Forest History

Forestry has ancient origins. People have always needed and used wood but the emphasis has shifted over time. For example:

  • The medieval house builder needed small poles that could be worked with hand tools and coppice sticks for "wattle" to fill the space in his timber framed houses.
  • In the 18th century, huge oak timbers were in demand for ships. Trees were specially cultivated and selected for "shipwright" timber with natural curved branches for the ribs of the hull and "knees" to strengthen the joints.
  • By the first half of the 20th century, the emphasis had shifted again and was on round softwood pit props and telephone poles.
  • By the late 1900s, the pulp and paper industries were major consumers of wood.

Foresters have needed to adapt to these changes in demand for wood-based products - but it is not always easy to predict the future and get the right product for the market when your trees may take decades to grow before they are saleable.

The forest industry has changed and evolved throughout its existence. Social and environmental aspects are now vital too. Today the emphasis is on reverting to more traditional forest practices to meet various requirements such as wildlife conservation and public recreation and to provide benefits that are not directly concerned with timber and wood products although they are a spin-off from them. There is a need to create havens of peace and quiet for relaxation and enjoyment, to enhance the landscape and to safeguard natural habitats and their associated plants and animals.

Mixed Woodland © Forestry Commission

Agriculture no longer requires so much quality land and forestry seems set to move down from the hills and to diversify. Ancient woodland is now better understood and better protected. Fewer exotic tree species are likely to be planted.

But there is still a need for wood. The UK is a wood-hungry country - each of us consuming the equivalent of two large trees annually - and it does not make good economic, environmental or social sense to import so much of that from other countries and deplete their resources.

Since the Second World War, the area of coniferous high forest has increased more than threefold. The shift towards conifers was particularly rapid between 1947 and 1996 when more than half a million hectares of conifers were planted.

An increasing amount of home-grown softwood timber is coming up for harvesting and by good silvicultural practice, quality hardwood trees can be grown here as well with multi-purpose objectives.

Something like 35,000 jobs in Britain are dependent on timber and forest-related industries. That figure multiplies up several fold when you consider their families, the communities they live in and all the other related economic and social well-being that employment creates.

One obvious modern change is the move to bring woodlands nearer to home. Urban and community forests are springing up on the fringes of towns and cities. Long stretches of motorways and main roads are now well stocked with a wide variety of well managed trees.