Protecting Areas by Ourselves from Ourselves: The case of Wytham Woods

I; along with a small group of other inquisitive and novice master’s students had the privilege of visiting Wytham Woods a few weeks ago. The land seemed pristine, with luscious green and leafy trees everywhere and mounds of grass and dried up leaves on the ground. The space is more of a laboratory than a serene piece of land, however, the general public for a measly fee, can enjoy the “nature” it has to offer.  This piece of “protected area” is passionately known as Oxford’s Ecological Laboratory or a laboratory of leaves[], that is because most academics in the School of Geography and Environment conduct some form  of research and visit the site on a regular basis. Mention must be made of the fact that the University of Oxford actually owns and manages Wytham Woods and it has been so for decades. Wytham woods was bequeathed to the university in 1943[]. The Environmental Change Institute (ECI) also has an Ecosystems lab set up with equipment such as canopies,  remote sensors, weather systems (see fire 1)and rhitozron amongst others to investigate the forest’s ecosystem’s function. They particularly investigate and analyse the carbon cycle in the forest, since the forest is both a carbon sink and source, they also analyse the temperature and climate of the forest. The results are then used to inform research in other forests.


Figure 1: A weather system at Wytham Woods (reads wind speed, rain, temperature)


Since this protected area is not owned by the UK government but by the University of Oxford, it is a Type C Governance, which according to the IUCN criterion is any governance of a protected area conducted by private institutions. According to IUCN, a Protected Area is “A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”[]


IUCN has come up with stringent criteria to designate which type of Protected Area a specific piece of land falls under.  There are six established categories ranging from nature reserves, national parks to wilderness areas. In my view Wytham Woods could be a category IA due to the fact that it is a strictly protected area which is set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are supposedly strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. I however find this category  and the other five very limiting because there was no security or other rangers to ensure that Wytham Woods is truly protected, I could have uprooted a tree or poured poison on one since there was no real “strict” supervision(of course I would never dare as I love nature), the only person who was there was our lecturer who took us there. What if I pay one pound and go by myself? How much protection is offered to the forest? There are people who are malicious out there who could do that. In my personal opinion, I would say not much security and protection is offered for the forest from human pressures and hazards. As such I would guard against using the term Protected Area for Wytham Woods, since it does not neatly fit into the six criterions set by IUCN.  In fact I strongly think that IUCN should have a review of the number of criteria and the jargon used to designate Protected Areas as some places do not “fit” either of the criteria neatly, it is very limiting and exclusionary. We cannot have a one size fits all description of “nature”, a Protected Area in South Africa is not the same as a PA in London, so why would we have such a small list drawn up for the whole world? The world, “nature” is complex, messy, nested, nestled and much more nuanced, thus using reductionist and simplistic categories will end up hurting our course to protect nature and in fact harm. The University of Oxford must also work harder to ensure that Wytham Woods lasts more than a few more decades, but that future generations in a the next few centuries can also experience the forest. They could do so by hiring five rangers and security guards as it is a small area. Overall, the group and I enjoyed ourselves, the weather was good, hence it made touring easier.

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