What is Secondary Woodland? 

Secondary woodland refers to wooded areas that have naturally regenerated on land that was once cleared of trees.

Typically, when compared to ancient woodland, secondary woodland tends to have lower species diversity, meaning it contains fewer different types of plant and tree species.

Woodlands are an essential part of the natural environment of Britain, however over  the course of history our precious woodlands environments have changed, spread, shrunk, and regrown.

Shaped by the growth of agriculture and industry, and influenced by a new focus on environmentalism, the woodlands of Britain have been in a state of near constant fluctuation. This ever-changing shape of the woodlands  has given rise to a large number of secondary woodlands across the United Kingdom. 


These new areas of woodlands, while not hosting the same level of biodiversity as their primary woodland counterparts, help to fight climate change, prevent flooding, and create a Britain that embraces an attitude of environmental protection. 

Woodland track north of Keepers Mount. A large area of mainly secondary woodland, previously, but some time ago, fields. Lambs Green, West Sussex, England

While today, Britain may be a nation that has retained only a tiny fraction of the forests that one blanketed it, secondary woodlands provide a way forward for repairing and restoring these incredible environments. 

What is Secondary Woodland? 

Secondary woodland is the name given to woodlands that have developed on areas of previously wooded land that had been cleared.

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These woodland environments are referred to as secondary woodland whether they reoccurred naturally or with human intervention. There are key characteristics of secondary woodland environments that often set it apart from old-growth woodlands.

A great example of the beginning of secondary woodland. Blue arrow shows land still under agricultural management. The red arrow is what happens to land when you remove agriculture – it starts to revert back to woodland.

Secondary woodlands characteristically have sparser undergrowth than primary woodlands, additionally they typically have a sparser, single layer canopy when compared to primary woodlands. 

In some cases, secondary woodland occurs as forests retake land that had been previously cleared for purposes such as industry or agriculture. In other instances, secondary woodlands are deliberately replanted, when forests are deliberately replanted, they are sometimes referred to as artificially created.

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In many cases, when woodlands are deliberately planted it is in an effort to repair environmental damage previously created through woodland clearing. This helps to boost a healthier natural environment and to assist in reducing the impacts of environmental issues such as climate change. 

While the United Kingdom is no longer a heavily wooded nation, there are good examples of both artificially created and naturally occurring secondary woodland across the countryside. 

A History of Waging War on the Woodlands 

The British Isles has a long and storied history of woodland clearance, with a war on woodlands seemingly started way back in ancient times.

Ancient woodland
Beautiful ancient woodland

Instances of woodland clearing stretches all the way back to the Neolithic times, with the first transition of ancient communities from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to the establishment of more sedentary farming settlements.

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While this transition to a more agriculturally based subsistence may have been a key step along the path to forming the modern societies known today, it was not necessarily good news for the United Kingdom’s woodland environment. When the climate began to warm after the Ice Age, snow and ice retreated and in its place grew vast woodlands.

However, with the growth of agricultural practices, and then the improvement of tools during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, farming and land clearing became more efficient, and woodlands began to rapidly shrink. By the Iron Age, half of woodland coverage had disappeared.

Royal Naval

Growing urbanisation, alongside the need for increased areas of land for agricultural practices and a steady supply of timber to construct everything from homes to naval fleets depleted Britain’s woodland resources. 

Oak secondary woodland, Tilgate Forest. This mixed conifer and broadleaf woodland is located in West Sussex, United Kingdom.
Oak secondary woodland, Tilgate Forest. This mixed conifer and broadleaf woodland is located in West Sussex, United Kingdom.

With the onset of Britain’s quest to conquer the seas and the formation of the Royal Navy in Tudor times, the UK’s already meagre woodland environments took another hit.

When constructing just one ship required the felling of hundreds, if not thousands, of trees, the rapid construction of a naval fleet hundreds of vessels strong posed a major source of historic deforestation.

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This deforestation wasn’t even just reserved to Britain, but deforestation to fuel Britain’s ship building was conducted everywhere from Ireland to the Americas. Growing populations and urban developments that required increased areas of land, growing agricultural activities to feed these increasing populations.

To also feed thebooming industries that required steady supplies of timber all drove a system of woodland clearing that became an ingrained part of British industry and urban growth.

After generations of woodland exploitation, by the 1900s, woodland coverage in the UK was sitting at just 5%. While there have been some efforts to protect woodland areas and increase areas of woodland coverage through the creation of secondary woodlands, Britain today still remains one of Europe’s least forested countries. 

