Free online Environment Courses from MIT

Do you want to learn more about the environment? MIT make a huge amount of course material available online for free through their MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW).

“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.”
Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering.

Environmental topics include Earth Systems and Climate Science, Engineering for Sustainability, Environmental Governance, Environmental Histories and Cultures. Courses include both graduate and undergraduate levels.

Have a look at their Environment courses, including titles such as:


Forests of Essex conference: part two

Part two about the Forests of Essex conference that took place on 19th February!
(Read Part One for an introduction and summary of the first half of the conference)

Christopher Neilan (Epping Forest District Council): ‘Veteran trees in Epping Forest District as survivors of the Forest – Green Infrastructure Planning and community engagement in their recording and conservation’. 

Christopher described Epping Forest District as “the home of ancient trees”, and described some of the work that has taken place within Epping Forest District Council and in the community. Christopher is a strong advocate for the “soft power” approach using community involvement to protect trees (you can read an article Christopher wrote about this). He explained: “If we only talk to ourselves, nothing changes”.
Epping Forest District is the landscape between Hainault Forest and Epping Forest, and is a “Green Arc” on the edge of London. The trees here should matter to people. Christopher proposed the following:

♦ Veteran Trees matter innately, functionally and as signifiers to help us read the landscape;
♦ Veteran trees, and their meaningful context, are vulnerable (when they are no longer managed they are no longer valued);
♦ We need to find these trees, find the means to safeguard or manage them, tell their story and engage the public.

Projects in EFDC have included:

  • Community Tree Strategies: engaging with communities to produce a guide for the care and management of the treescape. The latest is Loughton’s Community Tree Strategy [PDF, 4.7MB], published in 2012.
  • The 50 Favourite Trees project: engaging a non-specialist audience in the district’s trees. As well as deciding the winning 50 trees and producing a book about them, the Favourite Trees website has continued to collect records of trees – to date 5180 trees have been recorded.
  • Veteran Tree Project: EFDC’s CountryCare have carried out veteran tree surveys, aiming to find all veteran trees outside of woodland in the district.

Dr James Canton (University of Essex): ‘John Clare in Epping Forest – literature inspired by the landscape of the Forest’.

Dr James has spent time investigating Essex literary history (see his book “Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape” or see him talk about his book on Youtube), and at the Conference he described the great English poet John Clare and his time in Epping Forest. Clare lacked a financial background (he was the son of a farmer) so when his poetry went out of fashion he ended up in an asylum at High Beach in Epping Forest. He was admitted as  “Patient 45, Job: Labourer & Poet” in 1837. He wrote a lot of his poetry in the area while wandering the woods. In 1841 John Clare “escaped”, as he called it, walking out and then continuing approx 80 miles (over four days) to his home village. The path that Clare took can still be taken today, as Dr James found out for himself.

The primrose bud, thy early pledge,
Sprouts ’neath each woodland tree,
And violets under every hedge
Prepare a seat for thee:
As maids just meeting woman’s bloom
Feel love’s delicious strife,
So Nature warms to find thee come,
And kindles into life.

From “The Approach of Spring”, John Clare.

Professor Charles Watkins (University of Nottingham): ‘Essex Trees in Art – how trees have been represented by artists since 1700 and what we can learn from these images about contemporary management’.

Professor Charles said “we can read trees to understand history”. Looking to art history gives us another resource to tap into to understand how trees and the landscape were managed in the past. This talk covered trees in art, art and woodland management, and Essex artists and places. From recognisable oaks and Wild Service trees on Trajan’s Column (113AD) to Elm trees in the Essex landscape painted by Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), Professor Charles showed us trees in artwork and explained what we could deduce from the way they were represented.

TRAJAN'S COLUMN XCIX/CXXXIV-CXXXV (Scenes 134-135): Dacian Defea
Trees on Trajan’s Column (via

Some pictures showed how important firewood was to the economies at the time, others showed how timber was transported, while one painting was almost a how-to for processing bark and making fences – “Stacking the Oak Fence” (David Bates, 1887) tells us as much or more than any text sources about 19th Century oak fence making and bark stacking. As more artworks are being made accessible online through digital collections, the information they contain is likewise becoming much more available for this type of analysis. There are often clues that an art historian would miss regarding the management of trees and landscapes!

Ade Clarke (National Trust): ‘Every Step Counts Project – visitor/conservation management in Hatfield Forest’.

