The UK’s forgotten natural wonder; ancient woodland

The tropical rainforests of South America, the savannas of Africa, the grasslands of Mongolia, the ice sheets of Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef. We all wonder at their existence, their diversity, we cherish them and instinctively know to protect them. And yet one of our own natural wonders, pockets of precious habitat dotted across the British Isles, sit ignored and forgotten resulting in destruction and loss. Most of us don’t even really seem to know it’s there.

A bluebell wood
Monkswood, an ancient woodland in Cambridgeshire (the bluebells are a giveaway)

Despite growing up in woods and undertaking an environmental MSc, I had never even heard of ancient woodland until I began working for an environmental NGO. So it’s no surprise that most haven’t. But you will likely know of an ancient wood, Sherwood Forest for example, Robin Hood’s domain. You’ve likely visited a wood to see the bluebells in spring, bluebells are a strong indicator of an ancient wood. As the UK is home to over half the world’s bluebells they are a natural wonder in themselves.

For me, ancient woodlands are magical, they feel, smell and look different to other (secondary) woodland. Only the other week I was walking in an ancient wood and even with little greenery and a perpetual rain I felt exhilarated by the enormity of what I could see and the rich atmosphere I could feel myself soaking up along with the rainwater. Birds singing and trees talking. Dense foliage crowded my wellies, chocolatey dark soil speckled with seeds oozed underfoot. Echoes of a thousand untouched stories of flora and fauna just out of reach.

What actually is ancient woodland?

Ancient woodland is used to describe an area that has been continuously wooded since the 1600s (1750 in Scotland). It’s likely that many are older than that but the 1600s is the earliest time that we have reliable maps to refer to. These woods have evolved over hundreds of years, relatively undisturbed.

Can’t see the soil for the trees

The thing about ancient woodland isn’t the trees, in fact trees rarely become ancients within forests. They don’t have the room, the light or the resources. Ancient woodland is  all about the soil. The soils have been preserved for centuries, uncontaminated by modern human interference and chemicals. Unique intricate ecosystems have gradually developed over this time, complex networks that we are barely beginning to understand stretching out through the forest floor. Species live here that cannot live anywhere else. Wildlife, plants, funghi, microorganisms and invertebrates thrive.

But it’s a fragile existence that once wiped away can never be replaced, no matter how many centuries may pass or how many trees are replanted. Similar to rainforests that once cleared can never be rainforest again, grasslands once farmed into deserts are never grassland again, bleached broken coral never a reef again.

Whilst some ancient woodlands are likely remnants of the wild woods dating from the Ice Age, ancient woods are usually a human edited habitat. Coppice stools, hidden paths, planted trees and archaeological features are evidence of this. They are tightly wrapped up in our own history, culture and survival in the UK. Providers of food, shelter and fuel for our medieval ancestors.

Vanishing fast

Ancient woodland now only covers 2% of the UK. And with over 700 ancient woods currently under threat they are rapidly dwindling. I fear one day I will wake up to find myself living in a country with no ancient wilderness, no history or diversity of life. A land of bare patchwork fields and concrete jungles, dark conifer plantations with no natural woods to soften a scarred empty landscape.

Although ancient woodland is supposed to be protected in national planning policy a significant loophole, ignorance and our tendency to value assets only in terms of their economic benefits results in ancient woods being destroyed for often spurious reasons. Chemical coated golf courses, unnecessary petrol stations and blaring music festivals sit where ancient woodlands once serenely stood.

But it’s not too late to protect it.

Our one chance to protect this natural wonder

The Woodland Trust has been campaigning to get better protection for ancient woodland for years. All their work and the support from those who took part in their campaigns has led to this moment.

Government has finally recognised that ancient woodland habitats need better protection in policy in their recent Housing White Paper. They are now hosting a consultation based on this paper called ‘Fixing the broken housing market’, where they want to hear the public’s thoughts on their recommendations.  Despite the recognition that ancient woodland should receive the same protection as SSSIs, greenbelt and national parks, real protection can only happen if the existing planning policy is amended.

The Woodland Trust has set up a simple online form that allows the public to send in their own response to the consultation. It is pre-written if you are unsure what to say (though advice is provided) or there is space to add your own thoughts. Please take part in the campaign here and help put pressure on government to provide the protection for ancient woods it’s already agreed they need. Thank you.

Image from Pexels


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