What are Woodbanks and Why Do They Matter?

Today, woodbanks serve as a reminder of historical woodland management practices.

They are often conserved for their historical importance and for the habitats they provide. The ditches and banks can be home to various plants and animals, adding to the biodiversity of the woodland.

Across Britain, it is not a particularly uncommon sight to find banks and ditches bordering  woodland areas. While these may seem like just a natural part of the woodland landscape, in many cases these earthwork structures, known as woodbanks, were purposefully built and served an important purpose. 


Most of the remaining historic woodbanks across the UK are old structures, with the age of some stretching all the way back into the medieval period.

Woodbanks were used as a part of both woodland management techniques and for property boundary marking. Labour intensive structures to create, woodbanks exemplified the important place that woodlands had across the history of Britain. 

While woodbanks are no longer routinely constructed today, the remains of these old earthwork structures can still be spotted across the countryside. 

What is a Woodbank and How Old are They?

Quite simply, woodbanks are an earthwork structure composed of a bank and ditch that are often found bordering woodland environments. While these structures can be easily mistaken for a natural part of the landscape, many were purposefully constructed by people throughout the history of Britain.

ancient woodbank withe a ditch running along side it
Woodbanks are earthen boundaries often reinforced with laid hedges or palisades. They are raised banks of soil, usually with a ditch on one side

Woodbanks formed one of the four primary types of permanent woodland boundary that was used in both Britain and wider Europe throughout history. Alongside woodbanks, the other core types of permanent woodland boundaries were stone rows, lynchetts, and walls. 

Read More: Ancient Woodland Indicators

These banks can be old structures in the landscape and as such, form a key part of the history of British woodlands. Woodbanks in Warwickshire have been dated to stretch back over eight hundred years, and are thought to have been originally constructed as early as the 1300s.

Dr Oliver Rackham commenting on Bradfield Wood

“..well documented back to 1252 and would still be instantly recognisable by Abbot Symon of that year. The outline of the woods was virtually unaltered until the 1960’s, and is demarcated by a mighty

Evidence of woodbanks dating back to the medieval period have also been found at the Castle Hills prehistoric settlement, a certified Scheduled Monument, located near Micklefield, Leeds. 

While woodbanks such as those in Warwickshire and Micklefield are demonstrative of the impressive age of many of these structures, woodbanks being historic features of the landscape is not uncommon.

In fact, it is estimated that the majority of woodbanks were created at least two hundred years ago, with many as seen in Warwickshire, having been created at even earlier points in history. 

Building Woodbanks

While woodbanks did serve as useful earthwork markers, building woodbanks was no easy task. In a time before modern machinery, large earthwork structures, such as woodbanks, were dug by hand.

ancient woodbank
The primary purpose of woodbanks was to mark boundaries and ownership of specific parts of the woodland. Image Credit Tess of the Vale

As many woodbanks stretched over large distances, and in some cases even encircled entire woodland areas, constructing historic woodbanks was a time consuming and labour intensive task.

When exploring woodbank structures today, it is not uncommon to see the banks topped by old trees. At times the effectiveness of woodbanks also relied on the addition of fencing and wall structures, even if only temporarily.

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

The need for additional fencing structures was particularly prominent when woodbanks were constructed in order to protect areas of woodland or young trees. In many of these cases, woodbanks would have originally been constructed with the addition of a paling fence.

These fences added an extra layer of protection for young trees, preventing both farm livestock and wild grazing animals from being able to negatively impact the trees that the woodbanks were constructed to protect. However, these paling fences weren’t intended to last forever. When the trees had reached a suitable level of maturity so as to not be as vulnerable to damage from grazing animals, the genes were removed.

This was usually after a period of about twenty years. When the fences were removed from the woodbank structures, composed of the earthwork ditch and bank was often all that remained. 

Forest Management and Boundary Lines 

Woodbanks served a valuable purpose in woodland management practices throughout British history. These earthwork structures were a part of protecting woodland areas from animals that may have damaged young trees and other woodland components.

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

However, protecting the woodlands was not the only reason that the people of historic Britain constructed woodbanks. Woodbanks also served as boundary and property markers. 

Over time, many of these banks became stabilized with trees and shrubs, making them more prominent in the landscape.

Woodbanks were an effective boundary marker as they were both permanent and immovable, providing a reliable and long lasting reminder of the boundary line of a property. Interestingly, it was not the actual bank that marked the boundary line of property, but instead the ditch itself.

When woodbanks were constructed as a boundary line, the ditch was generally dug along the boundary line with the earth that was excavated when digging the ditch piled on the inside of the boundary line to create the bank structure. 

While woodbanks were likely used throughout history to form the boundary line of various properties, the construction of woodbanks for this purpose became particularly prominent during the 1800s.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

Woodbanks from the nineteenth century, and built with the purpose of marking a property edge, are often straighter than many of the woodbanks built in previous centuries, and those  constructed with woodland protection rather than property marking in mind.

The fact that these woodbanks run in a straight line can make them more easily recognisable as purpose-built man made earthwork structures rather than just elements of the natural landscape. 

