The Story of Our Prehistoric Woodlands

Prehistoric woodlands in Britain is a story of decline. During the peak of the last Ice Age, from around 100,000 to 12,000 BC, most of Britain was devoid of trees. It’s likely that patches of birch and willow scrub clung on along the lower edges of the ice, with occasional pine stands.

Some remnants of pre-glacial flora may have survived in protected areas along the western coasts of Great Britain and Ireland. However, in other areas, including the south of England, the ice scoured the land clean.

The evolution of Britain’s post-glacial plant life has been pieced together through pollen and seed analyses in peat bogs, complemented by radiocarbon dating techniques. Following the retreat of the ice, tundra and moorland initially dominated the landscape.

Then, in a gradual process of recolonisation from the south, different tree species began to establish themselves. The initial wave brought birch, aspen, and sallow, followed by pine and hazel around 8500 BC, which spread northward, taking over areas previously dominated by birch. Oak and alder came next, succeeded by a procession of lime, elm, holly, ash, beech, hornbeam, and maple spreading northward.

silver birch
Silver Birch is a great coloniser

The enduring presence of oak in Britain since its post-glacial spread northward might suggest that ancient woodlands were not entirely continuous. Oak, a pioneer species, thrives in open spaces necessary for its regeneration.

Read More: Medieval Wood Pasture, What is It?

It depends on grazing animals to keep certain areas open and often grows within thorny scrub, which offers protection from being eaten by animals.

Prehistoric woodlands Colonisation

The post-Ice Age colonisation of woodlands in Britain, beginning around 10,000 BC, marked a pivotal transformation in the landscape following the retreat of vast ice sheets. This era, known as the Late Glacial period, witnessed a gradual warming of the climate, catalysing significant ecological changes.

Initially, Britain’s terrain, freshly emerging from under the ice, resembled a tundra, sparsely vegetated and dominated by hardy pioneer species such as birch and willow. These early colonisers were crucial in stabilising the soil and creating conditions conducive for other species to thrive.

As the climate continued to warm, a more diverse array of flora began to establish. This period saw the gradual ingress of woodlands, with trees such as birch, hazel, oak, and pine spreading across the landscape.

Prehistoric woodlands laid the foundations for the rich, biodiverse woodlands that would characterise much of Britain for thousands of years.

These species, better suited to the warmer conditions, began to form dense forests, drastically altering the environment from open tundra to woodlands. This change provided new habitats for a variety of wildlife, fundamentally reshaping the ecosystem.


The spread of these woodlands was a slow but relentless process, with trees gradually encroaching upon the open spaces left by the retreating ice.

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The colonising woodlands not only transformed the visual landscape but also altered the soil composition and the local micro-climates, further enabling a wider diversity of plant and animal life to flourish. Rivers and streams, once barren or frozen, became lined with vegetation, and the once stark landscape transformed into a mosaic of diverse habitats.

This post-Ice Age period laid the foundations for the rich, biodiverse woodlands that would characterise much of Britain for thousands of years. The ecological succession that began with pioneer species eventually led to the development of complex, mature woodlands.

These early stages of woodland colonisation played a crucial role in Britain’s natural history, setting the stage for the ecological dynamics that would support human habitation in the millennia to follow.

Spread of Deciduous Woodlands

As the climate of post-Ice Age Britain continued to warm during the Mesolithic period, roughly between 8000 and 4000 BC, there was a significant spread of deciduous woodlands across the landscape.

This era marked a notable transition from the pioneer species like birch and willow to the dominance of broadleaved trees such as oak, elm, hazel, and alder. These species, more suited to the warmer, wetter conditions, thrived and began to form extensive, dense forests, profoundly altering the British landscape.

tall oak tree
In the prehistoric period, oak trees were among the pioneer species in Britain, thriving in open spaces necessary for their regeneration after the last Ice Age

Oak woodlands, in particular, became a defining feature of the landscape, with their broad, sturdy canopies creating a diverse and rich habitat underneath. These woodlands supported a wide variety of flora and fauna, contributing to an increase in biodiversity.

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

The dense canopy of the deciduous trees provided a habitat for numerous bird and insect species, while the undergrowth became a haven for smaller mammals and a variety of plants and fungi. Elm and alder trees, favouring wetter conditions, grew along riverbanks and in floodplains, further diversifying the woodland ecosystems.

Lush With Ferns

The hazel, with its ability to grow in the understory of taller trees, formed an integral part of these evolving woodlands. The understories of these deciduous forests were lush with ferns, wildflowers, and shrubs, creating a rich tapestry of plant life.

It provides a habitat for a wide range of microorganisms, insects, and small animals, contributing to a diverse ecosystem.
Leaf litter provides a habitat for a wide range of microorganisms, insects, and small animals, contributing to a diverse ecosystem.

