The Evolution of British Woodlands

Image by Victoria Protheroe

This article provides a brief discussion of the key points in the history of British woodlands with a historic account of tree species found in the UK.

The history of British woodlands since the last glaciations is, in geological time, very brief, and is linked with the development of civilisation: “the gulf of time which separates us from the end of the last glaciations is only about six times as great as that between us and Julius Caesar.” (Rackham, O. 1990)

Doggerland, named by archaeologists and geologists, offered a route to Britain for plants, animals and the first human colonists, who were to alter the landscape of the time. It was a landmass in the southern North Sea that connected Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age. As sea levels rose, Doggerland became submerged beneath the North Sea, cutting off the British peninsula from the European mainland, and the English Channel formed. Species that arrived after the Ice Age and before the separation from Europe are known as native species. Non-native species were introduced into the U.K between the end of the Ice Age but before 1500AD are called archaeophytes, brought in by the Normans and the Romans. Plants introduced since 1500AD are termed neophytes, species brought from the Americas and the far East. (Rackham, O.)

After the end of the last Ice Age, records show that the British Isles were covered with forests known as wildwood, none of which is known to exist in Britain today, although some is still in existence in parts of Europe. Woodland history begins around 12,000BC, when the climate became possible for tree growth, which has been established, predominantly through pollen analysis.


Image by Victoria Protheroe

“The trees which had retreated to southern latitudes during the Ice Age slowly migrated north again.” (Rackham, O (1993)

Varieties such as Birch, Sallow and Aspen are arctic trees, followed by trees of warmer climes such as Hornbeam, Maple and Lime. Although local variations occurred, the general scene traced from pollen records show that the very north of Scotland would still have been tundra and virtually treeless, much like northern Norway and Sweden today. The North West Highlands of Scotland were mostly covered by Birch forests while the eastern highlands were covered by Pine. The rest of Scotland, northern England, the north Midlands, most of Wales and the south west were dominated by Oak and Hazel. Hazel and Elm occupied south west Wales and the majority of Cornwall. Woods with Lime as the most common tree species covering the remainder of England.

A more stable climate followed these changes of the first millennia around 7,000 to 5,000BC. Trees and woodland plants returned by wind and bird borne seed to form a series of wild wood plant communities. Wind borne seeds, spread was accelerated further through the droppings of birds and animals, gradually colonized the British Isles from the south east. Before large scale human activity, tree species competed through natural processes of succession in the formation of woodland types which covered all the British Isles except for small areas of grassland moorland and in the far north, coastal dunes and salt marshes. Later pollen analysis shows that wildwood was not a mere ‘mixed oak forest’ but had many local varieties.


Image by Victoria Protheroe

Mesolithic people, who consumed large numbers of nuts, are considered potentially responsible for the abundance of Hazel trees in prehistory. By Neolithic times, farming was developing, farmers raised crops and domesticated animals. At this time a decline in Elm pollen production has been noted, which is associated with early pottery and tools. As the population grew, demands upon timber for houses, tools, boats and other such products increased and pressure from grazing animals all prevented the re-growth of the woodlands. Within 3,000 years wildwood disappeared from terrain as tracts were converted to farmland or heath. This resulted in an increase in plants and with crops such as wheat and weeds such as plantains. The Bronze Age (2,400-750BC) witnessed the disappearance of wildwood from high altitude areas and river valleys.

Carpentry became a feature of the early Neolithic period and it was recognised that the re-growth shoots from a tree stump were more useful than the original tree itself. A type of woodland management began to be introduced, allowing a continuous, self-renewing supply of trees to be available through a process of cutting the trees to ground level and allowing them to grow up again. This process is known as coppicing. Coppice-management gradually became more widespread to conserve supplies of wood, which were in short supply as populations grew and increased amounts of woodland were cleared, making way for agriculture. Carpentry was needed to grow the materials, for wattle-work, which is a frame of rods interwoven with twigs and branches, especially when used to make fences. This remained an important aspect of dwellings up until Anglo-Saxon times.

The Roman landscape was dominated far less by wildwood as the urbanisation of small towns took place. They used large numbers of oak trees for their buildings and hundreds of square miles of coppice-wood for the ironworks. A legacy of Roman times in Britain is the division between planned countryside and ancient countryside. (Rackham, O.) It has been estimated that within 50 years of the demise of Roman Britain, the landscape would have reverted back to woodland which Anglo-Saxons would have begun to hew. However, the Doomsday Book, which is the earliest semi-quantitative record of woodlands, states that in 1086 England was not a particularly wooded landscape.


Image by Victoria Protheroe

From the thirteenth century onwards, records became more abundant with hundreds of specific woods referred to in surveys of land. Boundaries and acreages were defined, and woods were assigned individual names. Medieval woods were shared by timber trees and underwood which were self-renewing producing sustained yield. Woods became valuable property with boundaries defined by hedges or fences preventing neighbouring livestock from eating the young shoots. “For at least 600 years prices of trees, both timber and underwood either remained steady or rose in real terms. The economic and social value of woods, plus the expense of destroying them, tended to preserve woodland against other land used from 1350-1850.” (Rackham, O. 2003)

Industrial booms in shipping and tanning leather led to a large consumption of oak trees in which timber production was sacrificed for a greater yield of bark. Many landowners encouraged the growth of a large number of oaks. In the 1850’s, when the boom collapsed, the oak trees were not being felled in time and went on growing, reducing the biodiversity in the underwood beneath its shade.

Leather tanning and ship building industries continued to rise up until 1860 when both markets subsequently collapsed. (Rackham, O. 2006) Pit props used in coal mines provided a market for timber and underwood which reduced the value of woodland in relation to other land, and a reduction of the value of wood to timber.

The largest rate of destruction of woodland in 650 years occurred in the 1860’s and 1870’s which was followed swiftly by an agricultural depression where newer woodland had been formed and the growth of plantation forestry overtook ancient woodland. Oak trees had previously grown readily, however this changed in the twentieth century, most likely due to the introduction of American Oak mildew, a fungus disease noted from 1908 spreading to all deciduous Oaks in Europe.

Throughout 1914 woodlands attached to estates began to change with conifer plantations and coppicing in decline. By World War I timber felling increased significantly in order to meet the large demands of the war and the economy. Following the war, in 1919 the Forestry Commission formed as forestry became a state affair. It initiated a large plantation on non-woodland sites, and felling continued during the Second World War. The felling impacted on policies and woodland management after new generations of trees had grown.

From the 1950’s onwards, woodlands were being destroyed on a large scale to make way for the fast-growing evergreen Conifers. Woodlands began to recover from 1975 onwards (Rackham, O. 2006) As the success of the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission spear headed the ‘de-coniferisation’ of ancient woodlands, improving the prospects of the ecosystems and biodiversity within woodlands. Woodland species have adapted to the natural process that took place in the wildwood before man cleared and modified it. Some woodland management is now necessary due to the loss of many natural processes and because woods are now generally small and fragmented. This fragmentation means that some species have great difficulty in dispersing to new sustainable areas. Management is needed to artificially maintain sustainable conditions for a wide range of species and to control others that can damage woodlands.



Hyde, P. (2004) Essentials of Environmental Management, Lavenham Press, England

Rackham, O. (1990) Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape

Rackham, O. (2003) The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Weidwnfeld and Nicolson Ltd

Rackham, O. (2006) Woodlands, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, London


About Victoria Protheroe 10 Articles
With a lifelong love of nature and wildlife and a Master’s degree in research, Victoria Protheroe enjoys spending her free time combining these interests to explore new areas of wildlife research and conservation. Her current area of interest is with reptile care, specifically snake husbandry.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.