Just after the last Ice Age, huge swathes of Britain were clad in a green and rustling cloak. The wildwood reigned the land, so different from the patchy, fragmented of woodlands of today. They were huge, sprawling, ancient woods. Woods of towering oak and sky-brushing ash, festooned with wildflowers and toadstools, lined with tangled tunnels of ivy and thickets of brambles. Then and now, diverse plant life and wildflowers litter the forest floor, their common names bringing to the woodland a poetry of their own; honeysuckle, deadly nightshade, dogs‘ mercury, bluebell, foxglove.
Much myth and legend resides amongst the trees, and our folklore is intrinsically bound to the wildwoods of old. In the Mabinogion, the forest is the backdrop to otherworldly meetings, wild hunts and magical skin-changing. Taliesin’s Cad Goddeu tells of when magician Gwydion enchants the trees to fight as part of his army, calling on them to lend their various strengths to the battle. Robin Hood, Britain’s most celebrated outlaw, famously resided deep in Sherwood Forest with his band of Merry Men. In Celtic tradition, trees were considered sacred, the homes of nature spirits, and woodlands linked the Otherworld to ours.
From Neolithic agriculture to timber production for the First World War, humans have been steadily clearing the land of its tree cover for millennia. Britain’s forests are now fragmented and cover only 13% of our landscape. Only 2% of this is ancient woodland, which is defined by continuous woodland cover since 1600. Rare, irreplaceable and unique, the undisturbed soil and complex plant communities of ancient woodland is home to more species than other types of woodland.
Britain’s woodlands are steeped in history, and features such as medieval boundary lines, old sawpits and drovers’ roads quietly tell the tales of the past. The origin of the word ‘forest’ has its roots in Norman Britain, when William the Conqueror imposed Forest Law in England, restricting common folk in their land rights and reserving huge swathes of woodlands as royal hunting ground. Forest Law continued under various monarchs with varyingly gruesome punishments for crimes against ‘vert’ (vegetation) or ‘venison’ (game); clearing land or stealing game could cost you an eye, a hand or your life.
Wales escaped this extreme feudal law, yet its woodlands, along with the rest of the UK’s, have suffered colossal declines since the middle ages, particularly in the last century. Agricultural use, timber production, boundary creation and management have all contributed to the decline of the wildwood, until we are left with what we see today, small, fragmented patches of woodland, and loss of native species. Much deciduous woodland has been replaced with fast growing non-native conifer plantations, commercially favoured for efficient and economic timber harvest. However, the real cost such practise incurs is enormous.
Biodiversity drops significantly in conifer woodland, where monoculture pervades. Pine needles turn the soil acidic and the impenetrable canopy above quashes chances of life on the ground. The eerily silent, daylight-starved conifer forest floors are a far cry from the hustle and rustle of a sun-dappled broadleaf wood. Introduced trees simply do not support our wildlife effectively; the introduced larch tree is associated with 17 species of insects, whereas oak can house up to 284 individual species.
In recent decades, various programmes have worked to restore our native woodlands, and the percentage of land covered by broadleaf woodland is beginning to creep up. The impact of human industry and agriculture means that we can never replace our ancient woodland, it is not a matter of time passing, but the composition of the soil. We cannot turn back time, nor does rewilding intend to. It is more about doing what is best with what remains, to allow patches of land to progress the way that nature intended, with minimum input from us. It is vital that we protect our remaining ancient woodland, and continue to restore broadleaf woodland to the UK. It is home to many of Britain’s iconic animals: foxes, badgers and red squirrels, hedgehogs, dormice and weasels, cuckoos, woodpeckers and owls, butterflies, dragonflies and beetles. From the leafy ceiling of the forest canopy, to the flower-strewn forest floor, from a whippy young sapling to decaying standing deadwood, woods are a unique ecosystem, packed to the rafters with all the glorious diversity of British wildlife. In our corner of Wales, Cambrian Wildwood will contribute to its restoration by planting native trees, where possible with locally gathered seed, which can then naturally colonise. Natural processes will reign, allowing the wood to naturally unfurl, unfettered, returning the ancient spirit of the wildwood to the Cambrian Mountains.