The Impact of the Loss of Our Ancient Woodlands

Ancient woodlands are a living part of the history and natural splendour of the British countryside.

Once blanketing Britain, the UK’s ancient woodlands have now shrunk to make up just 2.5% of the British landscape. Despite their rapid decline, ancient woodlands still hold significant importance.

They offer a haven to native plants and animals, their incredible age has resulted in unique biomes, and these historic forests can even help to reduce the rate of climate change.


The scars that ancient woodlands still hold from the activities people have undertaken in them over generations offers a unique glimpse into the past and the relationship between humanity and nature throughout Britain’s history.

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

Yet, despite their vital place in the landscape, ancient woodlands are under threat. Agriculture, air pollution, climate change and invasive species are all factors making the future of Britain’s ancient woodlands somewhat precarious.

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

Invasive species, conifer plantations and overgrazing have already led to the loss or damage of up to 70% of these historic woodlands, and over a thousand woods are currently threatened.


There are certain requirements for an area of woodland to be classed as an ancient woodland in the UK.The most significant requirement is, unsurprisingly, to do with the age of a woodland. To gain the label of an ancient woodland an area must have been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD, or in Scotland since the mid eighteenth century. 

Remnants of forest law, such as certain legal rights and customs, can still be found in some parts of England

Over their hundreds of years in existence, these woodlands have created unique biomes and habitats that support a wide range of flora and fauna. These areas can be primarily made up of trees and shrubs native to the area that have naturally regenerated for hundreds of years.

However, an area replanted with conifer and broadleaved trees can also keep its ancient woodland status as long as features such as undisturbed soil, fungi and ground flora remain.

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

Ancient woodlands have played a present role in the everyday life of the people of Britain throughout history. Our ancient woodlands don’t have to be wild, unmanaged tracts of forest, but on the contrary, have often been managed and used by people for generations.

wattle hurdles
Wattle hurdles have been produced in our woodlands for thousands of years

Historic cycles of coppicing, woodcutting and animal management have become part of what has shaped many ancient woodland areas. Some species of ground flora that thrive when areas have undergone coppicing cycles have even come to be indicators of ancient woodlands.

Why are Ancient Woodlands Important?

Ancient woodlands take hundreds of years to establish, and are essentially irreplaceable ecosystems. Many provide a haven for endangered and threatened wildlife and plants, as well as contributing to seed banks and the genetic diversity of British flora, which more modern woodlands aren’t able to do to the same extent. They have been cited as the homes for rare British wildlife, including Scottish wildcats, pine martens and Scottish crossbills.

Many species that inhabit ancient woodlands struggle to adapt to a new environment, making these historic natural areas all the more important. Ancient woodlands harbour incredible soil microbiomes and act as important carbon sinks which can help to slow the rate of climate change and global warming.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

Despite making up less than a quarter of UK woodland, ancient woodlands hold 37% of carbon stored in trees and wood in the UK. Ancient woodlands also hold significance in the cultural and historical landscape of Britain.

A large amount of these areas have been used by the people of Britain for generations, they can offer a window into land management techniques, cultural and religious practices and the historic relationship between people and the natural world.

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.

Many have the remains of historic furnaces and mine pits, as well as evidence of charcoal production, coppicing and pollarding practices undertaken throughout the history of Britain. In the modern world, many ancient woodland sites now provide a place for recreation.

Agricultural Threats

Agriculture poses one of the greatest threats to Britain’s ancient woodlands. Tracts of historic forest have been cleared to make way for grazing lands and plantations at a somewhat alarming rate.

Read More: The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

In England and Wales, over 46% of ancient woodland was cleared between the 1930s and early 2000s to make way for agricultural practices and tree plantations. Even in areas where woodland hasn’t actually been cleared, commercial agriculture still poses a significant threat.

Grubbing out woodland.
Fowler Crawlers early 1950’s. Grubbing out woodland. Above Wheely Down Farm on the Downs LHS of Winchester Road

Poorly maintained fences and boundaries can mean that sheep and other grazing animals can venture into ancient woodlands and cause damage to the fragile ecosystems, fauna, and flora of these areas.

Pesticide use on farmland near ancient woodlands has also been noted as an issue as wind borne drift of these chemicals can impact natural woodland areas, causing the death of flora and fauna.

Read More: What is Heathland?

Ploughing in fields adjacent to ancient woodlands can sever roots of historic trees, and fertilisers can leach into groundwater and woodland soil. Fertiliser compounds can disrupt soil microbiomes and encourage invasive weed growth, which in turn, can compete with and choke out native plants.

Air Pollution

To thrive, ancient woodlands need clean, unpolluted air, and in a world that is increasingly struggling with air pollution levels, the survival of ancient woodlands becomes even more precarious.

Acidic air pollutants have been noted to reduce tree growth and canopy loss, while ozone increases the rate of leaf ageing. Increased nitrogen levels in the air can contribute to an overabundance of flora species that are outcompeting ancient woodland plants.

ancient woodland
Most woodland was lost for the drive for farmland. It is interesting to note that if you look at an OS map you can see exactly where farmland has been produced from what was former woodland. The scraggy outline of a woodland is a good indicator to this. Moreover, so too are woodland boundaries that are gun barrel straight. These boundaries were created in the 1800s,

At high levels, nitrogen exposure can even lead to bleaching and leaf discoloration, and make trees more at risk of drought, disease and frost. Lichens found in ancient woodland are also impacted by increased nitrogen levels.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Having evolved in a low nitrogen environment, these species are sensitive to increase in nitrogen levels in the air. Loss or damage of lichen species has the knock-on impact of reducing food and shelter for invertebrates and impacting processes essential for a functioning ecosystem.

