The Wildwood

Up to about 4000BC, much of Britain was covered in trees and dramatic declines started. Then Neolithic peoples began the process of clearing the “wild wood”.

A new age dawns
© J. Jackson

Homo sapiens has had a major impact on forests worldwide. The British Isles were no exception. Clearance for agriculture, timber and fuel altered or removed much of the original forest although some of man’s practices such as hunting or coppicing helped it to survive, often in an altered state. Browsing by farm livestock also suppressed natural regeneration.

We often think woodland clearance is quite a recent phenomenon in the UK – but it took place much earlier than we often suppose. By about 500BC, (2500 B.P.) half of Britain was treeless.

By the time the Romans disembarked on these shores, their predecessors had cleared perhaps half of the forest and many of the hills and Downs were as bare as they are now.

The Domesday Book (1086) records that in England very little of the original forests or wildwood remained.

By AD1200 much of the present day rural lowland landscape was established.

Most of the surviving woodlands persisted because they paid their keep. They were intensively managed for timber or grazing and shelter for livestock or cover for game. Coppicing ensured the survival of many working woods.

Deforestation continued right up to the early 20th century by which time England had less forest than any other European country. The UK low point of about 5% of tree cover was reached after the timber extractions of World War I but mainly as a result of setting up the Forestry Commission in 1919, tree cover has grown to about 10% now and is still increasing.

Britain may be one of the least wooded countries in Europe but our tree cover is expanding.