A Woodland World Without its Diversity 

While secondary woodlands are a great step in protecting the natural environment, they do often demonstrate less biodiversity than their primary woodland counterparts.

An area of secondary woodland, demonstrating weak diversity
An area of secondary woodland, demonstrating weak diversity

High population levels of a wide variety of species that can be seen in primary woodland areas can take a significant amount of time to regenerate in secondary woodland environments. This lower level of biodiversity is particularly prominent in secondary woodland that has been artificially planted, as opposed to naturally regenerating areas of woodland. 

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Biodiversity levels can be increased or even recovered in some instances, however this can take a significant amount of time and is dependent on a variety of factors. For example, aspects such as soil composition and water availability impact the levels of biodiversity that can be achieved in secondary woodlands.

Similarly, soil toxicity levels can impact the biodiversity levels of secondary woodland, and these can be impacted by what an area was cleared for to begin with. Certain activities and industries can affect soil toxicity levels.

For example, if mining was conducted in a certain area, soil toxicity may be impacted, if this area then becomes secondary woodland, the soil toxicity levels leftover from mining activities can affect the level of biodiversity present in this woodland environment.

Repairing the Damage on Woodlands

While secondary woodlands may not be as environmentally beneficial as old-growth woodlands, they are still a positive step in repairing the damage inflicted on the natural world. This is particularly the case in well managed secondary woodlands.

Secondary woodlands that are well managed can have increased levels of biodiversity when compared to those that are unmanaged. This includes improving and increasing the types and population levels of species of fungi, insects and bacteria. 

South Stanley Woods, This is the western half of Stanley Woods, an area of mostly secondary woodland along the Twizell (or Stanley) Burn. Now a Local Nature Reserve.

Another aspect of successful secondary woodland management is implementing forestry techniques alongside more natural woodland regeneration.

By planting a biodiverse range of native trees and other plants alongside those that may be naturally regenerating to form areas of natural woodland, can help in boosting the overall biodiversity of these woodland environments. 

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There are projects to increase woodland coverage across the UK, both through protecting existing woodland environments and artificially planting areas of secondary woodland.

There have been calls made to increase woodland coverage to 23% by 2030, an amount that would roughly double the current level of woodland area coverage.

bluebells in ancient woodland
Bluebells in ancient woodland

Both governmental and independent projects and organisations have created vital secondary woodland habitats across the UK, in locations as diverse as Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, and Wales. There are also impressive examples of  large scale secondary woodland and rewilding projects that have been in operation for decades. 

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Over the course of three decades, roughly nine million trees were planted to create the National Forest. Located in the Midlands of England, the creation of the National Forest was inspired by the idea to repair and restore a landscape that had been decimated by the mining industry.

The project at the New Forest is not alone, with similar rewilding projects in place across the UK, recreating vital woodland environments that had been lost to time. 

Woodlands Solving the Climate Crisis 

Woodlands offer a great part of the solution to reducing the impacts and rate of climate change and global warming.

Woodland, Tilgate Forest, near to Pease Pottage, West Sussex, England. This is an area of secondary woodland just outside the Forestry Commission boundary.
Woodland, Tilgate Forest, near to Pease Pottage, West Sussex, England. This is an area of secondary woodland just outside the Forestry Commission boundary.

While in the present day, woodlands only cover less than 15% of land across the UK, they still absorb over twenty million tons of CO2 every single year.

Woodland environments also come with other benefits when it comes to reducing the impacts of climate change, alongside other damaging environmental phenomena. Woodlands help to prevent flooding and improve and protect the nutrient content of soil.

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The planting of new woodland, while it may not be as biodiverse as older woodlands, still offers an incredibly important part in environmental protection. Secondary woodland even plays a core part in helping the UK to reach Net Zero. It is estimated that to help the United Kingdom achieve net zero, 1.5 million hectares of woodland will have to be planted. 

A Second Chance for a Green Britain 

While Britain was once a heavily forested area, the development of agriculture, industry and a booming population all helped to create a perfect storm that caused these forests to rapidly disappear.

In modern times, the United Kingdom may be one of the least forested places in Europe, however the development and cultivation of secondary woodland offers a new way forward. Areas of forest regenerated where mighty forests were once lost, secondary woodland provides boundless potential in restoring the woodlands of Britain.

These woodlands may not have the same levels of biodiversity as primary forests, but they still offer countless benefits, from providing a place for outdoor recreational activities to helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

Numerous projects are in place around the United Kingdom to repair and restore Britain’s forests. Secondary woodland environments are more than just simple forests, they are a representation of the endurance of the natural world and a reminder to protect and cherish the incredible environments of Britain.