Where the Wildwood Went

The wildwood is a term used by historical geographers to describe Britain’s dominant landscape type when there were not yet managed, distinct areas of ‘greenwood’ but just one massive, uncultivated, untamed woodland/ forest ecosystem. 

We began to see the destruction of the British wildwood far earlier than many people imagine – from the very earliest days of Neolithic, then Bronze Age agriculture. The Iron Age Celts had a deep connection to the woods that remained. But their iron ploughs meant rapid expansion of deforestation. The processes of coppicing, woodland management, converting forest to arable land and pasture they introduced continued to erode the wildwood gradually for hundreds of years, and shaped woodland management for generations.

By the year 1000 CE, it has been estimated that around 20% of Great Britain and Ireland were covered in forest, though in England, tree cover was likely already less. By 1150, the remaining fragments of untouched forest had been converted to managed woodland or cleared entirely in England and Wales. Patches in Scotland and Ireland did survive longer, but also came increasingly under threat during the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages marked many great tree-felling events. For example, a thousand oaks are said to have been felled to build Salisbury Cathedral, with similar stories for many other great cathedrals and monuments. As the population increased during the Mediaeval period, farmhouses, villages and towns were rebuilt with timber frame houses, and there was much felling for further agricultural clearance. 

During the Tudor period, many more trees were felled in pursuit of Britain’s ambitions to ‘rule the waves’. Warships like the Mary Rose required entire forests to be felled to provide the timber. 

Remaining enclaves of wild wood were also deliberately broken up and burned off to get rid of outlaws, and wolves. Around 1745, the very last known wolf in Britain was killed in Scotland. Woods were lost in the Highland Clearances, and forests were unable to regrow due to the introduction of sheep, and later deer for stag-shooting. 

As the industrial revolution took hold, railways and canals threaded the landscape. Coal replaced wood as a fuel in homes and industry, and coppicing and other traditional forms of woodland management fell into decline. The wild woods had long gone, but now even previously useful woodlands were undervalued and neglected. 

By the beginning of the 20th Century, under 5% of Britain and just 1.5% of Ireland was covered with trees. And things became even worse during the First World War. It was necessary to rely on local woods to provide the vast quantities of wood required. When the Second World War arrived, new timber plantations were not ready to meet demand, and yet more native woodland was lost. 

By 1980, just 3% of the land area of Great Britain was covered with woodland, scrub and obsolete coppice, and a further 6% with coniferous high forest. 

Since then, reforestation efforts have taken place, and there have been many successes. But we still have a long way to go. We may not be able to reclaim the wildwood, nor return things to how they once were. But we can make the British isles greener, lusher and more resilient. By protecting woodland and forest fragments, and rewilding, we can begin to reclaim at least a little of what has been lost. 

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