Like many of the environments we call “natural”, woodlands in the UK and Europe have actually been shaped and changed by humans. Most have been carefully managed for centuries to produce wood, a valuable resource with many uses. In many regions, woodland has been relatively scarce for a long time, and woods tended to be owned either by individuals or the communities that maintained them.
The predominant form of woodland management was coppicing — a low-impact practice dating back to 4500 BC (1), where trees are cut down to the base and left to regrow new shoots before cutting again (see my recent blog post). The thin coppice poles produced would have been a handy shape for a variety of uses including fencing, charcoal production, firewood and furniture. To produce larger diameter wood or ‘timber’ for buildings or shipbuilding, some of the trees in a coppice – known as standard trees — were left uncut for longer periods before felling. Coppicing remained most common form of woodland management until the 19th Century, when the increasing demand for timber led to a new fashion for plantations (2).
It is commonly believed that industry is bad for woodlands, but over the last 2000 years, the most common reason to clear woodland in the UK was to make way for agricultural land.. The industries of the time relied heavily on wood for fuel and other uses, so more industrial areas — such as the Methyr Valley – tended to keep more woodland than agricultural areas like East Anglia (3). Unfortunately, by the mid-19th Century coal and coke were replacing wood and charcoal as fuel for many industries and so the demand for coppiced wood dropped.
The 20th century was pretty catastrophic for UK woodlands. By this time the UK imported 90% of its wood, but this was not possible during the First World War (1914-1918). To meet the shortfall, 180,000 hectares of woodland was felled in four years (4). The woodlands could have recovered, but unfortunately the newly established Forestry Commission prevented this by setting up conifer plantations on old woodland and scrubland sites. By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, they had 230 forests on 265,000 hectares of land (4), but most of the trees were too young to be felled for timber and more ancient woodland was felled.
The UK the government’s agricultural polices between 1945 and 1975 were also very damaging to woodlands. They wanted to increase food production and grants were provided to clear woodlands and hedgerows, leading to the destruction of nearly half of the remaining ancient woodlands in the UK. Most of the extra land was unnecessary because significant increases in crop yields were being generated through crop breeding and use of chemical agents including fertilizers and pesticides (1).
A turning point for UK woodlands came at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, where the UK government pledged to conserve and expand semi-natural woodlands (4). The Forestry Commission now started to actively promote their conservation and restoration, including the return to native species and traditional management practices.
Although I have focussed on UK woodlands here, similar trends in management can be seen all over the world. Where wood is highly valued, for example in Canada and Sweden, woodlands and forests tend to be carefully managed. It is areas where wood is plentiful and/or not valued, such as the tropical rainforests, where the fastest destruction is taking place, often to make space for agriculture or mineral mining.
As we try to protect and conserve the World’s woodlands and rainforests, it is worth considering if, and how sustainable industries might be able to help. In the UK, the popularity of wood burning stoves and rising wood prices could make coppicing ancient woodlands a commercially viable option again in future. If the past is anything to go by, demand for wood and other products may help to preserve the World’s woodlands and rainforests better than we can hope to achieve with conservation efforts alone.
This article is the second in a series entitled Focus on… Woodlands:past, present and future. In the first post I discussed the use of coppicing, a traditional woodland management practise. Future posts will feature a case study about my favourite local ancient woodland (Lower Wood) and the future of coppicing.
1) Rackham, O., (1990) Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, J M Dent
2) Rackham, O., (2010) Woodlands, Collins
3) Rackham, O. (2003) Ancient Woodland. Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England, Arnold
4) Agate, E., (2005) Woodlands a Practical Handbook, BTCV