Reading the Signs in a Wood
The local wood that you like to walk in of a weekend holds far more clues to its past than you may realise. Once you learn how to decipher these clues you can learn a great deal about the history of the wood and even estimate its age.
Most people assume that our oakwoods, beechwoods and woods of our other native trees are all an old and natural part of the countryside, but this is a long way from the truth. Natural woods, completely untouched by man, no longer exist in Britain. Many of our woods are young, perhaps only a century or two old. And even our older woods were in almost all cases used or managed in past centuries. A great deal can be learned about the history of a wood by looking for signs of past management.
Clues to a coppice
One very ancient tradition was to manage a wood as ‘coppice with standards’. When shrubs and young trees are cut back to the ground they quickly sprout a head of shoots which grow to about 2m (6ft) high in a year and then begin to thicken. The resulting plant is called a coppice. After about seven to fifteen years the shoots of the coppice used to be cut to yield a supply of poles, staves and brushwood. Scattered through the coppices were the standards – trees allowed to grow unhindered and then felled for their timber when they had reached an age of about 70 to 150 years. The standards were sometimes obtained by a process called singling, which involved cutting out all but one of a clump of coppice shoots. On other occasions the standards were simply planted, oaks often being favoured for this because their branches cork-screw slightly as they grow, thus supplying ready-shaped timbers for shipbuilding.
The most obvious sign of past coppicing is the presence of ‘many-trunked’ trees growing on the site of old coppice stumps. But there are more subtle indicators. First, it was important in past times to keep out livestock, otherwise they would destroy the young coppice shoots. And so the wood was often surrounded by a ditch with a large bank inside it. Which was once fenced. The remains of the bank and ditch can still be seen today in many places.
Another important clue to woods that were once coppiced is the abundance of spring. The regular cutting of the coppices allowed plenty of sunlight to reach the floor of the wood, and this encouraged the growth of plants. Some of these plants are normally slow to spread, or seed poorly, so their presence in large numbers on the woodland floor is an excellent indication that the wood is ancient and was once coppiced. Take, for example. Bluebells. They spread only slowly on heavy clay soils, so a carpet of them under trees growing on such a clay could be the clue to an old wood, especially if wood anemones and early purple orchids are also present. (Bluebells spread quickly on light soils, however, so beware that the carpet is not picking out a patch of sand in the wood!) In such woods you may find rarities like herb paris, which prefers rather lime-rich soils. Even dog’s mercury, which seems to be such a common woodland plant, is in fact rare in recent woodland that is, woodland that has formed in the last hundred years.
Wild animals, as well as plants, were encouraged by coppicing. The coppice woods were usually divided into compartments, each being cut in rotation. The wildlife could easily move from one compartment to another to find the conditions they preferred. For example, fritillary butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on dog violets, are typical of such woods.
Looking for pollards
Another tradition as old as coppicing was to allow livestock to graze the common land of the parish, which often included woodland. In time this wood pasture developed its own appearance: it had a bare grassy floor (for the animals destroyed the spring flowers and the undergrowth) and the trees were well spaced out because the animals also ate many of the new saplings. However, a supply of poles could still be obtained by cropping the branches of the trees at head height, out of reach of the animals, a system known as pollarding. Old pollarded trees can still be seen today. The technique itself all but died out, other than in the Langdale Valley, Cumbria, where the ash trees have long been pollarded; but there is now a significant revival.
Guessing the age
Many of the woods that were once coppiced or pollarded are extremely ancient: indeed they have existed since trees colonized Britain after the last Ice Age. First came the birch and Scots pine, and then, as the climate improved, these early colonizers were shaded out by taller broad-leaved trees. The result was a tangled wildwood of oak, ash, Elm, Alder and lime, together with smaller trees and shrubs such as hazel, hawthorn and.
Later, as man arrived, he cleared much of this wildwood leaving only fragments behind which he used for coppicing or pollarding. Other woods used by man for the same purpose may have been ‘secondary’, growing on ground that had once been cleared but was later on abandoned. In time, however, the secondary wood would have assumed the character of a primary wood and be just as rich in its variety of species – and be just as likely to have been managed by man.
A clue to really ancient woodland is that it contains just native trees and shrubs, and some of them are excellent indicators of this type of wood. Look for Midland hawthorn, which has leaves with blunter lobes than does the common hawthorn and two or three pips in the haw rather than a single one. Small-leaved lime is another good indicator – its leaves are usually about 6cm (2-1/2in) long with tufts of rust-coloured hairs underneath; other limes have larger leaves with white tufts or none at all present.
You will rarely see any of the many species of foreign tree introduced by man in an ancient wood. Even sycamore, which was introduced about four centuries ago and has become widely naturalised, is only found in recently established woods, or in woods that have been neglected this century (as many have).
Plantations and modern woods
Even in an old wood the trees may not be as natural to the site as they look. Worries about the supply of timber for the Navy 400 years ago led to the birth of a new kind of wood management quite different to the old coppicing tradition. This was the close planting of trees to create tall trunks for timber. Oak was often chosen. And beech – the beechwoods north of Derby have this rather recent origin. Even the famous Burnham Beeches on the Chilterns grow on what was either open ground or coppice 200 years ago. Since then other plantations have been established: larch and Scots pine during the Victorian era, then foreign conifers during the present century.
The clues to a plantation, whether old or new, are the trees being of one age, of one kind and planted in rows (though in some of the older beech and oak plantations this consistency has been smudged by selective felling in the past).
Just as the species, age and shapes of the trees, along with the variety of spring flowers, are clues to the wood’s history and age, so there are similar clues to recent woods, the ones that are perhaps less than a century old. Ivy did not grow well under coppice management, and it did not survive in grazed woods, so it carpets the ground only of new woods.