Keepers of Time - is it a National Wildland System for England?

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Ancient woodland


Open access in the public forest estate

Long term ecological change in British woodland

Ancient woodland in Planning Policy Statement 9

Forestry Statistics  Link updated to 2012 stats

Where is ancient woodland?

England's Forestry Strategy

Last updated 17 December 2012

Its often a false hope to invest too much faith in a new policy initiative, but the launch of a Government policy for England's ancient and native woodland could have been one of those breakthrough moments that changes the way we perceive and use our landscapes.

The publicity over the launch in 2005 talked of a phased removal of many thousands of non-native conifers and other non-native trees from England's ancient woodlands, allowing our native broad-leaf trees to regenerate and take their place. A simple improvement in the landscape, but the policy Keepers of Time (1) was more challenging than that because it addressed our historical attitude towards woodland, and it made the case for ancient and native woodland to be the keystone in maintaining biodiversity in our landscapes. To understand the real significance of this policy, we should first look at how our woodland cover has changed over the millennia.

Its estimated that tree cover in Britain in 3000BC was 85% of land area, the remainder was naturally unwooded mountain tops (perhaps 2.5% of our land area was above the tree-line) the bare cliffs (but not all are bare now, being refuges away fro sheep grazing for native dwarf tree species) open water, marsh and bog. Fragmentation of this woodland began with clearing by early farmers, and by 1086AD tree cover had fallen to 15%. It fell further to 5% by 1895, but rebounded to 11% in 1992. In spite of this rebound (due in some part to the creation of non-native conifer plantations) these figures mask a catastrophic loss of ancient, semi-natural woodland. Of the 10% or so of contemporary woodland coverage, over half is non-native conifer plantation. Less than 2% of England's land area is ancient, semi-natural woodland (ASNW). How important is this loss?

Ancient woodland

Ancient woodland is the term given to a site that has been continuously wooded since at least 1600. This date is chosen because woodland planting was uncommon before that date, and there was also very little mapping of woodland although some woodland can be traced back to medieval or earlier times. This does not mean to say that there has been no planting in the area of the ancient wood since 1600, or that it will contain mostly native species. However, the often old growth and stability of ancient, semi-natural woodland gives rise to an immensely important habitat, supporting a wide range of species rarely found elsewhere. Amongst these are the indicator plants of ancient woodland, such as wood anemone, yellow archangel and sweet woodruff, all of which resent disturbance and, like many woodland species, are poor colonisers of new ground.

About 40% of our ancient woodland coming into the 20th century was converted into conifer plantation. Fortunately, these plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) retain the ability to regenerate if the conifers are replaced with native trees because many of the important species survive or lie dormant in the site. Hence, a main thrust of the policy was in removing non-native conifers from these ancient woodland sites. In so doing, the area of ancient semi-natural woodland in England can be significantly increased (from 200,000 ha to 340,000 ha).

The same is not true for isolated, new native woodland (Other Semi-Natural Woodland - OSNW) that has been established on agricultural land over the last two centuries (about 210,000 ha). Sadly, agricultural use and the time-gap from when the land was last wooded, has meant that many woodland species have been driven out and the land will not easily regenerate into the richness of an ancient woodland site. It will regain much wildlife quality as the random excursions of the more mobile plant and animal species make contact and make it their home, but its enriched regeneration is only likely if there is ancient woodland nearby.

The importance of ancient and native woodland lies in the resilience it offers to our native species in the face of external threats from agricultural exploitation, pollution, and climate change, through acting as a reservoir which maintains these species and from which they can be spread and be renewed in new woodlands. In addition, woodland edges often have the greatest species diversity and can be supportive for many non-woodland species. It is these considerations that mark out this new policy. Government has put ancient woodland at the heart of policy on woodlands and forestry in England, setting out proposals for removing threats to ancient woodland and adopting a light touch in their future management after the removal of non-native trees. But the policy goes further than that, as it begins to give shape to the new approach of looking at ecology at a landscape scale

Our fragmented woodland

As the policy noted, woodland has often been managed in isolation of other habitats in the landscape. This is not what happens in nature as our wildlife sees and uses the landscape as a whole. The policy identified woodland as an integral component of the wider landscape and made a commitment to create new native woodland to extend, link or complement existing woodland and other habitats. This will reconnect the networks of woodland and other semi-natural habitats into ecologically functional landscapes, increasing the area of semi-natural habitat available to wildlife and mitigating the negative edge effects attributable to neighbouring agricultural land.

These edge effects arising from intensive land use were redressed in the policy by recognising the need to re-establish a fuzzier, more graded and natural transition between woodland perimeters and surrounding land uses, and by the use of buffers. This will be brought about by allowing scrub regeneration and by the planting of hedges and marginal trees with deep crowns.

The policy also recognised that our fragmented woodland has enforced a pattern of access to our countryside. We visit a wood for a walk, or choose a walk in open countryside, rarely having the opportunity to combine the two. As the new woodlands grow, access will be developed that views landscapes as a whole and through which we travel seamlessly between open and closed spaces.

