Wight Conservation - Woodland 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
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
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.
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
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.