Ancient woodlands are those that have been in existence for at least 400 years and some may be the surviving relics of the natural prehistoric forest that once covered the area – a span of some 8,000 years.
Even those woods which are just hundreds of years old have survived from a time when the landscape was far less intensively managed. Many plants – herb-paris or yellow archangel, for example – are rarely found outside ancient woods because they cannot spread across ‘hostile’ ground such as modern-day farmland.
Ancient woods therefore have a special value, because they may be as near to natural as woodland can be in this country. Ancient woods may also be one of the few places in today’s countryside where soils remain undisturbed by man.
However, this does not mean that these woods are entirely natural. It is likely that all woodland has been managed in some way in the past, and even ancient woods are a living record of centuries of interaction between men and trees. Valuable timber and a huge range of products from the underwood, or coppice, provided our ancestors with a reason to keep these areas wooded. Others may have survived by chance, on ground that was not worth clearing for agriculture. Most are now valued landscape features in the National Park.
About half of our ancient woods are made up of trees which are native to the site – the so called ‘ancient semi-natural woodlands’. These have usually regenerated by regrowth from cut stumps after coppicing, or by the natural regeneration of native trees on the site. They are often considered to be the most valuable for biodiversity.
Other woods may have been felled and replanted with more productive timber trees from abroad, and this has had a major impact on the ecology of the woods. However, policies have changed and the emphasis is now on restoring the original native woodland interest wherever possible.