Ancient woodland

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Bluebells at Ashenbank Wood

Ancient woods have been around for many centuries – long enough to develop as ecosystems that are rich, complex, and irreplaceable.

Any of our woodland habitats except plantation could be ancient woodland. It is woodland that has existed since 1600AD is used (1750AD  in Scotland), as this is when good maps began to be available, and pre-dates the time when planting became common.

Some ancient woods may even link back to the original woodland that covered the UK around 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. Yet ancient woodland covers only around 2 per cent of the land area of the UK, and needs to be protected.

Because they have developed over such long timescales, ancient woods have unique features such as relatively undisturbed soils and communities of plants and animals that depend on the stable conditions ancient woodland provides, some of which are rare and vulnerable.  They are also living history books, with features such as mediaeval boundary banks, charcoal hearths, and old coppice stools,  that tell us how woodland was used in centuries past.

Ancient woods are a delight to visit. Some produce spectacular displays of spring flowers  - carpets of bluebells, bursts of wood anemones and celandines in spring. Abundant fungi can point to undisturbed soils. Other ancient woodland indicator species include wild garlic, dogs mercury, yellow pimpernel, and certain grasses and sedges which can be harder to spot.

There are two types of ancient woodland

Ancient semi-natural woods are woods that developed naturally. They may have existed since woodland first colonised the British Isles after the last glaciation, but in many cases they have grown up on land that was previously cleared, but many hundreds of years ago. Most ancient woods are not untouched by man – they may have been managed for timber and other products over centuries – but they have always had woodland cover.

Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites are ancient woods that were felled and planted with non-native trees, often conifers. Large areas of ancient woodland were replanted during the last century as part of the drive for the UK to become self-sufficient in timber after the world wars. The effects of felling, drainage and replanting, along with dense shade cast by closely planted conifers, threatens the survival of the fragile ancient woodland ecosystem. Careful, sensitive restoration can see the return of native species and recovery of the ancient woodland wildlife.

Woods planted or growing up today will not become ancient woods in 400 years’ time because the soils on which they have developed have been modified by modern agriculture or industry, and the fragmentation of natural habitats in today’s landscape hampers species' natural movements and interactions. Many species characteristic of ancient woodland are slow to disperse and do not colonise new areas easily.

Our remaining ancient woodland is therefore irreplaceable.

If we lose what little we have left then it is gone forever, so we need to ensure no more ancient woodland is lost. We also need to protect vulnerable ancient woodland wildlife by creating new woodland and other habitats around the remaining fragments of ancient woodland to shield them from the effects of neighbouring land use. And we need to create more spaces for wildlife in the wider landscape to link between the remaining fragments of ancient woodland.

More woodland habitats

Find out more about the other types of woodland across the UK.

Explore woodland habitats

The guide to British trees

Find out more about the native and non-native tree species across the UK.

Discover British trees