Ah, woodland. Woodland, woodland.
I am, in general, quite pleased about the existence of woodland and ancient woodland in particular. My former lecturer once said to me that “There is no finer place on Earth than an English woodland in the spring” and I am inclined to agree with him. The Arndale Centre in Eastbourne, for instance, is not a patch on a vernal woodland scene which, I rather fancy, more or less proves his theory.
Now, let’s get one thing straight. There is no “Wildwood” in England. I’m sorry, but it is so. Wildwood is a technical term, meaning a woodland that has never been managed by humankind and we have none of it. Some people claim that small patches of the Caledonian Forest in Scotland may qualify, but this is highly contentious and even if these patches do exist, they are too small to be of any real worth. Not only that, but I have it on reasonable authority that Scotland isn’t even in England, so such knowledge is of little use to the residents of Sussex. So when someone tells you they’re feeling spiritually rejuvenated after getting out into the wildwood in the Haywards Heath area, they’re lying.
No, the nearest thing we have in England is Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW). “But what defines ASNW?” I hear you ask. In my head. Because “you” are not real and I’m actually sitting alone in a room in Brighton. Well, I’ll tell you. For a woodland in England to be classified as “ancient” it has to have been in existence since at least the year 1600. Many historians may take issue with this definition, what with 1600 hardly being “ancient”. “Perhaps”, they may postulate, “we should refer to it as Early Modern Semi-Natural Woodland (EMSNW)?” Well, if any historian does ask you that, you can tell them from me that that’s a stupid question and they can shut the hell up. The reason 1600 has been chosen is because the practice of planting new woodland before that date was extremely rare, so if it’s been there since the last years of Elizabeth I, then it’s likely been there since woodland first regrew in Britain after the last ice age.
So how do we know if a woodland has been there since 1600? Aha. Aha, aha, well. It’s tricky, innit. Maps are a good start, but not conclusive. It is entirely possible that a wood shown on a map from 1600 could have been cut down and disappeared completely for 300 years and then regrown. In any event maps from 1600 aren’t even the best record of things that were definitely there. Have you seen Jacobean maps of the UK? It’s all the wrong shape and everything. So, a woodland on a map is no proof that it has been there for all this time.
Names can also give a clue, so should you encounter something called “New Plantation Wood”, for instance, there might be the tiniest doubt in the corner of your mind that this may not be tremendously old. On the other hand just because it’s called “New” doesn’t mean it isn’t old, like the New Forest, which was created in the 11th Century. Not that the New Forest is a woodland, so that’s a rubbish example. We’ll come to why things called Forests aren’t always woodland in a bit, probably, if I remember. But a nice old-sounding name, like “Brock’s Wood” for instance can be another clue. “Brock” is an old Sussex name for “badger” you know.
But what of the physical attributes of a woodland? I imagine were you actually here you might be crying out to know. The edges of woodland can tell you a lot. Is the edge dead straight? If so, that edge at least is likely to be relatively modern. If, on the other hand, the edge is sinuous, then it’s more likely to be much older. It could be more wibbly-wobbly for the same reason many old lanes seem to sway from side to side – the effect of oxen plough teams which naturally take a snaking path, due to the way oxen walk and have carved out the glorious, circuitous byways of old England – or it could be that the edge follows a stream or something. Plantations created by man are much more likely to have straight edges. Care should be taken, though. CARE. TAKE IT. An ancient woodland could have been cut into to form new fields and, thus, straight edges could be seen EVEN THOUGH THE WOODLAND IS PRE-1600.
And what of the edge? What does it look like? Is there a hedge? Traditionally woodlands were edged with hedges to protect some of the game species that lived within, to make it more difficult for poachers to get in and out of the woods and to reduce the effects of wind, rain and general weather penetrating the woods and harming it. The presence of a hedge is another good clue, but, again, by no means conclusive.
You may, by now, be wondering “Well, what is conclusive?” You’ll be delighted, I am sure, to learn that virtually nothing is conclusive when it comes to identifying ASNW! Hooray! Rather, it is a piecing together of evidence to decide whether, on balance, the woodland in question is ancient or not. So stop being impatient and let’s jolly well get on with it, shall we?
WOOD BANKS. HAHA! I love wood banks. Wood banks are not, as you may imagine, institutions within woodlands that lend money to squirrels. Heavens no. Wood banks are, in fact, far more similar to cross dykes (no laughing at the back), in that they are a man-made feature designed to delineate boundaries. Yes, a wood bank is nothing more than that marvellous age-old thing of saying “THIS IS MINE AND THAT IS YOURS SO BUGGER OFF”. I seem to be getting awfully shouty. Sorry about that. Wood banks are easy to recognise. They will be long and fairly straight banks of earth (although you may spot remaining fragments as well), will have some evidence (probably) of a ditch right next to them and often go round very obvious corners. They also usually have stumped and pollarded trees on them. Stumped trees have been cut down in such a way that they will grow back all twisted and gnarled and kinda cool and awesome looking. Pollarded trees are trees that have been coppiced, only higher up. The intention being to make it really obvious that this is a man-made border that separates properties.