There has been increasing pressure from visitors at Hatfield Forest. The combination of clay soils and heavy trampling in the Winter started to result in less and less recovery, and increasing damage to the path and ride edge habitats. The Every Step Counts project has been tackling the issue of visitor pressure through five different areas of work.

  1. Strategic Planning. The step change in visitor numbers was due to developments increasing the nearby population. NT have worked with developers, Local Authority planners and Natural England to increase understanding of the impacts on the Forest, and to encourage a more constructive process considering mitigation and provision of extra green space for new houses.
  2. Acquisition. All of Hatfield Forest is important and protected, so there is a need for buffer land around it to protect it and provide recreation that isn’t on fragile habitats. National Trust have been looking at this and working in partnership with other landowners too.
  3. Community Involvement. This has been about developing solutions together rather than just consulting the community. There is a working group that gas developed from drop-in sessions, and this acts as a two-way conduit. This area of work also includes Marketing & Comms, to communicate messages (for example to persuade people to wait until May to visit, when the ground is drier).
  4. Forest Infrastructure. National Trust have been working with others and testing solutions through projects, as they know they are not alone and want an evidence-based approach that can be shared with others within the National Trust and externally. The Trust have been considering hard surface paths in places to protect the other zones from damage, and they are testing different surfaces and engaging with Natural England to find the best solution.
  5. Forest Works. Looking at what the team can do in-house to measure the impacts of visitor pressure. This has included monitoring and mapping sources of visitors and damage, vegetation surveys to see what plants are returning in compacted areas, and trialling restrictions to limit access to some parts of the Forest to allow recovery. National Trust have been refining how they implement restrictions, using gate counters to monitor the effectiveness of different methods such as signs, hurdles. They have also been trialling methods to restore compacted rides with Treeworks. Training and Research are also both important to managing visitor pressure moving forward.

    Pollarded hornbeam
    Hornbeam pollards at Hatfield Forest (via Geograph)

John Meehan (Essex County Council): ‘Thames Chase – creation of a 20th century Forest’. 

Many forests are man made and were once new – such as the New Forest! Community Forests like the Thames Chase began 27 years ago, starting with 12 new Forests. The Thames Chase straddles the London-Essex boundary, covering 40 square miles with the M25 running through the middle. This landscape includes hills with “waste” woodland, Thames gravel terraces (known for their invertebrates) plus gravel pit lakes, marshland, landfill and brownfield sites. At the start of the project this area had 8% woodland cover, and the aim was to increase this to 30% in 30 years.

“Thames Chase Community Forest encompasses countryside in Barking and Dagenham, Brentwood, Havering and Thurrock. Within its boundaries there has been a concerted effort, over the last 25 years to re-generate despoiled landscape and enhance the natural environment for the benefit of local people and wildlife.”


Thames Chase catchment area (via Thames Chase website)

The Thames Chase plan was written 1990-1993. After this, Local Authorities extended country parks and put in new woodlands; the Forestry Commission acquired 10 different sites in the area; Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust and the Land Trust also acquired new sites. Trees have also been added by farmers and private landowners through grants. Woodland cover has increased to 13%, but other habitats have benefitted too – for example 41.2km of hedgerows have been created or restored since 1990.

The original Community Forest plan tried to include a number of different functions to create a multi-functional space. Even more uses and benefits have been added in to the Community Forest over time such as mental and physical health, climate change and pollution amelioration, flood prevention. The Thames Chase and other Community Forests have huge and varied benefits, many of these still unknown and still increasing as land is added and sites mature.


  • Farming community were often nervous of being limited and of potential designations
  • Wildlife lobby was nervous about planting trees on other habitats initially
  • The Community Forests need land to be created, and this is in short supply
  • There can be a lack of long term support
  • Being on the border, the Thames Chase is seen as peripheral to the politics of both Essex and London, and it is a fragmented landscape.

In spite of the challenges, there has been some incredible achievement. Community Forests are greater than the sum of their parts: the sites throughout the Thame Chase, added together by ecological corridors and access links, are a fantastic resource. John described trees as “the magic bullet of green infrstructure” as they are the most cost-effective and long-lived of the green infrastructure tools. When trees get big people have to look up to them, and they are the main shaper of their (and our) space.

Visit if you are interested in other Place Services courses and events.

