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The Wildwood: what was it like?

Ancient Britain is often described as having been being covered in forest. This gives the impression that it was dense woodland from end to end. Modern Britain has many diverse woodland habitats, but there are equally diverse open habitats, and there has been much discussion about where the species in these open habitats lived at the time of the wildwood. A common suggestion is that these habitats survived on coasts and mountaintops where exposure to extremes of weather restricted tree growth.

One problem is terminology. "Forest" is now usually used to mean dense woodland, but before the British landscape was enclosed into fields (mostly around 1700 AD) it usually meant land used for hunting. This did not necessarily have many (or any) trees, and was often also used as common grazing land for domestic stock.

My view is that the wildwood was much more open than we often think. Before humans had a large impact there were many more large animals in the British countryside. These included wild ox (aurochs), wild horse, giant deer (or Irish elk), bison, red deer, wild pig (wild "boar"), not to mention in earlier times elephant and rhinoceros. There were also predators such as lion, hyaena, wolf and brown bear. If the landscape had been dense woodland, it seems clear that with so many large herbivores it would not have remained so for long. When pastoral human cultures took over the landscape their domestic grazing animals would have had a similar effect, thus providing continuity, in some places, up to the present day.

I think that we are confused by the appearance of woodland in the modern, enclosed landscape. Nowadays, large wild grazing animals are extinct or rare, and domestic animals are fenced out of woodland. This means that woodland is able to become very dense, with a continuous canopy and a well-developed shrub layer. On the other hand, pasture is now mostly in fields where animals are confined at relatively high densities. We are therefore used to grazed habitats being completely open.

The New Forest in Hampshire shows what happens when large grazing animals are kept at near-natural densities in a lowland British context. The landscape is a mosaic of heathland, bog, grassland, scrub and woodland, grazed by cattle, ponies, deer and rabbits. It can be described accurately as wooded, because there are many trees, but it is just as well described as open. I think it is probably as near to the wildwood as anything surviving in lowland Britain.

If this view of the wildwood is true, it means that open habitats (whether now enclosed in fields or not) may have just as much continuity with the wildwood as surviving ancient woodland has. It does explain why our ancient open habitats are often so diverse, and contain so many highly adapted (and often non-coastal) species. It is also interesting that much of the diversity of modern woodland is associated with rides, coppice coups (cut areas) and glades.

Richard Collingridge

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