Three years ago I set out to trace the origin of a small wood near the village where I live in the UK. I visited the wood at fortnightly intervals through most of the year taking photos that interested me and which show what was happening as the year progressed. (I'll post some of these at appropriate times of the year)
To The Woods
There are simple steps that may help you find out about woods that exist near you Anyone interested in tracing the history of woods on their land, or in their neighbourhood might well start with Ordnance Survey (OS) maps
My local wood is unnamed on OS maps and situated, beside an A67 road in North Yorkshire, it is little more than a small patch of green on the current maps. OS maps for the area dating back to 1857 and 1894 in the Middlesbrough reference library produced the first positive information about when the wood was planted. Not there in 1857, it appeared on the first edition of the 25,000:1 scale map of 1894. Other woods in the area had the same names as today, and a large hall also appeared for the first time
The Kirklevington village research group has traced ownership of the estate from William the Conqueror through absentee aristocratic and royal landowners to its sale to wealthy local families and its take over by a family of industrialists at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A family map from that time showed the hall and the wood. Comments on the estate referred to the establishment of new plantations and woods, i.e., those which appeared on the 1894 OS map. The hall, commissioned in the eighteen-seventies and first inhabited in 1884, is now Judges Country Hotel whose website gives 1881 as the year it was erected.
Ancient woodland is land that has had a continuous woodland cover since at least 1600AD. My wood cannot therefore fall into this category and certainly no tree has a girth to suggest such an old age. You can check whether a wood is ancient by using the interactive map and ancient woodland inventory available on www.magic.gov.uk. In my case, using the post code to select the area showed ancient and replanted ancient woodland within five miles – but not my wood – superimposed on the OS map. However if a wood is less than 2 hectares, it will not appear on the ancient woodland map or inventory.
On the 1894 OS map, using the 25,000:1 scale I calculated that my wood, which I christened ‘Boot Wood’ due to its characteristic shape, to be just under the 2 hectares. A picture on an archaeological web site of Boot Wood showed it in full leaf alongside what, in 1803 was established as a turnpike road and is now the A67; four adjacent fields are clearly land that was once tilled by a ridge and furrow system. Aerial photography may tell you more than can be seen on the ground.
Boot Wood (and ridge and furrow system)
In researching a wood, you may find tree preservation orders (TPO) have been placed on individual trees or, even on the woodland itself. TPO made by the council or local planning authorities protect specific trees or woodland from deliberate damage and destruction. The felling, lopping, topping, uprooting or otherwise willful damaging trees are not permitted without the permission of the local planning authority. A council has a ‘discretionary’ power to make a TPO, but there is no legal reason why it has to make one. Even if a wood contains a wonderful tree it does not mean it will be the subject of a TPO. Because some TPO are quite old (they can date back to 1949) landowners may not know they have a TPO on their trees. TPO are available for inspection at local authority offices.
Woodlands face threats from development in many areas, whether from new housing, roads, leisure amenities such as golf courses, or facilities for motor or mountain bike events. The Woodland Trust has a guide for planners on ancient woods and trees which supports 2005 Planning Policy Statement [PPS] No.9 on biodiversity and geological conservation. Although PPS 9 strengthens the protection for aged and veteran trees and ancient woods in England, there are legal loopholes which allow even sites of special scientific interest to be damaged and destroyed. Examples exist, such as Penn Wood in Buckinghamshire, where development decisions arising from public enquiries have been reversed following campaigns by residents and the Woodland Trust. It’s a good policy therefore to look out for announcements of consultations on local development plans which may affect woodlands where you live.
A E Housman (Shropshire Lad, 1896) wrote “About the woodlands I will go.” However, if you intend to enter a wood which is on private land, and there are no designated bridle ways or public footpaths, you have ‘no right to roam’ without first obtaining permission. The right to roam, provided by The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 applies only to mapped areas of uncultivated, open countryside - namely mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land and not to woodlands. The estate farmer gladly gave me permission to enter and study Boot Wood even although there are no paths or rights of way through its trees.
What did I find in early March? The wood was only criss-crossed with animal tracks; it truly reflected Lord Byron’s words, “There is a pleasure in pathless woods”. The impact of man was plainly seen in its shape constrained on three sides by sheep netting, topped by a single barbed-wire strand strung between wooden fence poles; a neatly tonsured hawthorn hedge stretched sinuously along the northern side. Litter strewn inside the eastern edge demonstrated today’s fast food culture – empty plastic bottles, a discarded board announcing “Open; Food & Drink, Next Left”, cardboard, plastic and polystyrene food cartons and empty beer and soft drinks bottles and cans. Road works’ discards included safety helmet skull cap linings, battered traffic cones and a yellow warning lamp.
Inside the wood, the noise of human activity intruded with the steady hum of speeding traffic, the whine of aircraft overhead and even the rumble of an occasional far-off train. Then the sounds of the wood drown these noises out, first a blackbird’s warning cry of protest at being disturbed and a clatter of wings as wood pigeons took to flight and then, as things quietened down, the family chattering of long-tailed tits performing acrobatics in the trees. On a breezy day, the trees emitted eerie creaks interspersed with the rattle of last year’s ash keys and finally came the territorial call of a cock pheasant celebrating his escape from the last of the winter’s February shoots.
In later months, road-kill chefs would have been able to feast on pheasant, fox, rabbit and squirrel, with badger from further along the wood-side road. Last winter, the wood has been alive with rabbits and grey squirrels; the rabbits have marked their favourite scrapes and moss stumps by copious droppings and, with a flash of white, take cover among the larger bramble bushes. Reportedly, deer have been seen in the early light of day, but these frequent the larger, nearby woods and fields, from where their tracks enter the wood.
Boot Wood is dominated by ash trees, whose keys and ivy-covered trunks have provided late winter colours, while silver birch, beech, oak, horse chestnut, hawthorn, blackthorn, elder and holly have also staked their claims.
“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall”, wrote Tennyson, about the time the wood was planted. This is demonstrated now by ‘ship wrecks’ of silver birch trunks like broken masts with spars amid bramble-rigging at their feet; the characteristic hoof-shaped tinder fungus has also thrived on birch trunks and fallen branches. Large holes carved in trunks have not yet been inhabited. Similarly a massive beech log hollowed out and turned into a den contained no sign of occupation.
Tinder (Horses hooves) fungus
The greatest future threat to woodland and natural habitats will be that of climate change. The Woodland Trust has reported that oaks are leafing earlier, with spring two weeks earlier and autumn one week later than thirty to fifty years ago. Recent warnings have spoken of the potential demise of the oak and bluebell which would be a loss to many woods. Individual trees and species may be affected by the changes in environmental stresses brought on by drought and milder winters. Droughts make trees more vulnerable to disease and lack of water can threaten the survival of trees and woods. Milder winters and the absence of severe cold may disrupt flowering and fruiting, and the germination of seeds from many trees which cannot follow the predicted retreat northwards of mobile insects, butterflies and birds.
For now, apposite although Housman’s, Byron’s and Tennyson’s words may be, the most appropriate to Boot Wood must be Kipling’s Tree Song,
“Of all the trees that stand so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.”