Whither the Trees?

Several of you have commented on the lack of trees in the photos I’ve uploaded. We tend to assume that England, Scotland, and associated areas were covered in forests, like Nottingham Forest where Robin Hood hung out, or the “forest primeval” or “England’s green and pleasant land” of fields and leafy, shady woods. Loreena McKinnet’s “Mummer’s Dance,” Kipling’s “Tree Song,” other things give the impression that England and Scotland were well forested until, oh, the 1500s or so, when a wood crisis sent the Royal Navy to the New World looking for ship timbers. Oh, and the Industrial Revolution 1.0 started because of a fuel crisis. At the same time, greedy landlords cut down all the remaining trees, just like in the US after 1800. Except . . . well, yes and no.

If we roll back to the end of the last Ice Age – 15,000 to 12,000 years ago (southern England vs. northern Scotland), we’d find very few trees, more tundra and grassland. On, and the British Isles were still connected to what is now mainland Europe, and the ancestral Thames River flowed in a valley between them. As the ice retreated in fits and starts, then all at once, trees began moving back into many places that had lacked trees. The sea also moved in, and at one point, once Doggerland (now the English Channel) flooded, the Forth River and Tay River were sea lochs as far inland as Sterling.*

England and Scotland and Wales don’t have many Paleolithic sites. It appears that people came, then got chased out by advancing cold, then came back again. What sites have been found tend to be on what is now coastal Norfolk, and south in Sussex, Kent, and parts of Wales. It was hunting and gathering, with seemingly long periods of de-population between advances. Some of this might just be absence of evidence, but Scotland in particular was still inhospitable because of glaciers and ice-sheets. Any human habitation would have been on the margins, where migrating animals passed.

By the Mesolithic (9,000-4,500 BC/BCE) we start finding semi-permanent settlements of gathering hunters. These people are building structures and leaving more evidence for their presence. The tundra and taiga are shifting into temperate forest, first pines and cold-tolerant scrub, then slowly deciduious forests fill in the warmer areas before advancing north. We can tell because of changes in pollen core samples from places like Star Carr (major Mesolithic settlement) as well as actual finds of worked stone and in some cases, preserved wood, bone, and leather. People are using the woodlands, but are not clearing large areas yet. The “agricultural revolution” of the Neolithic has not yet arrived, but people are shaping the landscape to an extent already as they move inland, mine, and select trees they like.

One older argument for “there were trees until after Rome” came from archaeologists who didn’t think that a stone ax would do much damage, and would require too much effort to make forest-clearing probable. In the 1960s, experimental archaeology came onto the scene as people decided to actually “try it,” with “it” being a lot of different things. As it turns out, swidden field clearing works even in damp places like the British Isles. You cut down small trees, girdle the big ones, and then wait. Structures like “sea henge” and the wooden henges on Salsbury Plain also prove that people were indeed willing and able to cut down very large trees, or even root them up and invert them into ritual structures, despite not having steel axes and chainsaws.

The Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age are when the forest primeval gave way to the ax and firebrand in England and Scotland. Farming requires space, and wood. Lots, and lots of wood. If you can’t make it of leather or stone or bone, you need wood. Wood for houses, tools, fuel, boats, buckets, fences, trackways through wet areas on major routes of trade and/or worship (see the Sweet Track), religious images . . . The forest started to get thinned, then removed for arable (farm fields) and pasture. Warmer climate also helped chase the forests into the uplands, with elms in particular losing prominence in the pollen counts.

At the same time, people began practicing what we’d consider renewable forestry. They made living hedges (one of which seems to be 3000 years old!) that provided shelter, berries, and some types of small wood. They began to coppice and pollard trees, providing wood for tool and fuel use that constantly regrew. They made some use of coal, but not much yet. Customary rules about who could gather wood and when seem to have developed as well, but archaeologists and anthropologists (and environmental historians) are debating that as I type. The upshot was, by the time of the Romans, and especially by the AD 400s-900s CE, England and Scotland looked a lot like they do today – intermittent batches of woodland and trees, with pasture and fields between. The huge swaths of pines in Scotland are WWI-WWII era, and are a source of much debate, since they are bio-diversity deserts compared to mixed forests or properly managed pasture.

