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Ancient woods have been around for many centuries – long enough to develop as ecosystems that are rich, complex, and irreplaceable.
Any of the UK’s woodland habitats, with the exception of plantations, could be ancient woodland - woodland that has existed since 1600AD in England and Wales and 1750AD in Scotland. We use these dates to determine the ancient status of a woodland as maps from this period can be relied upon to confirm the presence of woodland with reasonable accuracy. Artificial planting was also uncommon before these points in time.
Ancient woods are our richest land-based habitat for wildlife. They are home to more threatened species than any other, and some may even be remnants of the original wildwood that covered the UK after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Yet today, ancient woodland covers only around 2% of the UK’s land area.
Because they have matured and slowly changed over such long timescales, ancient woods have unique and special features. Their soils remain relatively undisturbed by human activities, keeping layers laid down over centuries of falling leaves and providing a home for hidden communities of fungi, invertebrates and dormant seeds. A closely-knit network of plants and animals, some of which are rare and vulnerable, also depend on the stable conditions ancient woodland provides. These much treasured woodlands are also living history books, with features such as medieval boundary banks, charcoal hearths, and old coppice stools - clues that tell us how woodland was used and relied upon in centuries past.
Ancient woods are the perfect destination to take in those quintessential woodland sights, sounds and smells. Visit for spectacular displays of spring flowers, such as carpets of bluebells and bursts of wood anemones and celandines, and for the many types of fungi which provide an extra splash of colour in autumn. Wild garlic, dog’s mercury, yellow pimpernel, and certain grasses and sedges can also hint at a wood’s ancient past.
There are two types of ancient woodland
Ancient Semi-Natural Woods are woods that have 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 the recovery of ancient woodland wildlife.
Woods planted or growing up today will not become ancient woods as we know them 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 ancient woodland we have left, it will be gone forever. 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 our remaining fragments of ancient woodland together.
More woodland habitats
Find out more about the other types of woodland across the UK.