Ancient Woodland Indicators

In England, “ancient woodland” is a term used to describe an area which has been continuously wooded since at least 1600 (in Scotland, the date is 1750).

The Domesday Book records that, in 1086, 70% of the Weald was still wooded, while other parts of the country, like Devon or Yorkshire, had been reduced to a mere 10% of wooded area.

Britain’s ancient wildwoods were mostly cleared in pre-historic times, before the beginning of the Iron Age. These clearances produced much-needed timber and fuel, and created agricultural land for pasture and cultivation. This process meant that, by the time of the Norman invasion, British woodland was already substantially diminished.

Wild garlic
Wild garlic it is a strong indicator of an ancient woodland, it has also been credited with many medicinal qualities and is a popular homeopathic ingredient. It is often used for treating cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive problems, as well as for the sterilisation of wounds

This remaining woodland, however, was crucial to the medieval economy. As such, it was carefully and intensively managed, maximising yields of timber and fuel, and game animals for hunting.

Read More: A Guide to the Wildflowers of our Ancient Woodlands

This management has left traces which, if you know where to look, can still be seen today and give us clues that we are in an area of ancient woodland. Ancient woodlands are diverse and rich natural environments which support a variety of plant and animal life.

Roe deer
Roe deer in Islands Thorns Inclosure, New Forest This is a relatively remote part of the New Forest, easier to stumble across deer. The crisp leaves and twigs underfoot mean that they hear you coming before you can get too close but there are plenty of trees to hide behind. Just north of here is Studley Castle, the site of a medieval royal hunting lodge. Credit: Jim Champion

But they were also social spaces which played a huge part in the lives of people living in and around them for generations. As well as leaving traces in the physical environment – in the shape of the landscape and the trees – it also left traces in the names of places. Today, just 2.5% of the UK is ancient woodland.

Place Names

Place names are seldom definitive proof of the presence of ancient woodland, since words can be corrupted through usage over time and might have multiple possible sources. But, in combination with other clues, a place name can indicate that you are likely in ancient woodland.

Holly, for example, was cultivated in medieval woodland areas to supply winter feed for animals. “Hollins” is a place name derived from “holly” which suggests the previous existence of a holly grove nearby.

Read More: The Impact of the Loss of Our Ancient Woodlands

Other place names which suggest that there was once ancient woodland in the neighbourhood include “dene”, “frith”, “holt”, “grove”, “lund”, “shaw”, “coed”, “worth” and “coilee”. Wooded hills and slopes are indicated by names including “hurst” and “hanger”.

Coppiced woodland is sometimes marked by the name “spring”, in reference to the new growth promoted by coppicing (a process described in more detail below).

Surprisingly, the name “forest” is unlikely to indicate woodland since the word was originally used to designate lands set aside for the monarch, rather than to suggest the presence of trees.

Trees in Ancient Woodland

Ancient woodlands were an important resource. As such, they were carefully managed to make sure they remained useful and weren’t depleted by overuse or neglect. One lasting sign of this intensive management can be found in the way it shaped the trees of the wood.

beech tree
Ancient beech tree in Hargate Forest

The two main types of modification used to maximise yields of wood for building and fuel were coppicing and pollarding. These techniques are still sometimes used to manage forests and woodlands today, so new examples can still be seen.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

In an area of ancient woodland, you will find older trees which show marks of these traditional management techniques, which will contain grown out pollards and coppices.

These, though no longer “fresh”, are nevertheless clearly shaped by the way they had been lopped long ago. How can you recognise these signs and what do they mean?


Coppicing is a traditional technique for woodland management that has been used since the Stone Age. It is still used today, especially in conservation work to encourage wildlife, but coppicing has been widely employed to manage woodland for countless generations.

As such, you might be able to see new instances of coppicing in traditionally managed woodland as well as grown-out examples in ancient woodland, indicating that the woodland you are in was once managed (but has since been neglected) and is therefore likely to be ancient.

coppice woodland
Coppice woodland

Coppicing is the technique by which trees are cut to a stump close to the ground. What is left is a stump which is called a “stool”. From the stool, new shoots grow, each of which becomes a new trunk which will grow straight upwards rather than in branches. This method means that there are more trunks suitable to cut for timber.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

As a result, a coppiced woodland could support more people by producing more wood without being exhausted. This also meant it was possible to harvest timber throughout the year. Coppiced woodlands were divided into sections called “panels” or “haggs” which were coppiced and cleared in rotation.

hazel coppice
Hazel coppice, always a good ancient woodland indicator

This rotation allowed a diversity of other vegetation to flourish which, in a managed forest with diverse uses for diverse people, meant more types of food and other produce could grow alongside the trees.

Read More: The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

Coppicing is effective with all broadleaf trees; species including ash, hazel, sweet chestnut, and hornbeam were among those traditionally coppiced.


Within an area of coppice, not all trees were necessarily lopped in this way. Some – often oaks – were left to grow to maturity before being felled. These trees which grew amongst a coppiced area without themselves being coppiced were called “standards” or “maidens”.