*You can’t really argue with the bones of stranded whales that are only 5-6K years old.


8 thoughts on “Whither the Trees?

  1. This was the reason for Oxford’s oak groves. They planted for replacement beams and trusses, after cutting trees for timber. They have another few centuries to mature before the replacements get needed, according to old calculations.

  2. This is a huge subject and really needs a book – probably several – if you want to get beneath the surface. Oliver Rackham’s “Woodlands” would be a quite good starting point. I’m not going to criticise your account – I actually agree with it – but will make some random comments which are in some way related to your posting, mostly in fact to your first paragraph where you talk about expectations. One point for your readers to remember in all this is that in the UK you are rarely looking at anything other than a manmade landscape.

    Perspectives differ, so though some of your photos were fairly treeless, they did not in general convey that impression to me. A lot of the hillsides in the distance were tree covered and there were also a lot of “non woodland” trees, standing alone in fields, in hedgerows, small copses, linear features following roads and streams, in fact a typical English (and lowland Scottish) landscape. What you do not generally find – outside some post WW1 conifer plantations – is the kind of thick and continuous woodlands you see when, for example, you fly over West Virginia.

    To me as an Englishman “England’s green and pleasant land” does not actually suggest woodlands. Yes, there will be trees in the picture but it’s mostly about green fields, rolling downland and wildflower covered meadows. The idea of the “Wild Wood” has a strong, almost mystical, attraction and has inspired, and will no doubt continue to inspire, many authors, but it’s more than a thousand of years since this was a reality (at least other than in the limited version presented in “The Wind in the Willows”).

    Also, the word “forest” can be highly misleading as historical references to named forests – and I think you meant Sherwood rather than Nottingham Forest, the latter is a football team – are almost always talking about hunting reserves, which strictly do not have to have any trees, and which would typically be a mixture of open woodland and grassland or heath.

    And a minor correction. An extensive definition of “Doggerland” might include the English Channel as a small southern promontory attached to a much larger North Sea Plain, but it is more normally taken to be the large island that occupied the area of the Dogger Banks and thus lies between England and Denmark.

    As I said, random comments, and I could continue forever as there are so many interesting subjects that you touched on, but I had better just shut up.

    • Thank you. I didn’t have my references, including Rackham, open when I sketched this out. You make excellent points and corrections. The “Doggerland” use might come from American vs. British and Continental sources. I have not read any British or Continental monographs on that yet [omits rants about university press pricing policies and the unwillingness of general publishers to include maps].

      American forest management has tended to ignore pre-European forest management, which created woodlands more akin to the English than what you see today. American Indians burned and cleared underbrush and cut trees selectively, although they hadn’t reached the level of coppicing yet. (That I know of.)

      • I have to admit that my knowledge of Doggerland comes from news reports and popular science articles and books rather than scholarly journals or monographs (as you note access to these can be very expensive, especially if you no longer have any kind of academic affiliation). It could be that I’m wrong and that UK academia includes the English Channel in this terrain, though I would still expect them to concentrate on the broad plains and uplands of what I’ve decided to call “North Sea Land”. Most of the popular works have concentrated on the Dogger Bank area, presumably because it is the source of the majority of the archaeological finds (and being shallower is easier to investigate and was the last to flood).

        I find your comments about American Indians of interest as I’ve read – no idea if it is true or not – that woodland on abandoned New England farms is much denser than when the Europeans arrived. Fire would, of course, clear the undergrowth and kill off saplings, giving much more open woodland, but I’m not sure about the effect of cutting down trees. Do that in deciduous woods in the UK and – beech apart – you just invent coppicing.

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