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Ancient woodland is land that has had a continuous woodland cover since at least 1600 AD.  Before this, planting of new woodland was uncommon, so a wood present in 1600 is likely to have developed naturally. In some cases there could be a link with the wildwood; the primeval forests which once covered most of Britain after the Ice-age.

Denis J Vickers Freelance Ecologist

Ancient woodland includes:


  • ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW), which retains a native tree and shrub cover that has not been planted, although it may have been managed by coppicing or felling and allowed to regenerate naturally;

  • plantation on ancient woodland sites (PAWS), where the original tree cover has been felled and replaced by planting, often with conifers (usually over the last century).


Ancient woodland (not converted to plantation) accounts for only 1.57% (205,000 ha) of the surface area of England and about 1.6% (2,500 ha) of the surface of Greater London. 

Ancient woodland and the ancient trees it often contains are a valuable biodiversity resource both for diversity of species and for its longevity as woodland.  They are exceptionally rich in wildlife, including many rare species and habitats; are an integral part of England’s historic landscapes; and act as reservoirs from which wildlife can spread into new woodlands.  Once lost ancient woodland cannot be recreated.


A traditional method of managing woodland was coppicing.  This involved cutting broadleaf trees back to the ground on a cyclic basis.  New shoots would grow from the stump and could reach up to 2 m in the first year.  Subsequently, the new growth would increase in thickness.  The base of the tree from which the new wood emerged and was cut is referred to as the stool. 

Wood was harvested on a regular cycle (e.g. hazel 7 – 10 years, sweet chestnut 15-20 years and hornbeam 15-25 years). The period of coppice was geared to the end use: in the case of hazel, wood was produced of ideal size for hurdle making and hornbeam (amongst other things) for use as fuel (including charcoal for working iron and later also for gunpowder production). Only species with vigorous epicormic growth (from buds dormant beneath the bark) can be successfully coppiced.


Look for: Old/large coppice stools, which are often ‘multi-trunked’


This is another traditional method of woodland management dating back to at least Norman Times.  Pollarding was a common practice in areas of wood pasture where animals grazed beneath widely spaced trees. The growth of lateral  branches was encouraged by cutting off a tree stem or minor branches two or three metres above ground level.  After the initial cutting the tree is allowed to regrow, however, once started, regular maintenance by pruning is required. This will eventually result in a somewhat ‘swollen’ top to the tree trunk with multiple new side and top shoots growing from it.  Many types of broadleaved tree with vigorous epicormic growth may be made into pollards.

In Epping forest (where more pollards survive than any other site in the UK) species include hornbeam, beech, oak and wild service tree.   Trees on wood-banks were also often pollarded.


Look for: trees terminating with multiple stems radiating out at about 2-3 metres height

Standard and Veteran Trees

Often scattered throughout areas of coppice are standard trees (with trunks extending uncut to the canopy) usually of oak but occasionally ash. These ‘maiden’ trees (i.e. not pollarded or coppiced) were grown for timber production e.g. structural wood for buildings and the ship construction industry.   Generally these were harvested between 70 – 150 years.


To gain an idea of the age of these trees there is a rough rule of thumb: if you measure the girth of a tree (particularly oak) at 1.4m height, its age is approximately equal to its circumference in centimetres/2.5 (or inches).  You may double this figure in woodland with a dense canopy where more competition for light leads to spindly growth. Oak standards with the following dimensions are of note:

  • Trees with a diameter at 1.4 m height of more than 1.0 m (girth 3.2 m) are potentially interesting.

  • Trees with a diameter of more than 1.5 m (girth 4.7m) are valuable in terms of conservation.

  • Trees with a diameter of more than 2.0 m (girth 6.25 m) are truly ancient.

Additionally, wood-banks often defined different ownerships within a wood or section of a wood, in some woodlands boundary features date back to Saxon Charter boundaries.  Stones were often used as boundary markers on wood-banks.   Additionally, along the most significant ancient boundaries (e.g. parish boundaries) many of the trees will have been managed as pollards (oak in particular) or ‘stubbed’ (cut as low pollards about 1m above the ground).

In ancient woodlands today wood-banks are still apparent where old woodland boundaries are intact.  In some cases the relicts of old coppiced trees are present as large stools with or without old, top-heavy regrowth.  Wood-banks within a wood also often occur.  These can mark past internal boundaries (where, historically, there was different use or ownership) but sometimes are the result of more recent woodland growth outside the ancient area. 

Look out for perimeter ditches and banks (with or without relict coppice) as you enter and cross woodland.

Ancient Woodland Indicator (AWI) Species

Here I am specifically referring to elements of the woodland’s ground flora (although some lichens and invertebrate species can also be used).  Most noticeable in ancient woodland is the array of spring wildflowers which emerges prior to the woodland canopy coming into full leaf.   AWI’s seldom occur outside woodland (although some are occasionally planted), where they do, they may indicate woodland cover was once present which could have persisted for many years. These plants can tolerate shade (but are not exclusively confined to it).  Additionally, AWIs are slow to colonise new areas. 

The influences of climate, soils and past land-use means the composition of AWI species will vary in different geographical locations across the UK.  Published lists of these species are specifically worked out for a geographic area.  Bearing this in mind these lists of species serve as very useful tools for all those involved in assessing woodland habitats.

Below are some common and well distributed examples of AWIs:

  • Butcher’s-broom

  • Lesser celandine

  • Early dog violet

  • Early Purple Orchid

  • Goldilocks buttercup

  • Native bluebell

  • Pignut

  • Primrose

  • Ransoms

  • Red currant

  • Sweet woodruff

  • Wild Daffodil

  • Wood anemone

  • Wood oxalis

  • Wood speedwell

  • Wood spurge

  • Yellow archangel

  • Yellow pimpernel

Follow the link here to find out more about AWIs in the UK and the regions:

Look out for ancient woodland wildflower indicator species.