This widespread growth of deciduous woodlands also played a crucial role in the development of soil structure and fertility. The leaf litter from these trees created a rich humus layer, improving soil quality and aiding in water retention. This, in turn, supported a more diverse range of plant species, contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem.

Read More: Ancient Woodland Indicators

The spread of these deciduous woodlands across Britain signified a period of ecological richness and stability. It created a landscape that was robust and capable of supporting a wide range of life, setting the scene for the eventual emergence of more complex ecosystems.

Human Impact in the Mesolithic

During the Mesolithic period, which spanned from around 8000 to 4000 BC, the interaction between humans and the woodlands of Britain began to take on a more impactful dimension.

The Mesolithic people, predominantly hunter-gatherers, had a significant yet nuanced relationship with the woodlands, which played a crucial role in their daily lives.

Replica Mesolithic hut at the Ashdown Forest Visitor Centre
Prehistoric woodlands: Replica Mesolithic hut at the Ashdown Forest Visitor Centre

Archaeological findings indicate that red deer, which graze on grass and also browse trees, were integral to the Mesolithic economy in Britain.

They were utilised for their meat, skins, antlers, and bones. Additionally, aurochs or wild cattle, present in Britain until the Bronze Age, were specialied grazers of grass. Their existence points to the presence of grasslands, as opposed to exclusively dense forests.

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

The Mesolithic people also contributed to the spread of certain tree species. Their movement across the landscape, carrying seeds and nuts for food, likely led to the propagation of these species in new areas. This unintentional seed dispersal played a role in shaping the composition of the woodlands.

The aurochs was a cattle species, considered to be the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle
The aurochs was a cattle species, considered to be the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle

Despite these significant impacts, the Mesolithic people lived relatively harmoniously with their environment. Their practices, while undoubtedly altering the woodland landscape, did so in a way that was generally sustainable and maintained the ecological balance.

The changes they effected in the woodlands were as much about adaptation to their environment as they were about shaping it to suit their needs.

This period, therefore, represents a critical phase in the human-woodland relationship in Britain, characterised by a deep understanding and respect for the natural world, which would be starkly contrasted in the subsequent Neolithic period with the advent of agriculture.

The Neolithic Revolution

The Neolithic Revolution, occurring around 4000 to 2500 BC in Britain, marked a profound shift in the relationship between humans and woodlands. This period heralded the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to settled, agricultural communities, fundamentally altering the landscape.

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

With the advent of farming, the way humans interacted with the woodlands experienced a dramatic change, moving from a predominantly sustainable use to more extensive manipulation and clearance.

As Neolithic communities began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, they required more open land for fields and pastures. This need led to significant woodland clearance, a process known as deforestation.

neolithic Polissoir
Neolithic Polissoir worn by Neolithic people sharpening or smoothing stone axes

Initially, these clearings were relatively small, localised, and created using stone axes and controlled burning. However, over time, as agricultural techniques developed and populations grew, the scale of deforestation increased. Large swathes of ancient woodlands, which had dominated the British landscape for millennia, were cut down.

Ceremonial Sites

This period also saw the construction of permanent settlements and the development of complex societies. The cleared woodland areas allowed for the construction of dwellings, ceremonial sites, and later, the development of monuments such as Stonehenge.

Read More: Neolithic Boulder of National Importance Found in Dorset

The relationship between humans and their environment became increasingly focused on altering it to suit their needs, a stark contrast to the more harmonious existence of the Mesolithic era.

The introduction of domesticated animals, such as cattle and sheep, also had a significant impact on the woodlands. Grazing pressure prevented the regeneration of trees in areas where woodlands had been cleared, leading to the permanent transformation of some forested areas into open landscapes.

Roe deer
Credit: Jim Champion

The Neolithic Revolution thus marked a turning point in the history of Britain’s woodlands. While it paved the way for advancements in human civilisation, it also initiated a period of environmental change, leading to the reduction of woodland cover and altering the natural landscape significantly.

This period set the stage for further changes in land use and the environment, which would continue to evolve in the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages.

Prehistoric woodlands Bronze Age Transformations

The Bronze Age, spanning from around 2500 to 800 BC in Britain, represented a significant period of transformation for the country’s woodlands. This era was characterised by continued advancements in technology and society, which had a profound impact on the landscape.

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

The introduction of metal tools, particularly bronze axes, greatly facilitated the felling of trees, leading to an acceleration in the rate of deforestation that had begun during the Neolithic period. Large trees could be ring barked a lot quicker.

Bronze Age treasure trove, Salisbury museum.
Bronze Age treasure trove, Salisbury museum.

To “ring bark” a tree, also known as girdling, involves removing a strip of bark from around the entire circumference of the tree’s trunk. This strip includes the bark and the cambium layer, which is a thin layer of generative tissue that lies just beneath the bark. The cambium is crucial for the transportation of nutrients and water within the tree because it contains the phloem and xylem, which are the tree’s vascular systems.

