Introduction to woodland

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Britain's woodland is unique in having so many ancient trees. This is the result of the forms of woodland management practiced here in the past, such as coppicing and pollarding. On the continent, by contrast, areas of woodland were usually harvested by clear felling, which meant that all were removed when they reached an appropriate age.

In a coppice regime standard trees are left at intervals of 20 metres or so to grow old. Often these would be oak, a good timber tree, and they would be felled to provide beams for houses or for ships.

Beneath them would grow an underwood of lower growing trees that were harvested on a regular cycle of between 6 and 12 years. These might be hazel, which provides straight flexible stems suitable for sheep hurdles or thatching, or hornbeam, used for firewood or to make charcoal.

Coppiced trees are cut low down close to the base, after which they throw out vigorous new shoots. Where animals such as deer or cattle grazed among the trees, trees would be pollarded, in other words cut above head height, to prevent the animals from browsing the young shoots and killing or stunting the trees. This produced a landscape known as tree pasture, consisting of scattered ancient trees with swollen heads: Hatfield Forest is the best example, others include parts of Weald Park and Thorndon Park.

Many woodlands look their best in spring when plants like bluebells and wood anemones flower, taking advantage of the extra light available before the trees put on their leaves.

In spring and early summer the woods are full of birdsong, both from residents like the chaffinch and from summer visitors like the blackcap, which spend the winter in Africa and migrate here to breed.

Apart from the grey squirrel, woodland mammals are not so easy to detect as most are secretive and often nocturnal, but the wood mouse is likely to be found in most woods.

One woodland mammal that used to be present in most woods of any size and in many hedgerows as well, the dormouse, is now found in only a few Essex woods. It is strictly nocturnal and spends most of its life above ground in the trees. Its decline is probably due to the fragmentation of woods and the loss of inter-connecting hedgerows.


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More information

For a compact field guide: Mitchell Beazley's 'Pocket Guide to Trees'. If you want to know how woods work and how Britain's woods and hedges have evolved through the ages: Oliver Rackham's 'Trees & Woodland in the British Landscape'.