Consultant Ecologist

Denis J Vickers BSc(Hons), FLS, CBiol, MRSB, MCIEEM

Identifying Ancient Woodland

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Introduction:

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


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. 

 

Wood anemone


Studland Wood with ramsons - Dorset

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.

 


Bluebells


Coppicing:

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. 

Hazel coppice - Surrey

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’

 

Pollarding:

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

 

Oak with hazel coppice - near Bayford, Herts.


Hornbeam coppice – Bentley Priory, Middlesex




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.

Ancient hornbeam pollards - Epping Forest, Essex

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

 

 


Ancient hornbeam pollards - Hainault Forest, Essex


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:

 

 

Veteran oak pollard – Hatfield, Herts.


Sessile oak standards – Levels Wood, Middlesex

  • 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.


Stubbed hornbeam – Near Bayford, Hertfordshire


However, determining which trees may be classed as ‘veterans’ is more complex different species may have dissimilar life-spans and growth rates.  Generally, the more of the following characteristics a tree might exhibit the more likely it is to be veteran.

Stubbed hornbeam - Trent Park, Middlesex

  • Girth large for the tree species concerned
  • Major trunk cavities or progressive hollowing
  • Naturally forming water pools
  • Decay holes
  • Physical damage to trunk
  • Bark loss
  • Large quantity of dead wood in the canopy
  • Sap runs
  • Crevices in the bark, under branches or on the root plate sheltered from direct rainfall
  • Fungal fruiting bodies (e.g. from heart rotting species)
  • High number of interdependent wildlife species
  • Epiphytic plants
  • An ‘old’ look
  • High aesthetic interest

Look for veteran and standard trees

 


Sanicle

 

Common dog violet


Boundary banks and ditches

In Medieval Times woodlands were surrounded by a system of earthen banks and ditches.  One purpose was to keep sheep, cows and horses out of the wood in order to protect new growth (or 'spring') from coppice stools and seedlings;; the bank would have had a living hedge or fence on top often with a ditch either side.

Wood bank with stubbed hornbeam - Weald Wood, Middlesex

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).


Wood oxalis

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

 

Red current

 

Yellow pimpernel

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. 

 

Greater stitchwort

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.

 

Primrose

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

Wood carpeted in wood oxalis

Barren strawberry

 

Place names help!

The name of a parish, village or hamlet local to a wood or the name of the wood itself might hold a clue as to whether it is ancient e.g. wood names reflecting nearby settlements, or old words relating to woods such as hagg, frith, spring.  It might end in –ley or –hurst or even be as blatant as having ‘wood’ in the name or a derivation of the word from its archaic origin e.g. ‘Bere’ is Saxon for Wood.

Wild strawberry

The Royal Forestry Society states the following: Many tree place names are derivatives of old English names. For example, many beginning with Ac come from the old English Ac meaning oak tree or acorns. So we have Accrington in Lancashire meaning a farmstead or village where acorns were found or stored; Acle in Norfolk signifies an oakwood or a clearing in it; Acombe in York is a place with oak trees and Acton is a farmstead or village next to oak trees or specialising in working with oak timber.


Ramsoms (wild garlic)

 

On the High Weald in Kent and Sussex, the ending "denn" or "den" comes from the old English for a woodland pasture, especially for swine. The ending "holt", or its corruption to "hot", originates from the old English for a wood or thicket and "hyrst" was a wooded hill and is normally written "hurst" nowadays. "Thwaite" derives from the Norse for a clearing in the forest - and the ending "ley" or "leigh" meant the same in Anglo-Saxon’

The names of woods themselves often reveal their past. If a wood is named after a parish and adjoins a parish boundary, it is likely to be very old indeed. Woods with names such as Spring, Cuts, Coppice or Copse are often ancient woodlands whereas Plantation, Covert, Belt, Furze and Scrubs are more likely to be 19th century in origin’.

Other things to look for:

  • historical documents such as estate records, tithe and enclosure surveys;

Wild Service Tree

 

Bluebells

  • presence on maps, particularly those from the early nineteenth century or before, and on all later maps;
  • their location towards the parish boundaries, on steep slopes or valley sides, or generally unsuitable agricultural ground;
  • irregular woodland boundaries; or
  • woodland boundaries that do not fit with seventeenth century (or later);
  • enclosure patterns in the surrounding field boundaries

 


Ancient woodland floor carpeted with Bluebells



The 'Master' oak pollard - Bentley Priory, Middlesex

Large maiden oak - near Bayford, Herts


 

Moss festooned oaks - Lydford Gorge, Devon

The 'Squire' oak - Hainault Forest, Essex





Bibliography - further reading:


Natural England

Veteran Trees: A guide to good management

Natural England

Ancient woodland Prepared by English Nature, Northminster House, Peterborough, PE1 1UA.  

Natural England

Ancient woodland: guidance material for local authorities

Woodlands Trust

A Survey of the Coverage, Use and Application of Ancient Woodland Indicator Lists in the UK

Forestry Commission

Research Information Note 259 Issued by the Research Division of the Forestry Authority

Jeremy Dagley

Pollarding in Epping Forest

Woodlands Trust

The identification of ancient woodland: demonstrating antiquity and continuity- issues and approaches 

Forestry Commission

Estimating the Age of Large and Veteran Trees in Britain

Oxford University

Woodland Terms in Place-Names

Scottish National Heritage

Ancient Wood Pasture in Scotland: Classification & Management Principles Report no. F01AA108