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How to identify ancient woodland

Discover whether your woodland is ancient based on an assessment of evidence such as old maps, local records and features within the wood.

How to identify ancient woodland

Ancient woods today are fragments of old landscapes. Due to their long evolution they contain a complex network of interdependent plants and other organisms: some of which only exist in woods of long standing, and are fairly tied to a location through poor and slow dispersal.

All of these woods have had a long interaction with man lasting centuries or even millennia. As such they often contain evidence of past human activity and a long associated biodiversity. Old maps, archaeological and cultural features, and the plants growing within can all shed light on a wood's past, giving us vital clues to its antiquity and clues about its former use.

You can discover whether your woodland is ancient or not through a variety of sources. Ancient woodland status should be based upon an assessment of the available evidence.

Ancient woodland inventories

The first attempt at identifying ancient woodland took place in the 1980s with the production of a series of draft inventories for England, Wales and Scotland, based upon the limited available historical mapping at the time. The Welsh inventory was subsequently updated in 2011 and a new inventory for Northern Ireland developed in 2006.
These inventories categorised ancient woodland into two main types, although the Scottish position varies.

Ancient semi natural woodland

The first type is woodland with largely remaining semi natural characteristics such as a native broadleaved canopy appearing on the oldest mapping evidence: the closest we have to our original natural woodland cover.

Plantation on ancient woodland sites

The second type is ancient woodland that has been planted with introduced non site native tree and shrub species and which we call 'plantations on ancient woodland sites' (PAWS).

In Scotland, due to the lack of reliable historical maps, further categories are recognised. Investigations show these sites often have important remnants of ancient woodland and a high biodiversity value.

Current inventories

Northern Ireland

The inventories are provisional and woods continue to be added as new information is gathered. Woods under the 2ha threshold were also not included in the original work.

They are a good starting point but if a wood is suspected to be ancient, other supporting evidence can also be considered such as their presence on old maps and the existence of ancient woodland features. These include remnant veteran trees, coppice stools, old pollards and species with an affinity with ancient woodland.

Old maps and documentary evidence

These can be a valuable source of information regarding ancient woodland. You can find archival information at your local records office.

They may show whether land was wooded or not. Things to look for on old maps include irregular shaped boundaries, unfenced boundaries and wood names. For instance, in England names containing 'hagg' or 'spring' are Norse and Saxon names for coppiced woods. In highland Scotland, woods with Gaelic names usually indicate pre 18th century origin as this was the common language banned after the 1745 rebellion.

Nineteenth century early editions of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps are excellent and in Scotland should be used alongside the inventory. The recommended map is First Edition OS 6” to the mile. You can view old maps for Scotland online at the National Library of Scotland.

In England and Wales, the First Edition OS County Series or Epoch 1 maps are recommended. The original Ordnance Surveyors drawings produced between 1780 and 1840 are available (south of Hull) from the British Library. Old maps are available from the Historical Map Archive.

Old estate maps if available can also be invaluable together with tithe maps (showing land use at the time of enclosure) which can often be found in county archives.

Ancient woodland features

The last part of the jigsaw are remnant features of ancient woodland which can be discovered through site survey.

Woods can have man made features that give clues about its cultural history. For instance, medieval woodbanks and other features of old deer parks are a good indicator, as are old coppice stools and pollarded trees.

Certain species of plants have a strong affinity for ancient woodland, and are often known as 'indicator species'. However, it should be remembered that many occur in other woodland, and the indicator list is different depending on geographical location. A good mix several indicators can be strong evidence.

Particular tree species like small leaved lime (Tilia cordata), juniper (Juniperus communis) and wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) are unlikely to ever have been planted and are so a good indication of ancient woodland.