Woodlands since the last Ice age, part 2 the last 2000 years

This continues from part one which was from the last ice age up to the Roman invasion. So this is just the last 2,000 years.

Painting of Oliver Rackham
Painting of Oliver Rackham

First of all let me say this is an overview and as such it only skims across the period. If you want a more detailed account then I would refer you to Oliver Rackham and his various books which not only give you an in depth account but are also very readable. ‘Woodland’ by Oliver Rackham, published by Harper Collins 2012  ISBN 978-0-00-748104-0 is a good start.

By the time Julius turned up and later when Claudius made a good fist of it, England was rural. It had fields and hedges and pasture. On the uplands were moors and heaths and where it was chalky there was downland. There were little settlements, you could almost call them villages,there were burial sites and worshiping sites and there was of course woodland.  However the amount was probably only about 10 to 20% which is probably much less than most people would think. We have the idea that there were vast amounts of woodland even until quite recently. Robin Hood and the exploits of Highway men like Dick Turpin have fostered the idea that swathes of England were deepest darkest forests.

No, the amount of woodland in the England 2,000 years ago was about the same amount as is presently found in France. Also most, if not all of that woodland was either being managed or had been managed at sometime. So even then the possibility of ‘wildwood’ existing is quite unlikely. Wildwood being a woodland that developed after the last ice age and then continued with natural regeneration and completely unaffected by man.

During the period of Roman occupation the population increased, and the sophistication of the society increased. This had significant effects on the amount of woodland. There was lots of charcoal production on a local level to provide fuel for local blacksmiths. There was also quite large scale iron production in areas like the Weald, and the Forest of Dean. Also the Romans were famous for their villas, thus bricks were being produced also lots of pottery, and tiles. All of these need kilns which need charcoal. So by the time the Romans left the amount of woodland was at quite a low level, probably below 10%

The next period takes us through to 1066 and this was the period of Anglo Saxons and the Viking invasions. The population declined and so did the sophistication of society. Having said that we did become united under one royal family and developed a quite advanced form of government. The effect though on woodland  was that the amount increased and according to Doomesday about 15% of the land was wooded.

The next nine hundred years saw a steady decline in woodland. as can be seen in the graph below.

This was caused by a mixture of population increase and the increased demand for land to grow crops and support farm animals. The construction of more substantial houses, Tudor houses with big Oak beams, and buildings like barns and churches, also the development of larger ships used for defence, for exploration and trade a,would have used more timber but this was largely in a sustainable way, only reducing the amount of woodland later in the period when demand started to outstrip the sustainable supply.

Throughout all this time the sustainable method of management was Coppice with Standard. This supplied a vast range of materials, back then there was no plastics or steel only iron, copper and bronze but their production was on a relatively small scale so these materials were only used when wood was inappropriate.  The coppice side of it comes from the French word coupe to cut and various species were cut back every few years. They then regenerated and could be cut back again and then again and so on  This could go on for hundreds of years and some species would live much longer with this regime than they would if left alone to grow in a normal way. The regular cutting produced a characteristic stump called a ‘stool’, which I think can look quite beautiful, they are a complete little microhabitat. The shoots that grow up from the stool are known as ‘poles’.

The photo is of an ancient Oak stool with new poles growing up from it. The photo was taken from the booklet mentioned below.

There was a very good booklet produced by Hampshire council in 1993 about Coppicing and I have used some of the photos in it to illustrate Hurdle production.

I will just highlight a few of the species commonly grown for coppicing and their uses, but most trees and shrubs had some use in the past based on the specific properties of each species.

Willow,  This was coppiced on perhaps the shortest cycle of just 2 or 3 years. It was of course used for woven basket work, though it was not just baskets, all sorts of other woven goods were produced like fish traps called grigs, bee hives called skeps and fence material.

Hazel, this was coppiced on an 8 to 12 year cycle. Obviously the earlier you cut it the thinner the poles would be. The majority of it was used to make hurdles. This was not because in days gone by people liked to run 100 meters and jump over obstacles at regular intervals. The original meaning of a hurdle is a fence pannel and it was about the size of a hurdle used in the olympics. The reason for their production was sheep. Back in the day wool was very important… no cotton, certainly no synthetic fibers, maybe just a little silk. So all garments were made from wool or leather. Thus the need for lots of sheep.   Sheep farming requires that they are penned together at various times of year; lambing, shearing  and sometimes during the winter. Hurdles were used to make strong but temporary enclosures to contain the sheep during these activities. The hurdels had a loop at one end and at the other end it was finished off with a pole that stuck up a few inches higher than the rest of the hurdle. This meant the loop of one could be slotted over the pole of another and so a long fence could be constructed and a sort of coral could be constructed. Hazel did have other uses but this was the main one.