The wood from these trees was destined for use in construction which required large pieces of strong timber, for example in the frames of houses.

Pollarding and Pasture

Pollarding is like coppicing but instead of cutting close to the ground, the trunk is cut at a height of around two to four meters. Pollarding worked on the same principle as coppicing, cutting the trunk so that multiple shoots would emerge from the stump. In a pollarded tree, this would happen higher off the ground.

pollarded trees
Pollarded Trees in Epping Forest Pollarding, like coppicing, is a way of inducing certain species of tree to produce a crop of small side branches rather than a large single trunk. Unlike coppicing, where the tree was cut to a short stump, pollarding was done higher up the tree to stop animals eating the new shoots.

This meant that the new growth was out of the reach of animals grazing nearby but still produced multiple trunks from the place the tree was lopped. In pollarding, the cut trunk was known as a “bolling” rather than the shorter “stool” of coppicing.

Read More: What is Heathland?

Evidence of pollarding – a trunk which splits high up from the ground – likely indicates that you are in an area which was once used for grazing animals, a wooded pasture.

Woodland pastures were a common feature of the medieval forest which was an area put to multiple uses by members of the community. Many people grazed their animals beneath the canopy of wooded areas. Evidence that this was the case can be found in the spacing of trees as well as their pollarded shape.

One feature which suggests that you are probably in a former woodland pasture, therefore, is if the trees are placed more widely apart than elsewhere. This wider spacing would allow more sunlight to reach the woodland floor and more grass to grow for grazing animals.


Coppards, as the name suggests, are a combination of pollards and coppices. They are essentially two-tier coppices, in which the first growth from the “stool” of the coppice is allowed to grow to the height of a pollard before being cut again.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Each trunk of the original coppice then sprouts a further set of secondary trunks, creating a coppard. The presence of coppards suggests that the use of the land may have changed between the first coppice and the further transformation into a coppard.

For example, the introduction of grazing animals to an area would require pollarding to protect new shoots from the animals where previously coppicing had been used.

The Age of Coppices and Pollards

coppiced ash stool
Coppiced ash stool, with an estimated age of 500 years old

The age of both coppices and pollards can be judged by the thickness of the stool or bolling. Precise determination of age isn’t possible since there are too many variables – not least the type of tree and schedules of growth. Generally speaking, a thick bolling or stool indicates an old pollard or coppice, but precise aging is tricky.

Ancient Trees and Ancient Woodland

It is perhaps surprising to discover that ancient woodlands do not, in fact, contain very many ancient trees at all. Ancient trees are trees which have passed adult maturity and entered the final stage of their development. They are often wide and hollow and show signs of decay. Why are these old trees not present in ancient woodland?

Ancient Oak

Because medieval woodland was a crucial economic resource, carefully managed and extensively used for timber and fuel.

Read More: Plants Lending Their Names to Well-Known Places

Trees simply did not reach such an advanced age before being cut or otherwise managed. Coppicing, for example, prevents the normal aging of a tree and extends its life. So, counterintuitively, very old trees are not a sign of an ancient woodland.

Other Plants and Wildlife to Look Out For

Certain species of plants indicate a site of ancient woodland. These are listed as “ancient woodland indicator plants” and include the wild service tree, bluebells, and primrose.

Primroses are a very common ancient woodland indicator

The number of these plants in a woodland is significant in determining whether it is ancient. The more species, the higher the likelihood that this is the case but a single instance doesn’t clinch it.

Other creatures and plants that might indicate ancient woodland include lichens, “saproxylic” insects which live in decaying woods, slugs and snails.


Banks and ditches marked the boundaries of ancient woodland. In the north of England, these boundaries were sometimes marked with drystone walling. These boundaries indicated ownership and demarcated areas for particular uses.

Woodbanks are often constructed to mark the boundaries of different sections or compartments within a forest. And when a pale fence added, to keep animals in or out. The bigger they are, the older they are and a great ancient woodland indicator

They also ran around the perimeter of woodland. Today, woodbanks typically survive as subtle undulations in the landscape since few have been maintained. Where the perimeter woodbank is no longer at the edge of the wooded area, this indicates a shrinkage or expansion of the woodland.

Read More: Ancient Pine Resin Uses for Bushcrafters

For instance, in 1285, woodland was ordered to be cleared within 200ft of roads running to and from market towns. This was intended to make travel safer. This means that, in these places, the earthworks marking the original boundary run closer to the road than the edge of the wooded area does. If trees grow on or beyond the boundary, these are likely of later growth.

So, Is this Ancient Woodland?

No single indicator decisively proves whether woodland is ancient or not. The whole picture needs to be taken into account.

The more clues combined and the more prominent the features identified, the stronger the likelihood that you have found an ancient woodland. If in doubt, many (but not all) UK ancient woodlands have been recorded in an “ancient woodland inventory”.

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