Forests of Essex conference: part one

Last week I attended the Forests of Essex conference organised by Essex County Council’s Place Services at Gilwell Park, home of scouting and located on the edge of Epping Forest at the Essex/London border. Place Services are a multi-disciplinary team, including Planners, Urban Designers, Landscape Architects, Historic Environment Advisors, Ecologists, Arboriculturists, Conservation and Community Engagement Specialists – in a county with a history of woodlands and Royal Forests.

The conference took place on 19th February and brought together experts and professionals to “explore the cultural and natural heritage of the forests of Essex and issues associated with the understanding, management and future of trees, woods and forests in the county”.


The conference was held in memory of Oliver Rackham who sadly passed away two years ago after a lifetime of pushing forward our understanding of woodland ecology and landscape history. The Conference also paid tribute to the Forest Charter, which was signed 800 years ago this year.

Professor Tom Williamson (UEA): Keynote talk on ‘Trees, Woods and Forests in Essex’.

Professor Williamson talked about Oliver Rackham and the context of Essex woodlands: our woods are the way they are because of vigorous past management e.g. coppicing, wood pasture. The land was managed and structured (and has changed) according to economic use and need. Wood pasture is an example, and it was very extensive in Essex in Norman times and as land was more intensively managed later. There is a risk of regarding woods and trees as completely natural, but they are not just the “survivors” of an intensely managed landscape, they were intensely managed themselves at one point.

Dr Sarah Rutherford (freelance historic landscape specialist): ‘Historic landscape of Hatfield Forest’.

Dr Rutherford described Hatfield Forest, and her work on a conservation action plan for the site. Hatfield Forest is one of the most extensive surviving medieval Forest landscapes, demonstrating continual development through a number of key phases including royal aristocratic owners in the medieval period, a Georgian phase with addition of a pleasure ground and involvement of Capability Brown.

“Hatfield Forest is of international significance as the best preserved forest landscape in England, with the continuing survival of a complex mosaic of traditional management regimes”.

RangingFar - Forests of Essex 1

Dr Nicola Bannister (freelance historic landscape specialist): ‘The archaeology and historic landscape of Writtle Forest’.

Dr Bannister discussed Writtle Forest and Park, from her survey work in 1992 and her recent visit there. This is another medieval woodland / Forest landscape, with a high preservation of archaeology beneath the trees. Writtle Forest lies on outwash from the Anglian ice sheet that was difficult for growing crops like corn, and so left wooded. It was assessed for 1500 pigs in the saxon era estate, which indicates a large and working manor. Writtle Forest was a royal forest in the medieval period – it was owned by the crown and granted to highly favoured ladies.

Writtle Forest was an interesting contrast to Hatfield Forest: apart from the loss of its pollard trees it had a similar medieval character, but “inside out” as the woodland was surrounded by the open habitats at Writtle where at Hatfield it is the other way around.

Dr Jeremy Dagley (City of London) ‘The ecology and conservation of Epping Forest’.

Dr Dagley shared his knowledge of Epping Forest. Rackham described Epping Forest as “a Forest with a capital F”‎ – this is a starting point to discuss the definition of Forest, and the difference to other open spaces and woodlands. These Forests are of international importance as cultural sites. The relative strength of the commoner’s rights vs the landowners “must derive” from the woods of Anglo Saxon times. Epping Forest has changed more than Hatfield or Writtle Forests since medieval times. It is, however, “the largest continuous area 1,470 ha of tree-land to retain some semblance of its 12th century state under the Normans” (Rackham 1980).

Dr Dagley noted that, although the fight to save Epping Forest from enclosure was started by the commoners who pollarded it, it was the pasturage rights deriving from the Forest Charter of 1217 that eventually saved Epping Forest! Rackham mentioned its decline – losing features and becoming an “undistinguished secondary woodland”. “Forests” have various habitats, the mosaics are important. People including the Conservators responded to this and management has since been addressing the issue. Plains were largely overlooked in the past (partly due to the decline of commoners and grazing), so there has been more recent work to open up some of the plains and increase their own grazing herd (now nearly 150 animals) and work with invisible fencing. There is not an easy solution for managing the woodlands in Epping Forest as there are too many trees to manage them all; part of their strategy is Keystone Trees. This focusses on:

  • Trees of exceptional size or age.
  • Pollards with UKBAP or RDB species.
  • Trees at risk of physical collape.
  • Tree at risk from shading or root compaction.
  • Trees at special locations.
  • Area for new pollards.
  • Beech trees especially, as they are particularly fragile.


My post about the second half of the Conference is live, so you can continue reading!