Ancient woodland has been around for so long it has developed special communities of plants and animals not found elsewhere. It’s an important habitat and in sore need of protection.

Bright green woods with open ground covered in yellow fallen leaves

Credit: Katherine Jaiteh / WTML

What is ancient woodland?

Ancient woods are areas of woodland that have persisted since 1600 in England and Wales, and 1750 in Scotland. This is when maps started to be reasonably accurate so we can tell that these areas have had tree cover for hundreds of years. They are relatively undisturbed by human development. As a result, they are unique and complex communities of plants, fungi, insects and other microorganisms.

Types of ancient woodland

Any native habitat could be ancient. Each ancient wood has developed with its local soils and environment and this impacts the wildlife present.

Just 2.4% of the UK is ancient woodland. Ancient woodlands can be classified into different categories. These include:

Ancient semi-natural woods which are woods that have developed naturally. Most have been used by humans – often managed for timber and other industries over the centuries – but they have had woodland cover for over 400 years.

Plantations on ancient woodland sites which are ancient woods that have been felled and replanted with non-native species. Typically, these are conifers, but it can also include broadleaved planting such as non-native beech, red oak, and sweet chestnut. Although damaged, they all still have the complex soil of ancient woodland, and all are considered to contain remnants of the woodland specialist species which occurred before. We are working to restore these sites to their former glory.

Why is ancient woodland special?

Lichen and moss covered branches at Abriachan

Credit: Paul Glendell / WTML

Truly unique

Ancient woods are our richest and most complex terrestrial habitat in the UK and they are home to more threatened species than any other. Centuries of undisturbed soils and accumulated decaying wood have created the perfect place for communities of fungi and invertebrates. Other specialist species of insects, birds and mammals rely on ancient woodlands.

Ancient woods also retain important archaeological features, often from past industry and management, and can also protect large features like earthworks from damage.

Bluebells in ancient woodland at Avon Valley Woods

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Why are ancient woods irreplaceable?

Ancient woods are irreplaceable. We can’t replace the complex biodiversity of ancient woods which has accumulated over hundreds of years. Many species that thrive in ancient woodland are slow to colonise new areas. All ancient woodlands are unique, and are distinctive of their locality.

Once what little we have left is gone, it’s gone for good.

How to spot ancient woodland

All ancient woodlands have been mapped, and each country in the UK maintains an ‘ancient woodland inventory’. These inventories provide details on which woods are considered to be ancient, as well as categorising which are ‘Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites’, for example. Ancient woods are varied, so different evidence can be required to identify them. We look for key species, known as ancient woodland indicators, which can give us clues to the age of a wood. Documentary evidence, such as map records, are very important, as well as looking out for historical features on the ground.

Ancient woodland indicators

Various species can be used to give an indication that a site has been continuously wooded for a considerable length of time. The most commonly used are known as ancient woodland indicator plants, and these are the most accessible way of using species to determine the ancient status of a wood. Lists of ancient woodland indicator plants vary in different parts of the UK, but they all share in common the fact that the more of these species found in a wood, the more likely it is to be ancient.

Some other groups of species are also very good ancient woodland indicators – these include lichens, insects (particularly those associated with decaying wood, known as ‘saproxylics’) and also molluscs (slugs and snails).

 

Ancient woodland indicator species

Historical features

Humans have relied on woods for fuel, food and shelter for centuries. We can still see signs of industry and management in woods which can help confirm their ancient status:

Tree management is visible in woods through coppiced and pollarded trees.

Coppiced trees have been cut back down to ground level resulting in the regrowth of many new stems. These stems would be let to grow for a few years then harvested for fuel.

Pollarding is the practice of cutting back upper branches of a tree for the growth of a dense head of branches. These long upright branches were ideal for fences, posts and construction.

Industry in woodland is more varied. Ancient woods house remains of charcoal production, mine pits, ore roasting hearths and furnaces, though they’re not immediately obvious. These industries were based in woods for their steady supply of wood fuel.

Boundaries in woodland often look like banks and ditches, sometimes with overgrown hedges and ancient boundary trees. These can be from old deer parks, livestock management or parish boundaries, and some even correspond with old maps.

Threats to ancient woodland

Our ancient woods are in desperate need of protection.

Once vast, they now cover just 2.4% of the UK. Around half of what remains has been felled and replanted with non-native conifers and even more is under threat of destruction or deterioration from development and wider impacts such as air pollution.

1,064
That's how many ancient woods are currently under threat.

How we are protecting ancient woodland

The Woodland Trust is at the forefront of restoring and protecting ancient woodland and campaigns to protect ancient woodland from direct and indirect harm. We have worked to get better protection for ancient woodland in public policy and fought to ensure that existing policy for the protection and restoration of ancient woodland is adhered to.

We also champion best practice and innovative techniques to restore ancient woodland. Today we work to safeguard the future of these wildlife havens on our own sites and through the advice and support we offer to landowners across the UK.

Through this work, we aim to restore planted ancient woodland, buffer existing sites and prevent further destruction. We’ve already saved 1,101 ancient woods.

In woodland, the long gnarly branches of an oak tree are backlit by the rising sun at dawn.

Help us restore precious ancient woodland

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rescue these remaining fragments of our natural heritage. But we can't do it without your help.

Support the ancient woodland restoration fund