoil and Evelyn left the country to tour the United Provinces (modern Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands). He returned the next year and was superficially involved in some military activities of the Civil War but otherwise kept a low profile at Wotton. With royal consent he left for the continent again the next year, this time travelling extensively through Europe and remaining abroad for a period of nine years. He returned in 1652 a changed man, having married the daughter of King Charles I’s ambassador to France, and become very widely read in classical literature. In his growing collections of books, he often wrote his moto ‘explore everything, keep the best.’

Evelyn’s new residence was Sayes Court, situated near the royal dockyard in Deptford, this being the ancestral home of his wife. The 100-acre (40 hectare) estate fuelled his interest in plants and gardening, and he soon became known for his passion and expertise in both. With the restoration of the monarchy and the coronation of Charles II in 1660, the staunchly royalist Evelyn soon found that he had much favour in high court circles. He immersed himself in public affairs and was frequently called upon to complete public commissions, including architecture, coinage and air pollution. He later became well known for a discourse on salads and wrote a popular book on horticulture Terra; The Compleat Gard’ner.

In late 1660, the inaugural meeting of the Royal Society was held at Gresham College in London. Forty-one men listened to an astronomy lecture given by Christopher Wren, among them John Evelyn who is listed ninth among attendees. Among others, the society soon included amongst its members luminaries such as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, and Christopher Wren.

Two years later the Royal Society was asked to respond to ‘Quaeries’ initiated by the Navy Royal which highlighted the scarcity of timber fit for shipbuilding and that land fit for tree planting should be found. Evelyn is thought to have co-ordinated the Royal Society’s response which was published as a report in late 1662. Just 14 months later, Evelyn presented an expanded version of Sylva now published as a book to Charles II. This was the first book ever published by the Royal Society, and it illustrates the importance of timber and forestry to the economy of seventeenth century Britain. A sentiment perfectly summarised by Evelyn: ‘We had better be without gold than without timber’.

The first edition of Sylva explained the strategic importance of forests to the reader, who were most likely to be the landed gentry, or as Evelyn put it: ‘I did not altogether compile this work for the sake of our ordinary rusticks, meer foresters and woodmen, but for the benefit and diversion of Gentleman and persons of quality . . .’

Evelyn’s Sylva was not only the first book published about forestry in the English language, but inspired generations of landowners to embrace tree planting and care, and despite Evelyn’s intended audience, undoubtedly inspired many people to find a passion in trees especially when literacy rates improved and more ‘rusticks’ could access his words. Evelyn certainly inspired me to become a ‘meer forester’ and shaped my professional life. I founded the Sylva Foundation in 2009 to revive Britain’s wood culture, and I launched my writing career by co-authoring The New Sylva which was published in 2014 to celebrate the 350th publication anniversary of his great work.

Britain’s trees

I wish it were true that as a result of John Evelyn’s magisterial work, Britain gained substantially from more of its land being planted under trees, and that a greater proportion of our woodlands were managed competently. Sadly, tree cover continued to decline exponentially from the seventeenth century until the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919. Despite enormous efforts in the twentieth century, which did result in a doubling of woodland cover in Britain, today at 14 per cent under tree cover the nation remains one of the least wooded in Europe.

I have become increasingly convinced however that reporting a nation’s wealth in hectares of tree cover is not always the best metric. The work of Crowther and others highlighted the uneven distribution of trees when matched with human population density. Britain for instance has just 47 trees per person, compared to 182 per person in our nearest neighbour France, or 716 for citizens in the USA. I have completed some of my own calculations by modelling tree cover against human population in different parliamentary constituencies across Britain. I discovered unsurprisingly that the least populated regions of Britain contributed most to our forest cover, the corollary however is that in our most densely populated constituencies, a single tree may be shared by as many as 125 people. Surely, these unfortunate people may be among the poorest anywhere in the world.

