A New Look at Ancient Woodland – the History of Woods in Norfolk

Some of the oak trees in Thursford Wood are over 500 years old.

If you listen to experts like Tom Williamson they will tell you that woodland, even ancient woodland, has not been static. They have been changing for millennium through climate changes or through the action of humans.  Coppice with standards, the ancient woods that we particularly cherish, were probably the result of a form of early enclosure in the middle ages. Before then woods were grazed by domesticated as well as wild animals creating a wood pasture like landscape.  For coppice to succeed, grazing animals need to be kept away from new growth and considerable engineering work was done to ensure this with banks and ditches.

Whether we like the term or not these woods were “factories” and were adapted to the demands of landowners and a growing population.  Standard or individual trees were grown for a different purpose to the understory and different species for different jobs.  Williamson even suggests that more planting took place than has previously been thought the case.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as with agriculture, forestry became a “science” as landowners modified there woods in the same way they improved their animal stock. New plantations were created close by the ancient woods, (which were largely retained) usually because it was best use for the land.  At the beginning of the 20th century this began to change as different materials replaced timber. The woodland devastations of WWI and subsequent formation of the Forestry Commission with its drive for fast growing conifers was followed less than quarter of a century later by demands for greater food production.  A different form of forestry and a different form of farming led to the loss of 50% of our ancient woods by 1960.

These notes were taken at Professor Tom Williamson’s talk to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Norwich group in January 2017. For more information see below.

“Rethinking Ancient Woodland”
The archaeology and history of woods in Norfolk
Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson
University of Hertfordshire Press