Creeping Invaders

Invasive species offer another blow for ancient woodlands. Non-native invasive species compete with native plants and animals for resources and disrupt the delicate ecosystem of natural areas, such as ancient woodlands.

Rhododendron has made a huge impact on our woodlands

Invasive rhododendron is one such species that has been identified as a threat to ancient woodland environments. In 2016, the rapidly spreading species was reported to cover more than three percent of Britain’s woodlands.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Some woodland areas, rhododendron is wiping out bluebells and snowdrops, and the species can be so damaging that its impacts can linger decades after the plant has been removed. While rhododendrons pose a significant problem in Wales and Scotland, estimates report that up to 800,000 hectares across the UK may be impacted.

A Changing and  Fragmented Forest

Fragmentation is often referred to as a key problem for the longevity and protection of ancient woodlands in the UK.Fragmentation refers to woodlands that are becoming increasingly smaller and more isolated from other natural and semi-natural habitats. When a woodland becomes fragmented and isolated, it can become less resilient to changing factors.

charcoal maker
Woodsmen and women are fighting the fight and the woodland crafts are alive and well

Species of flora no longer have areas that they can offshoot to, putting species populations in a precarious and fragile position when facing external threats. Increasing farmland and urban developments are key sources of the fragmentation of ancient woodlands.

While ancient woodlands are effective carbon sinks, this doesn’t preclude them from suffering from a changing climate. Britain’s woodlands have adapted to a predictable British climate, climate change and global warming threatens to rapidly change the conditions that native species have developed to withstand and thrive in.

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

Wetter winters, drier summers and increases in severe storms and weather events are all predicted to impact Britain – these conditions threaten to damage ancient forests. Conditions may lead to greater tree mortality and deadwood in ancient trees, while changing habitats and increased risks of flooding and fire offer further threats to historic forests.

Finding and Protecting Ancient Woodlands

There are key features of ancient woodlands that can be used to help identify them in the British landscape. Certain plant species indicate the presence of ancient woodland, the more of these identifying species that are present, the greater chance that a woodland is ancient.

Plants such as primrose, bluebells, herb paris, and wild service tree are all indicators of ancient woodlands, as can the presence of certain insects, such as the wild clicking beetle, and certain lichen species.

Wood anemone
The Wood anemone is a pretty spring flower of ancient woodlands

There are also manmade signs that can signal the presence of an ancient woodland. As humans have used woodlands for generations, evidence of historic human activities can strengthen the possibility that a woodland has historical significance.

Read More: Ancient Pine Resin Uses for Bushcrafters

Medieval woodbanks, old pollarded trees, and historic coppice stools are all good indications of historic woodlands. Old maps can help to determine historic areas of woodland, as they can show areas that were forested prior to 1600 and these can then be matched to areas that remain forested today.

Dorset Coppice Group
Dorset Coppice Group

The Ancient Woodland Inventory keeps a record of known ancient woodlands throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Ancient woodlands are an essential part of the British countryside, they offer a glimpse into historic Britain and encompass diverse and rich ecosystems for native wildlife.

Read More: Forgotten Country Ways

Air pollution, agricultural activities, mismanagement and a changing landscape are all threats to these incredible natural areas. However, while many ancient woodlands are under threat, there are campaigns to protect, restore and revitalise these historic landmarks. Locating and protecting ancient woodlands is a key part in helping to ensure they are a part of the British countryside for generations yet to come.

Charcoal Burning

It is a fascinating skill with a long history and shaped many of our woodlands. However, as early as the 1200s, apprehensions regarding the exploitation of a vital natural resource in the country were expressed, leading to the enactment of legislation focused on regulating woodland usage.

These measures were introduced through the Forest Charter of 1217. The Charter stipulated charges for the removal of wood and charcoal from the Royal Forests, amounting to 2d per cart and half d per packhorse per year.

charcoal maker

Additionally, obtaining a license was mandatory for charcoal burning, and individuals who persistently violated these regulations risked imprisonment as a consequence. Now the majority of charcoal is for the BBQ market.

As much as the UK is pushing the green agenda, new data from the non-profit Earthworm Foundation reveals that in 2020, the United Kingdom imported over 98,800 tonnes of charcoal.

Ancient Woodlands

Of this total, approximately 24,131 tonnes originated from countries with a high risk of deforestation, such as Indonesia, Nigeria, and Paraguay. This information highlights the concerning trend of charcoal imports from regions where deforestation poses a significant environmental challenge.

The green campaigners could be doing so much at a local level instead if the really wanted to make an impact. It isn’t always about mass protest, it is the small actions that often make the biggest long term impact.

Not pointing figures but would be interested to know how many of the green protesters actually know where their charcoal comes from for their BBQs. It does get tedious when folks are ‘right on brother’ with regards to green issues but have little awareness of how they are contradicting themselves with something as simple as a BBQ.

Rural economics often work on a macro level and have a massive impact on the biodiversity of our countryside and communities. Make sure you check where your charcoal comes from, if from a garage forecourt or supermarket then it is probably imported. There will be local charcoal available near you, ask Google

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