Our relationship with ancient woodland
For centuries, humans have relied on woodland to provide fuel and shelter, for hunting, grazing livestock, and latterly for early industrial produce. Ancient woods are full of traces of this long association and are an open book to our past.
Banks and ditches may be found around woodland edges. These are signs of ancient parish boundaries, old deer parks, or used to keep animals out of valuable coppice woods. They are often marked by overgrown hedges and can have ancient trees that were used as boundary markers. They can often be identified on old maps.
Features associated with early woodland industry include charcoal hearths, where charcoal was produced in kilns, saw pits, white coal and potash kilns, and platforms used for processing and storage. There are many more if you know where to look.
Woods may also preserve archaeological features from earlier times, before the wood established. For example, Bronze or Iron Age earthworks, or evidence of old field systems can sometimes be found. Such remains might have been lost in the wider landscape, through ploughing or development, but within an ancient wood they may have lain undisturbed for centuries.
Traditional woodland management
Evidence from the old traditions of woodland management include coppice stools. Coppicing (cutting trees back to ground level) results in the regrowth of many straight new stems. After several years a coppiced tree would be harvested and the cycle repeated. This was the main economic value in many woodlands, rather than the big timber trees which were infrequently cut and were difficult to process. Coppicing maintains trees at a juvenile stage. A regularly coppiced tree will never die of old age so some coppice stools may reach immense ages.
Pollarding is a pruning practice which removes the upper branches of a tree promoting a dense head of foliage and branches. It has been common since medieval times and maintains trees at a predetermined height, often above the reach of browsing animals. Wood pollarding tends to produce upright poles, ideal for fences, posts and construction and the twigs and leaves were used as 'tree hay' for animals.
By chance, these management practices seem to have maintained some of the habitats that occurred in the original wildwood. Coppiced woods support stunning displays of spring flowers as well as fritillary butterflies, dormice and nightingales. Old pasture woodland plays host to ancient trees whose lives have been extended for many centuries by pollarding, supporting an extraordinary array of fungi, insects, mosses and lichens.
Woodland in the Age of Iron and Steel
Evidence of early iron industry is often found in ancient woodland. You might see the remains of charcoal hearths, minepits, ore roasting hearths and furnaces.
Minepits were dug in woodland on narrow steep sided valleys or gills enabling the extraction of ore deposits. The pits filled up with debris which became compacted, and today you will see evidence of small craters which may fill with water in the winter and dry out in the summer.
Charcoal was critical to the production of iron. Coppiced oak, alder and hornbeam were all used. Round charcoal clamps (kilns) were constructed, often on levelled ground. These level hearths are often the only evidence of charcoal production in woodlands. Hearths were between 4 to 5 metres in diameter. The main clue to a flattened area of woodland being a charcoal hearth is the almost black soil and sometimes small pieces of charcoal to be found under the leaf litter.
Within the small valleys in these areas, can also be found the remains of the early water powered forges that turned iron into implements like sickles and scythes. These small beginnings evolved into major industrial centres based around steel like Sheffield.