One of the unique aspects of Britain’s forests is that four-fifths are owned by private landowners, with the area owned by the state being one of the lowest in Europe. Shockingly, it is also apparent that one-third of forests in England (data unavailable for Britain) are without an approved management plan, which is the only metric we have to judge whether a woodland is managed according to best practice, i.e. the UK Forestry Standard. The high proportion of woodlands in private ownership, and possibly their poor condition, points towards the importance of government and others with strategic oversight, finding new ways to engage with woodland owners if we are to enable our forests to become more resilient and to help society to respond effectively to the challenges of the climate emergency. These are the main reasons that I helped launch a national survey to give those who care for woodlands in Britain a voice, the most recent report of which highlights the increases in environmental change being observed by landowners, yet a relatively poor degree of planning among landowners and managers to deal with future environmental change.

People not Trees

There is a saying that forestry is more about people than trees. I wish I could claim credit for Jack Westoby’s elegant truth which at its heart captures the important difference between natural forest ecosystems and the forests of the world that are either deliberately manipulated to suit our needs, remain forever changed by historical management, or are ever more affected by global change brought about by the manmade climate emergency.

Peoples’ perceptions towards forestry have become of great interest to me as my career in silvology has developed from its origins in silviculture and genetic tree improvement. My activities in environmental social science have grown out of a deep concern about how policy makers make decisions that affect us all, and from a desire to support better those people who care for our trees by giving them a voice. For instance, it is obvious that it is difficult for most decision makers to contemplate economic systems which may take three human generations to mature when most policies or fiscal instruments operate over three to five-year timescales. Neither can policy deal with a sector that delivers in more than one arena, with forestry providing not only valuable commodities for the economy, like farming does, but it also helps to sequester carbon, reduce flooding, clean our air, provide space for nature, improves health and wellbeing for people etc. The very breadth of forestry is often our Achilles heel.

For the public in Britain, forestry carries a certain amount of negative baggage. The massive state-driven expansion in tree cover which came after the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919, resulted in afforestation of the uplands when landscape design and ecological sensitivity were little-known concepts. The resulting ‘dark satanic’ (a nod to a line William Blake’s nationalistic poem Jerusalem) planted in rows as dense monocultures, often comprising Sitka spruce on upland peat, became much maligned. Fast forward to the 1980s, there was a period when rich and famous individuals in Britain invested in forestry as a means to avoid personal tax. Both cases might seem to be well in our past, but I know well from personal experience that in the public mind, forestry remains tainted by them. That said, when the government announced in 2010 that it intended to ‘sell-off’ the public forest estate, the response by the public was unprecedented with more than half a million people signing an online petition against the proposals. It led to an embarrassing U-turn for the government and the creation of an Independent Panel on Forestry which reported to government in 2012 and was reviewed in 2017.

Meanwhile, the general public is ever more removed from the natural world, a concept perfectly captured by Richard Louv who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’. Happily, there is a growing Forest School movement in the UK, led by the Forest School Association. Like many others, I wish forest schools could be mainstreamed which sadly government stopped short of doing in its 25-year plan. With ever-increasing use of technology by young people, there are good reasons to be concerned about future generations’ understanding and affinity with the natural world. That said, technology has the power to inform and influence behaviour as never before, as seen by the emergence in 2018 of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg who achieved global recognition for her work aged 15.

With the advent of sustainable development, largely due to the Brundtland Report in 1987, forestry has embraced the concept in its practice, research, and policy. It has at least in countries where governments have adopted the same principals. Most developed countries and many developing countries possess and enact sustainable forestry, yet the loss of irreplaceable primary rainforests continues largely unabated, with an area the size of Belgium lost in 2019 (12 million hectares). Yet there are cases still of precedence being given to economic development even within Britain where we pride ourselves on our environmental credentials. For example, the recent go ahead to construct a high-speed rail link known as HS2 through ancient woodland sites in England; 43 sites according to government but 108 according to campaigning charity the Woodland Trust. It is apparent that the evidenced voice of environmentalists that ancient woodland is irreplaceable—meaning it cannot be simply mitigated by creating new woodland somewhere else—remains unheeded.

We should be conscious too of unforeseen consequences from significant degradation in natural forest ecosystems. Fifteen years before the current outbreak of Covid-19, the World Health Organization released a report warning of the potential impacts on human health arising from changes to ecosystems. Indeed, the significant rise experienced since 1980 in bacteria, viruses, and zoonotic (arising in animals) diseases affecting us has been linked to humans having increasing contact with new organisms due to loss of habitat and over-exploitation of the natural world, as summarised in David Quammen’s compellingly prescient book.