Woodbanks Within the Woodlands 

While woodbanks are often found on the edge of woodland environments, there are also noted examples in which woodbanks were constructed within woodlands themselves. In these cases, much like with many of the woodbanks on the outer edges of woodlands, woodbanks constructed within woodlands themselves were likely built as boundary markers.

ancient woodbank
The left-hand side (red arrow) of this bank was once a field and is now woodland, and that is why this bank seems out of place. Does that make sense? Image Credit: Simon Carey

In areas where woodlands were divided between different owners and lords, these internal woodbanks became more common as permanent boundary lines were needed to mark which areas of woodland belonged to which estate or lord. 

Why Did People Want to Own the Woods? 

While simple in design, woodbanks were labour intensive structures to create and, as such, in modern times, it can be easy to wonder just why people went to so much effort to claim and protect their wooded environments.

Read More: The Story of our Prehistoric Woodland Clearances 

While the area of wooded land in Britain has steadily shrunk over the course of much of history, there is no doubt that Britain has always relied on its woodlands for both industry and leisure. 

Owning woodland estates also not only came with practical value but could also serve as a status symbol for the wealthy in historic Britain. Much of the woodlands of Britain were owned by someone. Even the Domesday Book, which was created in the eleventh century, outlines the scale of ownership of England’s woodland environments.

Woodbanks are a firm and ancient feature in our landscape. Credit: Stefan Czapski

Wooded areas were recognised to have economic value even at this early period of history. The majority of wooded environments were recorded as being under the ownership of either communities or individuals.

In some cases, woodlands were even located miles from the location that their owner normally resided. Woodlands were used as exclusive hunting grounds for the wealthy with even the ruling monarchs owning areas of woodland that were used for hunting.

The Factories of the Countryside

Woodlands provided the timber needed to build Britain’s expansive naval fleets that, originally formed in the Tudor period, would go on to land on distant shores and fight fearsome sea battles.

Read More: Ancient Pine Resin Uses for Bushcrafters

Woodlands were needed to provide the resources to drive the expansion of infrastructure and provided the resources needed to create many of the industries that laid the foundation on which Britain built itself. 

On a more domestic scale, woodlands formed a key part of the everyday life of much of the British population throughout the history of the United Kingdom.

Woodlands provided a place in which people could hunt and forage to supplement their diet in hard times, they provided resources needed for building homes, fences, barns, and villages.

Woodlands provided the firewood to keep people warm in the long winter months and were a place where farm animals could wander and graze.

Without woodlands, the story of Britain would be a very different one. Whether it was for resources, status, or leisure, there was a strong incentive for people throughout British history to create structures such as woodbanks to protect and mark out their areas of woodland. 

Why Do Woodbanks Matter Today?

In the modern era, woodbanks are no longer commonly used structures to define the boundaries of and protect Britain’s woodland areas. However, these earthwork structures do still offer important information about the history of Britain.

Read More: Silver Birch: Restoring the Post-Ice Age Landscape

Alongside telling a story of the importance placed on the relationship between the people of Britain and the woodlands, they can also offer clues as to woodland ownership and the size and importance of the land owned by different groups.

ancient woodbank
This woodbank predates the pine trees, which is telling us that the ancient woodland has been grabbed out or overplanted with softwoods which was common after the 1920s. Image Credit Tess of the Vale

Woodbanks help to define the boundaries of old wooded environments, boundaries that may have changed and moved over the course of history as woodlands developed, expanded, and shrunk. 

Woodbanks are also, quite simply, a great example of woodland and property management practices in British history. 

The Importance of the Woods

Woodbanks show the importance that the woodlands held for communities across the history of Britain and offer a glimpse into how the ownership of wooded environments helped to shape the woodlands of Britain over the course of history. 

When stumbling upon them in the woods today, woodbanks may not seem like much. However, these humble earthwork structures underline the importance of woodland environments throughout British history.

Labour intensive to build, these structures formed permanent and immovable markers on the boundary of owned woodland areas and were a part of protecting and managing woodland environments. While woodbanks may no longer hold the significance that they once did, these earthwork structures are remnants of a Britain that was built by its woodlands.

An Overview of Woodbanks

1. Definition: Woodbanks are earthen boundaries often reinforced with laid hedges or palisades. They are raised banks of soil, usually with ditches on either one or both sides.

2. Purpose: The primary purpose of woodbanks was to mark boundaries and ownership of specific parts of the woodland. They also served to prevent livestock from entering and damaging the woodland, especially when the woods were coppiced (a method of woodland management where trees are periodically cut down to ground level to promote regrowth).

3. Construction: Constructing a woodbank involved digging a ditch and piling the excavated soil to form a bank. Over time, many of these banks became stabilized with trees and shrubs, making them more prominent in the landscape.

4. Historical Significance: The presence of woodbanks can often help archaeologists and ecologists determine the age of a woodland. If a woodbank can be traced continuously around a piece of woodland without interruption, it’s a strong indicator that the woodland is ancient. Some woodbanks are hundreds of years old and can provide clues about medieval and post-medieval land use and ownership patterns.

5. Modern Importance: Today, woodbanks serve as a reminder of historical woodland management practices. They are often conserved for their historical importance and for the habitats they provide. The ditches and banks can be home to various plants and animals, adding to the biodiversity of the woodland.

Thank you to Tess of the Vale for the additional images

Woodbanks are more than just ancient barriers. They provide insights into past human activity, land use, and the rich history of woodland management. Preserving them not only conserves biodiversity but also protects historical landmarks within our landscapes.