Version 2 - 5th February 2004


Concentrate on Britain and in particular southern England.  Our woodlands are described as semi-natural vegetation.  Good sources of information are “The History of the Countryside” and “Ancient Woodlands” by Oliver Rackham.

1.   Types of Woodland

1.1      Wild Wood

(A term used by Rackham)


Those woods that established after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago.  The trees moved up from the south, their advance only being blocked once the English Channel formed.


The sequence of expansion was (source: p86 History of the Countryside):

1.      Birch, Aspen and Sallow

2.      Pine and Hazel

3.      Alder and Oak

4.      Lime and Elm

5.      Holly, Ash, Hornbeam, Beech and Maple


Conifers are very limited: Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper are the only native species. There is no Spruce (the Christmas Tree) even though it is found in the more northerly latitudes of Scandinavia. It didn’t have time to reach Britain before the land link was lost.


1.2      Ancient Woods

Many of our current woods are not relics of the wild woods, but are areas that have been under constant tree cover.  They have never been cleared even though they may have been used as a source of wood. According to documentary evidence they have been continuously wooded since at least the 1600s.


1.3      Secondary Woodland

Many of the heathlands in Surrey have become woodland again. Birch is a pioneering species.  In Langdon Hills, Essex, trees have re-established themselves on 19th century plotlands (reference: p10 Ancient Woodlands).  This was formerly farmland that had been set aside for development as smallholdings.


1.4      Plantations and Forests

These are ploughed up fields that have been specifically planted.  It is common to plant quick growing trees, such as spruce (a conifer) – eg, Kielder Forest, Northumberland.  The trees are planted close together and there is little opportunity for anything else to grow.


Forest such as the New Forest and Epping Forest are a Norman invention.  They were wooded areas maintained specifically for hunting.


1.5       Wood Pasture

These are like parklands - Hatfield Forest is a good example.

Pigs and cattle graze around the trees near human habitation.  The animals eat new shoots and therefore prevent the wood regenerating.

2         Woodland Management

Up until the 19th century, woodland was a profitable asset and therefore managed.  Trees were coppiced and pollarded in order to encourage new growth – these methods are described in more detail in the two extracts from the nationmaster.com website.  The wood obtained was used for firewood or tools.  Hornbeam and oak sprout well and have good growth.  The cycle of cutting is between 5 and 15 years.  In contrast timber (used in building) needs 50 to 60 years to mature.

2.1      Coppicing

Reference: http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Coppicing


Coppicing is a traditional method of Woodland management, by which young tree stems are cut down to a foot or less from ground level.

In doing so, a multitude of new shoots is encouraged.

Above; diagram illustrating the coppicing cycle over a 7-20 year period

These shoots (or "suckers") may be used either in their young state for interweaving in wattle fencing as is the practice with willows, or the new shoots may be allowed to grow and mature into fully established tree trunks as with oaks or ashes, for the former use in shipbuilding (wooden ships) or carriagebuilding.

It may also be used to encourage specific growth patterns, as with cinnamon trees which are grown for their bark.


It is not possible to coppice trees in a wood pasture, because the cattle would eat the new growth.

2.2      Pollarding

Reference: http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Pollarding


Pollarding is a woodland management method of encouraging lateral branches by cutting off a tree stem two metres or so above ground level.

If pollarding is done repeatedly over the years, a somewhat expanded (or swollen) tree trunk will result, and multiple new side and top shoots will grow on it.

The main reason for this type of practice, rather than coppicing, was in wood-pastures and grazing areas where growth from the ground upwards was less practicable, due to the required area for grazing which would have been reduced by thickets of low tree growth. Pollarding above head height also protects valuable timber or poles from being damaged by browsing animals such as rabbits or deer.

An incidental effect of pollarding is the encouragement of underbrush growth due to increased levels of light reaching the woodland floor. This can increase species diversity. However, in woodland where pollarding was once common but has now ceased, the opposite effect occurs as the side and top shoots develop into trunk-sized branches. An example of this occurs in Epping Forest in London/Essex, UK, the majority of which was pollarded until the late 19th Century. Here, light levels on the woodland floor are extremely low due to the thick growth of the pollarded trees.

Good examples of trees which are regularly pollarded are willows in areas surrounding meadows.

A tree that has been pollarded is known as a pollard.


It is possible to get regrowth in a wood pasture by pollarding the trees.


3         Historical survey

3.1      Stone Age - 5,000 BC

Impact of early man is debateable, but is unlikely to have had a significant affect on the woodlands.


3.2      Iron Age - 2,000 BC

More of an impact, due to the use of iron tools.  There is evidence in the Thames and in Somerset of wooden walkways across marshy and peaty areas. The wood had been deliberately coppiced and cut.


3.3      Roman Age – 40 AD

  • It is thought much of the landscape was now being opened for agriculture.
  • Hounslow Heath (Heathrow) was originally wooded, but was cleared at an early time and became heathland.
  • Clay soils hung onto their woodlands better.
  • Woodlands were now being used by humans in a big way.


3.4      Saxon Age – 400 AD

Evidence from wooden structures show wood with far smaller growth rings.  This implies most of the big trees had gone.  There is a lot of reused timber.


3.5      Middle Ages – 1100 AD

Many woodlands were being actively managed for timber, grazing and hunting.  The population was steadily growing which put pressure on the remaining woodland.  The Black Death (in the 14th century) reduced the pressure for a period. However once the population recovered, woodland faced renewed pressure.


3.6      Modern – 1500AD onwards

Woods were enclosed in order to protect them.  This was particularly prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The woods were enclosed by ditches, fences or banks.  The enclosures were piecemeal, with a particular piece of woodland being gradually enclosed more and more. 


  • Inward enclose – closing off the woods from within.
  • Outward enclosure – cattle grazed on common land, which was often heathland. This land was also enclosed to protect it from the cattle.







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