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Ash, this was coppiced on a longer cycle of 15 years or more and had a wide range of uses. Ash has two good properties, the wood has a fine grain without too many knots so for a carpenter it is easy to work. Secondly it is slightly flexible, if you try to bend it or apply pressure then it has a bit of give in it. It will not crack or split. This means it was used for lots of implements like spade handles, the famous fork handles ( four candles) axes, right through to farm implements like ploughs and harrows. Even now it is often used as the flooring for bowling alleys where a ten pin bowl when inexpertly launched down the alley can pack quite a punch.

Many different species were coppiced and used for a huge variety of jobs. Also the Coppice with standard woodland provided other essentials for the local community. Fire wood, charcoal and food. These woodlands are very diverse habitats and supported lots of different species which could be eaten such as fungi, fruits and berries, nuts, herbs both medicinal and culinary. Also birds and mammals, though theses were reserved for the lord of the Manor, however some deer rabbits and pheasants did find there way onto the peasants dinner plate. Also we should not forget that acorns were an important source of food for pigs during the winter.

Obviously not all woodland was managed in a sustainable way and the amount of land supporting trees gradually declined, reaching a low point in the earl 1900’s. To be precise around about 1918…. what is the significance of this year? The end of the first world war.  The Great War, what a name? I know it was large in that it killed thousands and spread over a wide area and lasted a long time but I don’t think the word great and war should be put together. Apart from all this the war had a significant effect on our woodlands. Trench warfare requires a lot of wood, boards and posts to maintain the integrity of the trench, duck boars on the floor to try and reduce the amount of mud and sometimes wooden roofing boards. Some trenches were completely underground requiring even more wood to strengthen them.  All the wood on the allied side came from the UK and was shipped across to France and Belgium, why they did not use local grown wood? I do not know. Also the nature of the war was that the line shifted backwards and forwards and trenches were blown up and reconstructed and blown up again so the demand for wood was very high.

At the end of the war the government of the day could see in its infinite wisdom that our woodland stock was very low. They also could see that another war was very likely. They also thought that the next war would be similar to the last one, involving trenches and thus the need for timber. So in 1919 they set up the Forestry Commission, and the instructions to this government body was to purchase land, plant trees and grow them quickly and efficiently in anticipation for future demand. To be fair they realised that this demand would not just be for timber to shore up trenches but also for house building, furniture, pit props and many other uses.

Thus the amount of woodland started to increase and has steadily risen throughout the twentieth century, there have been various mishaps along the way and the Forestry Commission has not been the most popular body, but they met their brief to produce more timber and quickly. Obviously a quick growing tree which produced reasonably serviceable timber was required, so no good planting Oaks  Ash or Beech, the solution was Scott’s Pine and vast areas were planted up. One I am very familiar with is Thetford Forrest which was planted on the former Brecklands of Norfolk and Sufolk.  It produced trees and timber but not much else, the nature of Pine plantations is to exclude light so the trees grow tall and straight, good for telegraph poles and pit props but not the natural way a Scotts pine grows in its native Scotland. Also Norfolk is not the natural habitat for Scotts pine, it is warmer than Scotland and this meant that the trees were vulnerable to a parasitic fungus which attacks the top most shoots and then works down and kills the tree of the tree and this  is know commonly as Crown Rot  This disease was causing a lot of problems so the Forestry Commission switched to planting a similar species again not native but this time from a warmer area and this was Corsican Pine.  As you might expect a tree not growing in its natural environment is going to be more vulnerable to pests and disease and sure enough another  disease came along which attacked the roots and the lower part of the tree this was called Butt rot…does not sound good to me! They managed to control this and continued to plant Corsican pine but recently another disease has come along called Red band needle blight and that cannot be controlled and has /is wiping out all Corsican Pines across the country.

Oliver Rackham has a lot to say about the failings of Forestry throughout the majority of the twentieth century, I have touched on it here. However to be fair the Forestry  Commission only does what it is directed to do by our government, and that was  to produce trees which will produce reasonable quality timber in a short time (40years) so as I said Oak is not an option. As I see it there is a divide between Forestry and Woodland management, Forestry is first and foremost farming trees to produce a crop of timber.  In the last 30/40 years the governments directives to the Forestry Commission have changed and they have a broader remit which includes conservation, leisure use and education, but still timber production is way out in front.Woodland management is far wider and takes into account  sustainability and  biodiversity. This can also produce useful timber but it is a slower more work intensive process but it is more sustainable.

Below is a photo of the Newland Oak, unfortunately  now long gone.(Newland is about 3 miles from were I live.) 

So here we are up to date, who knows were we will be in 100 or 1000 years time. Will we still need wood? Maybe because we are using up  the oil reserves very rapidly and they are what most plastics are produced from at the moment. Could wood be produced as some sort of tissue culture, in a giant poly tunel? Will all woodland have to be felled and the land use to produce food and bioplastics. Cutting down all the trees will massively increase CO2 levels.

I tell you what, lets try to control population and carry on with a traditional way of life that has served us reasonably well for 2000 years.

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