The Story of our Prehistoric Woodland Clearances 

Many people think of woodland clearances as a modern development.

However, as far back as the prehistoric era, the people of ancient Britain were clearing woodland areas, in some cases to the extent of permanently altering the landscape.

The prehistoric period saw massive changes in Britain, including the development of tools and the introduction of agricultural practices. These developments were facilitated by advancements in woodworking techniques and forest clearing.

Iron Age Round House
Iron Age Round House Cranborne Dorset. Situated at the Ancient Technology Centre near Cranborne Middle School. A coracle is by the porch and grain storage pit surrounded by a wattle fence, right of picture. Image Credit: Clive Perrin

As swathes of forested countryside were cleared to make way for farmland, wood became a vital material for the construction of everything from houses to ancient monuments, to tools and cultural artefacts.

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

The prehistoric era also saw evidence of deliberate woodland management appear in Britain and laid the foundations for the farming communities that would persist in the UK for centuries. 


When is the Prehistoric Period?

The Prehistoric period is the general term given for a vast era of human history dating from before human activities were documented and recorded. The period spans from 2.5 million years ago all the way to 1,200BC, and incorporates the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

Flint axes
450,000 year old stone axes from the Paleolithic Era found in gravels locally in Wiltshire. Now in Salisbury Museum. Just mind blowing how old these are.

The Prehistoric period was an era that saw incredible human developments and advancements, including the invention of tools and developments in food production and agricultural practices. 

The prehistoric period is typically divided into three main eras:

Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age):

This era covers the longest timespan of human prehistory, beginning around 2.6 million years ago and ending around 10,000 BC. During the Paleolithic Era, early humans relied on hunting and gathering for sustenance and utilized primitive stone tools.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

Mesolithic Era (Middle Stone Age): Following the Paleolithic Era, the Mesolithic Era spanned from around 10,000 BC. to around 4,000 BC. During this period, humans developed more sophisticated stone tools and began to transition towards a more settled lifestyle, incorporating fishing, hunting, and gathering.

Neolithic Era (New Stone Age):

The Neolithic Era lasted from around 4,000 BC to approximately 2,000 BC. It witnessed significant advancements in human civilization, including the development of agriculture, domestication of animals, and the establishment of permanent settlements.

Orkney Skara Brae
The site was occupied from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC and is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney”.a Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, it has been called the “Scottish Pompeii” because of its excellent preservation

Humans began using more advanced tools, pottery, and eventually started engaging in trade and constructing megalithic structures.

Bronze Age:

The Bronze Age in Britain is generally considered to have begun around 2500 BC and lasted until around 800 BC.

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

During this period, bronze, made from a mixture of copper and tin, became the primary metal for tools, weapons, and various objects. The Bronze Age in Britain is characterized by the emergence of complex societies, the construction of burial mounds (barrows), the development of trade networks, and the construction of stone circles such as Stonehenge.

Iron Age:

The Iron Age in Britain began around 800 BC and lasted until the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. This period marked the transition from the use of bronze to iron as the primary metal for tools and weapons.

The Iron Age in Britain saw the development of hillforts (fortified settlements on hilltops), the emergence of Celtic culture, and an increase in social complexity. The inhabitants of Iron Age Britain had a tribal organization and engaged in agriculture, trade, and warfare

The vast Iron Age Maiden Castle, Dorset. Credit: RuralHistoria
The vast Maiden Castle, Dorset. Credit: RuralHistoria

It’s important to note that these divisions and dates are general approximations and can vary depending on different regions and cultural developments. Additionally, the advent of writing and recorded history occurred at different times in different parts of the world, leading to the end of the prehistoric period at varying points across different civilizations.

It was during the prehistoric era that early humans first began using stone tools, and was also during this broad time period that metal working techniques began to be developed. 

Read More: Ancient Woodland Indicators

Early governments and legal systems formed in the Prehistoric period, notably in areas including Egypt and Greece. Buildings began to change from primitive dwellings to complex architectural structures, and historical sites still famous today, such as the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, were created during the Prehistoric era. 

Prehistoric Britain 

During the Prehistoric era, the first people are thought to have arrived in Britain, migrating from mainland Europe around 8000 BC as hunter-gatherer tribes.

Over the next 1500 years, the land bridge between Britain and the European mainland was swallowed by rising seas, isolating Britain as a distinct island. In these early days of Britain’s human history, the island was a heavily wooded place that hosted a diverse range of wildlife.

Those making a home in prehistoric Britain would have had to contend with bears and wolves, and would have hunted everything from wild pigs, deer, and elk to ancient breeds of wild cattle. 

A prehistoric track in Dorset.

By the time of the Neolithic period in Britain, a sub-era of the Prehistoric time, megalithic monuments had begun to appear across the country. The exact purpose for many of these is still up for debate, but it is widely believed that they had strong cultural and religious significance.

Read More: Occupational Surnames, Where Does Yours Come From?

Woodland Clearances 

Stone circles, including the world famous Stonehenge, and distinct earth mounds such as at Silbury Hill, date from this period. Britain was made up of pagan tribes with priests known as Druids holding significant status within their communities.

As the Bronze Age began to emerge, the material of choice for prehistoric people began to switch from stone to bronze. Tools and weapons were constructed from bronze, as were jewellery and cultural artefacts.

Bronze Age treasure trove, Salisbury museum.
Bronze Age treasure trove, Salisbury museum. Bronze Age axes accelerated the woodland clearances 

As the emergence of metal working techniques increased the effectiveness of tools, larger fields and agricultural practices facilitated the expansion of communities and villages. With conflict always on the horizon, tribes created their own hillforts to protect their possessions, land and people from other groups. 