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

When a tree is ring-barked, the flow of nutrients and water between the roots and the leaves is disrupted. This interruption typically leads to the death of the tree above the girdle over time, as it can no longer transport essential substances up and down its trunk. The roots may remain alive for a while but will eventually die due to a lack of energy from the leaves.

Prehistoric woodlands the Landscape Was Changing

Ring barking is sometimes used as a method for controlling or removing unwanted trees, as it’s less labour-intensive than cutting down the tree and can be more controlled in terms of affecting a specific tree without damaging others nearby.

As the Bronze Age communities expanded, the demand for agricultural land increased. This demand was driven by a growing population and the need to support more settled, agrarian lifestyles. The metal tools of the era made it easier and faster to clear large areas of woodland.

Celtic field system
Prehistoric field systems could only be created once the prehistoric woodlands had been cleared

Vast tracts of forest were cut down to create additional farmland, as well as for grazing livestock. The clearance of woodlands was not just for agricultural expansion; timber and wood were also required for building materials, fuel, and in the burgeoning bronze-smelting industry, where wood was used to make charcoal for metalworking.


The extensive clearance of woodlands during the Bronze Age had a significant ecological impact. The reduction in forest cover altered local ecosystems, affecting biodiversity and leading to changes in soil composition and hydrology.

Read More: Avebury Henge, Largest Megalithic Stone Circle in the World

Open landscapes became more prevalent, and in some regions, the character of the land changed irreversibly as woodlands gave way to fields and pastures.

Lidar showing part of the field system on Balmer Down. LIDAR DSM 17-JAN-2019 © Historic England. Source Environment Agency
Lidar showing part of the field system on Balmer Down. LIDAR DSM 17-JAN-2019 © Historic England. Source Environment Agency. The prehistoric woodlands were coming a thing of the past

Moreover, the cultural relationship with woodlands also evolved during the Bronze Age. Woodlands were no longer seen primarily as habitats to coexist with but increasingly as resources to be exploited for human use. This shift in perception marked a turning point in the human-nature relationship, setting a precedent for future interactions with the environment.

The Bronze Age thus marked a period of considerable change for Britain’s woodlands, characterised by increased human intervention and alteration of the landscape. The advancements in technology and societal shifts during this period laid the foundations for further developments in land use and woodland management, which would continue into the Iron Age and beyond.

The Iron Age and Prehistoric Woodlands

The Iron Age in Britain, roughly spanning from circa 800 BC to 43 AD, heralded significant advancements in woodland management, reflecting a more complex interaction between humans and their environment.

This era, marked by the introduction of iron tools, brought about more efficient methods of agriculture and woodland management, leading to further changes in the landscape.

iron age hut
Iron Age farm and huts

The use of iron axes and saws made the process of clearing woodlands much more efficient than in the Bronze Age. This led to increased deforestation, but it also enabled Iron Age communities to manage woodlands in a more sophisticated manner.

The concept of sustainable woodland management began to take shape, with communities recognising the need to balance the clearance of woodlands for agriculture with the preservation of forests for future use.

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One of the key practices during the Iron Age was coppicing, a method carried over from earlier periods. This sustainable approach involved cutting trees back to their stumps, allowing them to regrow and provide a continuous supply of timber.

This practice not only ensured a sustainable source of wood but also maintained the health and diversity of the woodlands. Coppiced woodlands supported a range of wildlife and were crucial for the ecology of the landscape.

hazel coppice
Coppiced hazel

Additionally, Iron Age Britons practised selective clearance of woodlands, removing trees in a way that allowed for a mosaic of habitats, including open glades, dense forests, and scrubland. This variety of habitats supported diverse flora and fauna and allowed for a range of uses, including grazing, hunting, and gathering.

Prehistoric woodlands

The Iron Age also saw the emergence of larger, more permanent settlements, and hillforts These settlements required significant amounts of timber for construction and fuel, consuming large amounts timber. However, the surrounding woodlands were often managed to ensure a continued supply of resources.

Maiden Castle, Dorset.
In the Early Iron Age, Maiden Castle, Dorset, one of the biggest hillforts in Europe

The relationship between Iron Age communities and woodlands was not solely utilitarian. Woodlands held cultural and spiritual significance, often featuring in religious practices and beliefs. Sacred groves, for example, were an important aspect of Celtic spirituality, reflecting a reverence for nature.

The introduction of iron tools enabled more efficient use and management of woodlands. While this era saw continued deforestation for agriculture and settlement, it also marked the beginnings of a more sustainable approach to woodland management, balancing human needs with the maintenance of ecological diversity and health.

The woodlands of this period were not just sources of material resources but also integral to the cultural and spiritual life of Iron Age communities.