Have we talked about coppicing yet? We need to talk about coppicing. Coppicing is like pollarding, only lower down.
I jest, it’s ok, I will tell you what both of these things are. Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees down so that they will regrow into clumps of straight, useful poles. Only certain trees will coppice and the classics are things like hazel, hornbeam and beech. It’s even possible to coppice oak and ash, but much less common. Large areas of coppiced hazel and hornbeam are a good indicator of ancient woodland. The width of each coppice “stool” as these clumps are called will tell you how old that stool is – the wider it is, the older it is and sometimes the middle of a stool, especially with hornbeam, may disappear underground, leaving a ring of trees above ground. Some coppice stools are estimated to be thousands of years old and, obviously, if there are a lot of really old coppice stools in your wood, it’s a fairly safe bet that you could be in ASNW. I may do a proper article all about coppicing sometime. Coppicing is brilliant. Pollarding is just coppicing higher up so the deer can’t eat the new shoots and make your poles go all woggly. No-one wants a woggly pole, after all. Pollarding is much less common than coppicing in woodland, which is a relief, because it looks really stupid.
And what of oak and ash and beech? Again, if there’s loads of big, old trees in the wood, it’s another indicator that it might be getting on a bit. If, on the other hand, there’s loads of trees that are all much the same height, then it’s likely they were planted, or have regrown from nothing.
And then there’s the actual species present. If the trees are all Norwegian spruce, or even horse chestnut, then it’s not ancient, as neither of those trees were here in 1600. Sweet chestnut (which coppices beautifully) has been about since the Romans, so you’re on a safer bet there. Lots of big old oak, ash, beech and so-on are good. Midland hawthorn (not common hawthorn – you can tell the difference by the shape of the leaves and having more than one style in the flower. Buy a bloody tree ID book), wild service tree, a good carpet of wood anemones, certain ferns (I’m rubbish at ferns) and even mosses and bryophytes can be strong indicators, like anyone ever looks that hard at mosses and bryophytes. Carpets of English bluebells are a clue, but as they’re actually relatively good colonisers, they don’t tell us much. Stronger indicator species are those which spread only very slowly and are, therefore, much less likely to reappear in a replanted, or regrown woodland. Remember! A single example of any of these species does not an ancient woodland make: they could have been planted of have got there by some other freak. The more indicators you see, the more likely it is that you have found an ASNW.
Eventually you start to develop a feel for it. As soon as you walk into an ancient woodland the air feels different (this paragraph may be a bit less scientific, but sod it). A quick look around at the general mix of trees. Are the paths straight, or do they wander amongst the coppice? Does it feel like something that’s been planted, or does it feel… old?
When you walk in in the spring are there great carpets of beautiful anemones and celandines and bluebells? Are there banks of wild garlic by the streams? Does the air ring with the calls of many different birds and the thrum of woodpeckers making their presence felt? Does the air speak of mystery and age-old work? Traditional woodland management more or less ceased in the UK between the wars, but the evidence of thousands of years of man’s influence can be seen all around you. The scars in the earth where men laboured to build wood banks and protect their masters’ properties. The gnarled and twisted hornbeams – cut with care. The beautiful patchwork of hazel – home to dormice for centuries. Beech coppice that took 200 years to regrow. Oak allowed to grow over the coppice to provide building material that could take 300 years to reach useful maturity.
Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland in this country has evolved alongside humanity – has been worked by humanity for thousands of years. Everything had a use, from the hazel used to build wattle in the walls of cottages to the hornbeam used to make charcoal for smelting iron. The oak that built Elizabeth’s navy, or the ash that made the handles of the tools used to work the harvested wood. An ancient woodland is a beautiful sight indeed, but it is far more than that. It is a record of those who came before us and built the world we know now. Of those who toiled, poached, crafted, innovated, created and cared. Walking in the woods is not, for me at least, just a nice place to be; it is a connection to history.
OH WAIT. FORESTS.
I said I was going to explain why forests and woodlands are not always the same thing, right? And then I forgot. Having received various veiled threats and several outright ones, I am now going to do so. Forests in the old meaning of the word are royal hunting preserves, not woodland. Areas such as the New Forest were “afforested” and converted to “Royal Forests”, which had their own set of laws designed to preserve the hunting for the royals.
These forests were rarely more than 50% woodland, but over time the word “forest” has come to mean “extensive woodland”, with Forestry Commission forests, for instance, being entirely wooded. Confusing innit? Ashdown Forest in Sussex, for example, is a former hunting forest and is made up of a majority of open heath, with some wooded areas, while Friston Forest – also in Sussex – is entirely wooded. Welcome to the wonderful world of the English language.