Wight Conservation - Woodland History

Prehistoric History

When the glacial age retreated, the space left was taken up by trees. Within a short time, lowland Britain was completely covered by wild woodland, or Wildwood. It grew wild, regenerated itself and suffered no intervention until the natural evolution of browsing animals and, later, man. Wildwood had a basic cycle: as it matured, its thick canopy shaded the forest floor, cutting out the sunlight to the under storey and ground cover, leaving it relatively bare. If through wind or age a tree fell, it left a small glade, allowing its seeds to naturally regenerate and for ground vegetation to develop. As the saplings emerged, they were protected from the weather and browsing animals by bramble and scrub. In time, the saplings would outgrow the need for this protection; they shaded out the ground cover, became the woodland under storey, and then developed into mature trees. The cycle would then begin again.

Manís early use of forests

The ancestors of our horses, cattle, sheep and deer, would roam through the forests, seeking the best grazing and browsing, and in turn creating glades. Primitive man, dependent upon animals for food, would move after them, using the ground cover to stalk his prey and then the clearings where he would use his slings or spears. Man then only had flint axes. It was not until the Bronze and Iron Ages that he could fashion the required tools enabling him to start seriously clearing the forest.

Bronze Age - Clearing for open spaces

He then began domesticating cattle, sheep and horses, for which he needed space for grazing and growing winter forage. Hence the first formal forest clearings and farmsteads As the population grew, so did the need for clearing more woodlands.

The Islandís early settlements

On the Island, trees found it hardest to flourish on the chalk hills, now downland. With the free-draining hard chalk, it was difficult to spread deep roots The trees were constantly buffeted by the winds and, on the Island, by salt spray. Man found it easier therefore to clear the timber from these areas than on the more productive soils. The burial mounds and field systems bear witness to manís early habitation.

The woodland on the heavy clays in the north of the Island developed better and was not so easy to fell. The heavy un-drained land made it difficult to till and graze. Consequently, the larger woodlands were found in North Wight, a feature which remains present today.

Roman and Medieval

Sophisticated in farming advanced more quickly than we used to suppose. By Roman Times there was already a developed farming system leaving the countryside a mosaic of woodlands, open fields, farmsteads and small villages.

The Domesday Book in 1066 gave the first official recording of woodland cover and open farmland. On the Island, it does not record any woodland cover around Brighstone, but lists the existing Wroxall Copse.

To the farmer, woodland was then as valuable as his other land. Timber was a basic commodity. A constant supply of wood was needed for building, fencing, farming implements and, in wet areas, for road building. Iron works required wood for charcoal. As the towns and cities grew, more wood was required for timber framed houses and wattle walls. With the development of trade and the Navy, yet more wood was needed for ship building.


Consequently, all woods were worked hard. Hazel was regularly coppiced every 4 Ė 8 years for hurdles, wattle walls, and thatching spars and other species at about 18 years for poles. Most oaks were felled when about only 9Ē in diameter for timber. Bigger trees would have been too heavy for easy handling or transport.

The idea of woodlands full of large mature trees dominating the countryside is a myth. They were a rarity, to be found mostly in hedgerows, parks or used as strategic marking points.


Wood-pastures, - woods through which grazing and browsing livestock roamed freely - made economic sense. The same land could be used for several purposes, - grazing and timber requirements. Two of Wight Conservationís six woodlands were originally wood-pasture - Wroxall Copse and Rowborough.


Pollarding in wood-pasture evolved. It is basically like coppicing. When a tree is well clear of the ground, - the principal limbs are removed, allowing multiple re-growth stems around them. Hence, grazing animals could move around freely under them, without damaging the trees, yet enjoy their shelter. The higher, regular re-growth was used for leaves, twigs, bark for animal fodder or tanning, and the wood for fuel and charcoal.

Ancient Woodland

As pressure grew on timber resources from population growth, ship building and tanning, so woodland cover became endangered. Formal new plantations or replanting came into vogue and was common place around the 1600ís. Ancient Woodland is a term used for woodland sites which existed prior to the 1600. Few existing trees in ancient woods stood then and therefore the term relates to where such land has been continuously used for either natural regeneration or  replanting, even though in between times the wood has probably been repeatedly felled and regrown.

Ancient Woodlands are important not only for their long history, but also for their long established native under storey and ground flora. They are identified by their flora, - species which existed prior to 1600 and which by their nature are slow to spread into other areas. Known as Ancient Woodland indicators, the more different species to be found, the greater ecological value of an individual woodland.

Since 1600, most Ancient Woodlands have become incorporated into new plantings, many within the last 100 years, but this does not necessarily detract from their biodiversity value. They are referred to as Semi Ancient Natural Woodlands.

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