The Iron Age of Britain, ranging from 750BC, up to the emergence of Roman Britain in AD43, saw iron overtake bronze as the metal used for the most effective tools and weaponry.

Read More: Iron Age Trackways That You Can Still Walk Today

These bigger and better weapons have also raised the idea that it was during this period that the first concept of a distinct warrior class was formed. Hillforts became more elaborate and better constructed, and agriculture continued to flourish. It was at the end of this period that the tribes of Britain would first come into contact with the might of the Roman army. 

Forests Vs Farming 

The introduction and development of agricultural practices saw some of the first large scale woodland clearances in the UK. As early British tribes began farming in the Neolithic period, they cleared forests to make way for farmland.

The woodland clearances changed our landscape forever

Trees were also felled to fuel the construction of new, more permanent infrastructure, including houses and trackways, as groups left behind their nomadic hunter-gatherer ways in place of more sedentary farming communities. Studies have found that as early as between 4000BC and 3000BC, the populations of native tree species such as ash had begun to markedly decline.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

As ash is a species that often is found at the edges of woodland, it is speculated that this decline was quite possibly a direct result of woodland clearances for agriculture. However, the spread of disease that impacts the ash tree has also been raised a possible cause. 


The clearing of woodlands during the Neolithic period could be so prolific that it is thought that some parts of the country were permanently altered, most notably the Somerset Levels and areas of East Anglia that experienced high levels of prehistoric deforestation. 

ash stool in an ancient woodland
Ash stool in an ancient woodland

The felling of woodland to make way for crops and fields was not the only impact that early farming had on the natural woodland ecosystem. The domestication and the introduction of species of sheep, goats and pigs for agricultural purposes also likely had an impact on these environments as ancient farmers used woodland habitats to graze their stock. 

Read More: What are Long Barrows?

By the Middle Bronze Age, swathes of the British countryside had transformed from native forests to a patchwork of large blocks of fields.  Land clearing for farming was not reserved for only lowland areas.

Fueled by a period of favourable weather conditions, the North York Moors, the Pennines, Dartmoor and the Cheviots all experienced intensive farming practices, with farmland extending in areas as elevated as 250 metres above sea level. 

Houses and Holy Monuments 

As early technology advanced and populations changed, architecture and infrastructure morphed, and cultural practices and structures were impacted by a changing world.

Celtic field system
Prehistoric field systems were only possible after the woodland clearances 

During the Neolithic period, as communities became less nomadic, houses and buildings made of timber, alongside thatch and wattle and daub, started to become common.  As the climate changed during the Iron Age, many communities also adapted their architectural methods – Iron Age homes were more likely to be round houses rather than their rectangular Neolithic predecessors.

However, these Iron Age dwellings, like many Neolithic structures, were also commonly made of wood. Roundhouses built in wetland areas were even known to be constructed on wooden stilts to keep properties raised out of the water.

Hillforts rose up across the countryside during the Iron Age period. Again, these ancient hillforts required large amounts of stone and wood to be collected in order to be constructed and maintained. 

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

Woodland Clearances Changed the Landscape

As wood became such a useful commodity in prehistoric Britain, large amounts of natural woodland disappeared. It has been estimated that as early as 500BC, the English countryside had seen its wildwood areas shrink by half. 

The building of megalithic monuments also became popular in the Prehistoric era of British history, most notably in the Neolithic period. While many of the best surviving monuments from this period were made of stone, such as Stonehenge, large wooden monuments were also constructed and required the felling of trees for construction to be facilitated.

Woodhenge, located in Wiltshire, is a good example of this. This ancient structure is a wood circle monument, similar to its stone counterpart at Stonehenge. Up to 168 wooden posts were harvested and arranged to form this ancient monument, with some wooden posts believed to have reached as high as 25 feet above the ground level.

Read More: Menhirs Date From the Neolithic, But What are They?

While the exact significance and purpose of Woodhenge is not known, it is widely believed to have been an important site for religious and cultural practices during the Neolithic period. 

The Beginnings of Woodland Management 

The people of prehistoric Britain didn’t just cut down the trees but also began to manage woodlands. Prehistoric people began to practise coppicing, finding that the regrowth from a coppiced stump provided valuable materials for the construction of wooden tools, artefacts and infrastructure.

Hazel coppice
Hazel coppice

While coppicing and more sophisticated woodland management techniques became more extensive during the Roman period in Britain, there is early evidence of coppicing in the prehistoric era. Practices such as hurdle making are also thought to have existed as early as Neolithic times. 

Ancients Forests to Modern Britain

It can be hard to imagine a modern Britain covered with the extensive forests that once blanketed the countryside. Made up of ancient tribes, prehistoric Britain was an age of radical change with new ideas, technology, trade and immigration changing the very fabric of the ancient landscape.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

Wood became an integral part of prehistoric construction and a valued material for constructing everything from trinkets to tools, building, to pathways, to megalithic monuments.

oak framed saxon long house
A superior building material for it’s strength and durability, the timber from the woodland clearances was put to good use

The ancient tribes of Britain used the forests to create mighty cultural and religious monuments that still capture imaginations to this day. Woodland management techniques began to emerge as the early people of Britain attempted to tame the natural landscape to better facilitate their advancing society.

They utilised wood to create tools and infrastructure and cleared forested land as they moved away from their hunter-gatherer roots and ushered in an age of agriculture. 

Even to this day, as the importance of restoring and maintaining natural woodland areas is replacing ideas of land clearing, there is no doubt that dating all the way back to Prehistoric times, the story of Britain is one that is intertwined with the woods.