The Wildwood - the lost forest of the UK - Sarah Woodbury

The Wildwood — the lost forest of the UK

Imagine all of the UK covered in a thickly wooded landscape, much like portions of the western United States. 

I just spent the last 1/2 an hour looking up native plants in Wales, trying to come up with a couple that would have reliably flourished in Gwynedd in the 13th century.  My sister-in-law is a botanist, and she agreed that agrimony and juniper would good choices.  What has been difficult to determine, as with the Roman and ancient roads, is what the landscape looked like in the Middle Ages.  England was mostly denuded of trees by then, but it is possible that wasn’t the case in Wales.  So when we see these broad lanscapes in the uplands with no trees, was that what they looked like eight hundred years ago?  How do we find that out?

According to scientists, only 1% of The Wildwood, the vast expanse of forest that once covered Britain, remains today.  “‘The Wildwood’ is the scholarly though dramatic name introduced by Oliver Rackham, author of the History Of The Countryside, and today used by historical geographers to refer to Britain’s dominant type of landscape when there were as yet no separate, named (and soon to be ‘managed’) pockets of ‘greenwood’ like Robin Hood’s refuge, Sherwood Forest. There was only one great uncultivated, completely wild mass of trees and bushes, stretching almost from coast to coast, which was, in a famous historian’s remark, enveloped in a silence broken only by the singing of innumerable birds.”

“By the time the Romans disembarked on these shores, their predecessors had cleared perhaps half of the forest and many of the hills and Downs were as bare as they are now.”

Most of the forests in Wales have been planted within the last century, but given that the trees grow, it’s possible that at one time, the forests grew across the entire region where there is now only moorland.  The question remains, when were they cut down?  Gerald of Wales makes two comments:  “It is a country very strongly defended by high mountains, deep valleys, extensive woods, rivers, and marshes;” and  “North Wales is better defended by nature, is more productive of men distinguished for bodily strength, and more fertile in the nature of its soil; for, as the mountains of Eryri (Snowdon) could supply pasturage for all the herds of cattle in Wales, if collected together . . .”

Edward I, in his conquest of Wales, had teams of hired laborers and soldiers clear a path for him across Wales so that he could not be ambushed from the trees by archers.

A similar practice occurred in Scotland:  “The Wildwood was deliberately broken up and burnt off also to get rid of outlaws and wolves. The very last known British wolf was killed in Scotland in 1745, about the time of Culloden. All forest cover has disappeared from vast areas due to clearance projects done for one reason or another, as in the Highland Clearances, in which the woods were first burnt off to drive out wolf and outlaw alike, the land unable to return to forest because of the Great Cheviot Sheep and later the deer herds kept for stag-shooting.”

This has prompted the Carrifan project, begun because of a 6000 year old yew bow found in a bog.  It’s discovery prompted a quest to determine the biodiversity of the area in the past.   The mission now is to:  “re-create in the Southern Uplands of Scotland an extensive tract of mainly forested wilderness, with most of the rich diversity of native species present in the area before human activities became dominant.”



2 Replies to “The Wildwood — the lost forest of the UK”

  1. What was also interesting was how many other ‘travel writers’, Daniel Defoe among them, wrote so derogatorily about Wales. The prejudice is startling.

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