In terms of a future sylvan perspective, there is much to be positive about. Our knowledge and appreciation of the natural world and our ability to work with nature for mutual benefit has progressed hugely since John Evelyn set pen to paper in the seventeenth century. Emerging knowledge of the full complexity of forest ecosystems, especially the microbiome, is helping us care for our forests with increasing competence. Advances in bioengineering are bringing ever more efficient applications for woody biomass and cellulose that might help us mitigate and adapt to a challenging future. We are capable of making alternatives to plastic and other oil-based materials for use in car bumper and ballistic vests, engineering our foods and cosmetics from wood pulp, and building ever taller buildings with wood instead of concrete and steel.

Yet, deforestation continues at a terrifying rate and some world leaders still deny that climate change is even a phenomenon. It is easy to cast the stone afar, but we should recognise that there will be much we should be shamed about closer to home too, whether by our government, corporations, or even our own actions.

It is no longer the case in the widest sense that silvicultural knowledge or practice impedes sustainable development, but rather it is human culture. We must remember that forestry is more about people than trees. Some may put trees before people, but ultimately while such efforts may counteract the extreme opposite, I believe such ideologies are doomed to failure as we are ultimately selfish creatures. We should fully embrace the concept that our forests are a fantastic natural resource which is available to people, as it is to all creatures on Earth, which can be successfully and sensitively exploited. The challenge for the nescient is to accept that if we manage our forest resources unsustainably, we are depredating future generations of air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat, all of which are a greater imperative than Evelyn could ever have imagined, even in comparison to building warships to help us fight among ourselves. Ultimately, as I expressed in my closing words in The New Sylva I believe that ‘every one of us should aspire to be a forester’ for it is the noblest of occupations.

About the Author

Dr Gabriel Hemery is an author, tree photographer, and silvologist. He has written three books, including The New Sylva (Bloomsbury, 2014) celebrating the legacy of John Evelyn. Gabriel has authored more than 90 technical articles, cited in more than 900 articles by other scientists, working in collaborative science programmes ranging from genetic tree improvement to silvo-poultry research. More recently he has developed an interest in social science. He appears regularly on TV and radio talking about trees and the environment. Gabriel co-founded an environmental charity the Sylva Foundation and is currently its Chief Executive.

Further Reading

URLs accessed 2 October 2020

Crowther, T.W. Glick, H.B., Covey, K.R., Bettigole, C. et al. (2015). Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature, 25, pp.201–205 (10 September 2015).

Defra. A Green Future: Our 25 year Plan to Improve the Environment (London: H. M. Government, 2018).

EFRA (2017). ‘Forestry in England: Seeing the Wood for the Trees’. House of Commons Select Committee Report.

John Evelyn. Sylva: or, a Discourse of Forest-trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties dominions. (London, 1664).

FAO. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Forest School Association.

Forestry Commission. The UK Forestry Standard 2017.

Global Forest Watch.

Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet, The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

G. Hemery and J.P. Skovsgaard. 2018. “Silvology: redefining the biological science for the study of forests”. Quarterly Journal of Forestry 112, no. 2 (April) (2): 128–31.

Hemery, G., Petrokofsky, G., Ambrose-Oji, B., Forster, J., Hemery, T., and O’Brien, L., (2020). “Awareness, action, and aspirations in the forestry sector in responding to environmental change: Report of the British Woodlands Survey 2020”.

Richard Louv, Last Child in Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (New York: Algonquin Books, 2008).

Katherine F. Smith, Michael Goldberg, Samantha Rosenthal, Lynn Carlson, Jane Chen1, Cici Chen4 and Sohini Ramachandran, “Global rise in human infectious disease outbreaks” Interface 11, no.101, 2014.

David Quammen,. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. (Vintage, 2013).

Jack Westoby. The Purpose of Forests. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

WHO. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Health Synthesis: A Report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (World Health Organization, 2015)

Woodland Trust.; see also government estimate at

World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future [Bruntland Report] (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).