Over the last few weeks I have been discussing what has been happening within the woods I am working. However, I have yet to chat about the actual woods and their different classifications. Bear with me, it’s not complicated or dull and will make sense of our history, certainly The Domesday Book and Magna Carta.
What is a Woodland?
The term woodland is a catch all phrase that lets the image of a few hundred trees growing together pop into your mind. However, sapiens, being the orderly creatures that we have put our woody habitats into different categories. Below are the main ones in the UK.
The Wild Wood
After the last ice age Great Britain was covered in what is known as The Wild Wood. It consisted of birch, elm, pine, oak, hazel and linden trees which stretched from just below today’s John O’Groats all the way to Land’s End. Our hunter gatherer ancestors would meander from glade to glade surviving as best they could during the seasons. The large herbivores would have grazed the land, so The Wild Wood was not a dark and grim place but more like that of a huge parkland. It was a tough existence, nonetheless.
In the Neolithic period the population started to increase, especially here in Somerset. I suppose there was nothing on tv… Anyway, this is when the clearance started and it has continued ever since.
The art of coppicing has been ongoing in Somerset since about 4500BC and this is the first category, The Coppice. It’s small and manageable and since the 1200’s there’s been a cheeky addition of a standard tree. This is a large tree that will be felled at about 50-100 years of age dependent on the species. A coppiced area is called just that, a coppice, or a copse.
The Woodland Pasture
Imagine a herd of cows or a flock of sheep happily grazing a field. Add to that hundreds of trees and that’s a woodland pasture in a nutshell. The Domesday Book recorded them so they were obviously very lucrative and important.
This is an area that the public, or commoner, had access to. They could cut firewood and gather foraged goods within its boundaries. It was a regulated but a fair system. Woods don’t have a size parameter though. Many are very small, just a few acres whilst some are over two thousand acres in size. However, history shows that the commoners would have had access to them whatever the size.
The largest of the classes in the UK but doesn’t mean a wooded area. Confused? We need to go back To William the Conqueror to understand what this means. Once he got us unruly Anglo Saxons under control he created a new law, The Forest Law. This is an area of land that has been designated a hunting ground for The King. Its not just wooded areas but can mean any type of land. According to Elizabeth Agate’s fantastic book, “Woodlands”, once The Domesday Book was completed William had created 25 forests. They were solely for The Crown’s use and by the time of greedy King John ( Robin Hood’s archnemesis’ boss ) there were 143. Under John, corruption of the running of the forests flourished. This and many other reasons caused the barons to revolt and eventually Magna Carta Libertatum (Great charter of Freedoms) was drawn up. We have shortened it to the Great Charter, Magna Carta. Since then, no other forest has been created.
This is an area of woodland that has existed since 1600 or earlier. I shan’t go in to too much depth here but in the UK we didn’t really start to plant trees for their timber until the 1600’s.
Any area of woodland that has been planted since the 1600’s.
Phew. I hope that all makes sense?
So how can you tell if you are in an ancient woodland? Luckily for us Mother Nature has scattered plants around to let us know. One of these plants on its own isn’t enough to categorically say but once a list is created then you can say with more certainty.
Here are some of the plants that I have seen in the coupe I have been working in.
Poisonous and likes to grow in amongst ramsons. Be careful this doesn’t make it into your wild garlic pesto.
Wood spurge will happily grow in the shade of the trees but can cause irritation to the eyes. Again, it is friends with ramsons, so beware whilst you pick.
A very tough and hardy sedge. It has triangular flower stems and the seed can be made into rudimentary biscuits. It loves the damp shade.
Sweet woodruff is part of the bedstraw family. It was used as a sort of air and linen freshener. If crushed it smells like almonds. Added to sloe gin right at the start of the process it adds a lovely taste.
Ferns have been used to package delicate items ready for transportation for thousands of years. When it becomes too brittle to protect it then becomes kindling.
So, The Next Time You Are Out And About…
…Take your time to look around you. Are you in a woodland meadow or a forest? What plants surround you that can help identify how old the land is you are on? Can you see the old coppice stools from yesteryear?
Until next time.