Root & Branch
Guessing the Age of the Woods
Many of the woods that were once pollarded or coppiced are extremely ancient. Trackways across the marshy areas of Somerset were built of poles that have been identified as coppiced alder, ash, holly and hazel dating from 2,500BC. Trees of many different kinds, with oak probably dominant, indicate old woodland. All the trees are native though sycamore may have been introduced at a much later date. Trees of one kind (such as oak or beech) growing close together with tall trunks, perhaps planted in rows, indicates high forest plantation more than 100 years old.
If the woodland is old it was once either coppiced or grazed. If the woods were grazed (ie. used as wood-pasture) the trees would have been pollarded, so look for old pollards and a lack of variety in ground plants as clues to old wood-pasture. Look to see if there is nothing but grass under the trees; this suggests that grazing continues. Wood-pasture is a dead tradition but some old northern coppice woods are now used for sheltering and grazing sheep.
Look for signs of previous coppicing: perhaps there are ‘many-trunked trees’ growing from the site of the old coppice stools. The main point is that a wood that was being coppiced 100 years ago is likely to be an old wood. The small-leaved lime tree is another good indicator, while the Midland hawthorn shows that the old coppiced area has never been anything but woodland.
When visiting a wood you should look for signs, particularly in the shapes of the trees, that tell of the history of the wood and what it has been used for in the past. Pollarding refers to trees that have been cut to produce successive crops of wood at a height of between 6-15 feet above the ground so that grazing animals cannot reach the young shoots. Pollarding is carried out on wood-pasture and hedgerows rather than on trees in the woods.
From an historical perspective, pollarding allowed livestock to graze the common land of the parish, which often included woodland. As a result, this type of wood-pasture developed its own appearance. It has a bare, grassy floor (for the animals destroyed the spring flowers and undergrowth) and the trees were well spaced out because the livestock also ate many of the new saplings. Supplies of poles could still be obtained by cropping the branches of the trees at head height and his became known as ‘pollarding’ from the word meaning head.
Old pollarded trees can still be seen today and although the technique has all but died out, it has been well documented since Anglo-Saxon times. Apart from wood-pasture, many old pollards can be found in hedges, in farmland as boundary markers, or along water-courses (pollarded willow or poplars).
The word coppice comes from the French word couper, meaning to cut. When young trees are cut back to the ground they quickly sprout a head of shoots which grow about six feet high in a year and then begin to thicken. The resulting tree is called a coppice.
After about seven to fifteen years the shoot of the coppice used to be cut to provide a supply of poles, staves and brushwood. Scattered throughout the coppices were the standard trees that had been allowed to grow unhindered until they reached an age of about 70-150 years when they were felled for timber.
The most obvious signs of past coppicing is the presence of many trunked trees growing on the site of old coppiced stumps. It was important in past times to keep livestock out since they would destroy the young shoots and so the wood was often surrounded by a ditch with a large bank inside, which was often fenced. The remains of the bank and ditch can still be seen in places.
Another clue to woods that were once coppiced is the abundance of spring flowers. The regular cutting of the coppices allowed plenty of light to reach the woodland floor, and this encouraged the growth of the plants. Woodland flowers are slow to spread and so their presence in large numbers is an excellent indication that the wood is ancient and was once coppiced.
Wild flowers provide the woods with some of their most attractive features. Because many have adapted naturally to flower before the leaves develop in the shrub and canopy layers, they are regarded as the harbingers of spring. No doubt to our primitive ancestors this re-awakening of the woodland contributed to the mystical significance of the many rites and rituals associated with spring.
An indication of an old wood is a rich variety of flowers, particularly if bluebells, snowdrops, wood anemones, primroses, yellow archangel and early purple orchids are present. Bluebells spread very slowly on heavy clay soils, so a carpet of them under trees could be the clue to old woodland. Dog’s mercury may seem to be a common woodland plant yet it is rarely found in recently planted woods – that is, woodland that has formed in the last 100 years – and so is also a good indicator of old woodland.
The presence of these particular flowers in a hedge bottom today are all good indicators that it originated as part of a wood since these species spread very slowly and do not readily colonise hedgerows.
It’s not just the woods that can be dated from the variety and number of different species. British hedgerows have their own history and this is also chronicled by certain tell-tale signs. Old hedgerows were probably originally planted to mark ancient boundaries to estate and parishes, for example. The majority, however, were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries to enclose patches of land in order to establish ownership or control livestock.
Hawthorn is the most common tree to be found in the hedgerow, although many include blackthorn and holly. Other species arrive as seeds – dog rose and ash soon appear while others like hazel and field maple are slow to colonise. A hedge planted as pure hawthorn slowly acquires additional species as it gets older and scientific studies of the species diversity of hedgerows in relation to their age (where this can be reasonably accurately dated from historical records) have shown that there is more or less a direct relationship between the number of species established in a hedge and its age.
As a general rule one new species colonises the hedge every 100 years, so that a two-species hedge could be 200 years old, and a ten-species hedge 1000 years old.
Root & Branch: British Magical Tree Lore – Melusine Draco ISBN: 9781786974471 : Paperback : Pages:158 : £6.85 To order: https://www.feedaread.com/books/Root-and-Branch-British-Magical-Tree-Lore-9781786974471.aspx
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