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History and ancient woodlands

Woodlands in antiquity

In days gone by, much of Scotland was covered in forest. Today only 1% of the land surface still has native woodland. Almost all of our remaining fragments of native woodland have, at some time, been modified by man's activities, and yet the profusion of flowering plants, mosses, lichens, fungi, and myriad animals (mostly insects and other invertebrates) make them one of Scotland's richest wildlife assets. National nature reserves external site managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, and other reserves under the care of voluntary conservation organisations like the Woodland Trust external site  and the RSPB external site provide public access to some of Scotland's most valuable native woodland.

After the retreat of the ice some 11000 years ago, Britain was colonised first by boreal species and later, as the climate improved, by more temperate vegetation. Birch was the first dominant tree, followed by hazel, pine and oak with woodland cover around five thousand years ago extending to Shetland and the Western Isles. Thereafter woodland cover began to decline, largely under the influence of early agriculture, and by the time of the invasion of Scotland by the Roman legions of Agricola in 82AD, at least half of the natural woodland had disappeared, especially in the south and east. Under the cooler wetter conditions that followed, much of the woodland was replaced by peatland, probably caused partly by climate and partly by human activities.

During the 17th and 18th centuries many of the remaining woods were heavily exploited for timber, charcoal and tan-bark, though this probably promoted their continued existence. By the 19th century interest in native woods was in decline and they were allowed to degenerate. By 1900 woodland covered less than 4% of Scotland's land area and was fragmented into many small and isolated blocks. This process of habitat loss and degradation led inexorably to the loss of species requiring larger unbroken blocks of native woodland - and especially of the larger mammals and predators.

The importance of a wood for biodiversity is closely related to its age. In Scotland, Ancient Woodland is defined as land that is currently wooded and has been continually wooded, at least since 1750 which is when the first maps to cover the whole country were produced external site . Ancient woodland is thus directly descended from the original woodland that developed after the retreat of the ice sheets in Britain 10,000 years ago. The wildlife communities, soils and structure of ancient woodlands have had the longest time to develop, and are therefore generally (but not invariably) richer than that of more recent woods - so we can use 'ancientness' as an indicator of woods which are likely to be of high value in relation to other aspects of the nature and landscapes.

The Military Survey of Scotland, compiled by General Roy around 1750, has allowed us to verify the continuity of woodland cover back to that time across the whole of Scotland. Major changes in land-use in Scotland occurred after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 with consequences for woodland extent and distribution, including the clearances, the switch from a cattle-based to a sheep-based economy and the rapid increase in commercial plantations, which had only occurred on a small scale until the work of the 'Planting Dukes' of Atholl around 1740.

The cartographically excellent Ordnance Survey 6" First Edition maps were produced in the mid-19th century. Much more woodland is shown on these maps than on the Roy maps, partly owing to the number of plantations established during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and partly because of the increase in what appears to be semi-natural woodland. This latter is a result both of lapses on the part of the 'Roy' surveyors, and of genuine increases in cover as a result of changes in such factors as the level of grazing pressure. Such was the level of detail recorded by the Ordnance Survey, including information on species composition and canopy openness, it has allowed us to infer the character and management history of the woodland (whether plantation, closed canopy, wood pasture etc).

Both the Roy maps and the Ordnance Survey 1st Edition maps can be viewed on line external site . The Nature Conservancy Council compiled the Inventories of Ancient, Long-established and Semi-natural Woodland. A more sophisticated classification was developed for woodlands in Scotland due to the nature of the available historical sources. The inventories were first published in 1987 and have been widely used for woodland management, local planning and strategic policy development. Digital versions of the Inventories for Scotland can be downloaded by following the links on Scottish Natural Heritage's website. An Information and Advisory Note about the Ancient Woodland Inventories and A guide to understanding the Scottish Ancient Woodland Inventory (AWI)  PDF document  is also available. Scotland's remaining semi-natural woods are some of the most evocative symbols of a past that often seems long gone. Our woods have seen considerable human influence - the history of plantation for example, goes back many hundreds of years and can result in woods that are just as interesting as their more natural relations.

Scotland's remaining semi-natural woods are some of the most evocative symbols of a past that often seems long gone. Our woods have seen considerable human influence - the history of plantation for example, goes back many hundreds of years and can result in woods that are just as interesting as their more natural relations. But every wood has a history of its own, encompassing the trees themselves, the ecosystems in which they are situated and the human population which used and managed it. 

Almost all woods in Scotland have been influenced or used by people over the last 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice-age. Traces of all these actions can be viewed in the surviving woodland, revealing fascinating insights to the woodland's history, and are important for understanding the present woodland composition. No single tree is as old as the impact of mankind on the countryside and even refugia, such as gorge woodlands, have been affected by grazing animals and other restrictions on woodland development and expansion. The Forestry Commission Scotland and RCAHMS have a joint site external site which will help you find out more about the history of your local woods, and local events exploring woodland history. Further information on woodland history can be found through the Forestry Commission's own site external site

A defining feature of Scotland's woodlands has been the long decrease in woodland cover to the nadir of the World Wars last century. At the beginning of the 20th century, woodland management was at a low ebb in Scotland. For the woodlands as in much else, the First World War changed everything. Lloyd George said in 1919 that Britain "had more nearly lost the war for want of timber than of anything else". The date of that quote is significant - in 1919 the Forestry Commission was created with the primary aim of preventing such a strategic weakness from arising again. Follow the link to find out more about the Forestry Commission Scotland's policies and work. external site

It was in this context that the Forestry Commission in Scotland set to work for the next 40 years, creating a home timber supply. Since the 1940s the area of woods and forests in Scotland has increased from perhaps 4% of total land area to a current figure of some 17.8% mainly as a result of large scale afforestation. This rapid expansion has carried some well-publicised negative effects, but since the mid 1980s there has been considerable improvement in the sensitivity with which new forests have been established, with the thrust of expansion towards a much broader set of objectives, including landscape, biodiversity, recreation, rural development and community involvement. The result has been a dramatic swing away from the establishment of plantations primarily to produce timber to the creation of more diverse tree cover which can provide multiple benefits.

The proportion of native species being established has increased rapidly over the last decade. Even so, many native woods remain small and isolated, which limits their ability to support characteristic woodland biodiversity or produce other benefits such as timber. Their long term value for both biological conservation and rural development depends on them becoming more ecologically robust. To a large extent this can be achieved by increasing the size of individual woods and by ensuring that they are better connected across the landscape, creating networks of forest habitats.

Last updated on Monday 6th March 2017 at 16:07 PM. Click here to comment on this page