The significance of publicly owned woodland

The policy was backed up by an initial two-year action plan and had a reasonable chance of success because a significant proportion of the ancient and native woodland resource is publicly owned. The Forestry Commission would thus act as the lead body on the policy, but it was interesting to see varied reaction there was amongst private, voluntary and other public sector woodland owners. The policy could be viewed in terms of providing an ecological and social direction for future landscapes, but there are elements of enterprise and employment in the policy, as would be expected from our historical use of woodland. These promote the production of renewable energy, hardwood timber and other products from existing woodland, and new opportunities for enterprise and employment that may arise from realising the policy. Importantly, the policy also set out to increase the recognition and use of the environmental services that native woodland can provide such as in flood mitigation.

It is perhaps no surprise that I very much welcomed this policy initiative as I found many of my views about woodland and landscape were echoed in the policy. I think it is significant that the Forestry Commission, a government agency that stewards a considerable quantity of publicly owned land, has a remit to maintain and extend the wild nature of our landscapes. One, almost bland, sentence in the Action Plan exemplified this:
Pursue opportunities for the public forest estate to act as a core and catalyst for landscape scale projects.

I ventured at the time that this new remit had a parallel to their role in the National Wilderness Preservation System given to the agencies that manage federally-owned land in America, such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service. It could have been that Keepers of Time was a policy initiative that, in all but name, established a National Wildland System for England. However, the Government's intention in 2011 to sell off England's Public Forest Estate has led to uncertainty and a slow death to any aspiration that this publicly-owned land holds a future for wildland (2).

Mark Fisher, 4th August 2005, updated 6th March 2012

(1) Keepers of Time: a statement of policy for England's ancient and native woodland
(2) England's Public Forest Estate - public ownership now and for future generations, Self-willed land February 2011


There were a number of announcements after the launch of Keepers of Time that have raised the importance of our native woodland, adding further support to my contention.

Open access woodland

The Forestry Commission announced on 16th August 2005 that they were voluntarily dedicating in perpetuity almost all their freehold estate in England for public open access for walkers. This creates a permanent right of access to 117,176 hectares of forest and woodland.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) gave a new right of access to mapped open country and registered common land. Section 16 of the Act gives freeholders and longlease holders the opportunity to voluntarily dedicate their land for public access, subject to the same rules as mapped access land. Many areas of England werermapped already, but full mapping for open access across England was in place by 31 October 2005.

British woodland survey

A few days earlier in August, 2005, English Nature issued a new report entitled Long term ecological change in British woodland (1971-2001). An ecological woodland survey has found that the number of plant species in 103 native woods across England, Wales, and Scotland had declined by more than a third since they were first surveyed in 1971. Fifteen species of tree and shrub also showed a decline in numbers, along with a general fall in tree seedlings, though holly was spreading in many woods.

The report recognised that there were a number of government policies and programs already in place to deal with the problems behind the decline, a key one being the new policy for ancient woodland in England - Keepers of Time (see above). Measures to address the decline are: management to reduce overshading; creating buffer strips around woods that will reduce the spread of nutrients into woodland from adjacent farmland and increase the habitat available for woodland species; reducing non-native trees; and controlling livestock grazing in woodland.

Planning and Ancient Woodland

On the same day as the dedication of the Forestry Commission estate for public access, a new planning policy statement for biodiversity was launched - Planning Policy Statement 9: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation. For the first time, this statement provides planning policies to protect valuable habitats such as ancient woodland when they are not already covered by local or national designations. In particular, the statement requires that local authorities should maintain up to date information on the environmental characteristics of their area, including identifying areas of ancient woodland and other important habitats that are not already designated.

Within months, English Nature (now Natural England) had drawn together Ancient woodland: guidance for local authorities. The guidance gave a definition of what is meant by ancient woodland (both ancient semi-natural stands and plantations on ancient woodland sites) and went on to discuss the importance of ancient woodland, especially in nature conservation terms, and English Nature's views on the need for its protection. It gave details of how ancient woodland is identified and some background to the ancient woodland inventories produced initially by the Nature Conservancy Council and its successor English Nature. The concept of ancient woodland indicators was covered and a comprehensive list of indicator species was given in an appendix.

Forestry Statistics

The Forestry Commission provides a compendium of statistical information about woodland, forestry and primary wood processing in the UK. The statistical information is broken down to give figures for England, Scotland, Wales and, for most topics, Northern Ireland. As well as statistics on forests as a source of timber, and on the use of timber by wood processing industries, the compendium covers woodland area and planting, employment, recreation, finances and prices.

The compendium has a breakdown of the amount of ancient woodland and semi-natural woodland in each home nation, and the proportion of woodland that is protected through a range of designations, such as NNR, SSSI, SAC and SPA.

The woodland coverage of the UK is 2,825,000ha, which is 11.8% of total land area. A fifth of that coverage is ancient woodland making about 2% of land cover. The ancient woodland is made up from 60% ASNW and 40% PAWS. Other semi-natural woodland (OSNW) arises from native woodland that has been planted in the last century on land that had lost its continuous tree cover. Added to the ASNW, the total of semi-natural woodland is 646,300ha or 23% of overall woodland coverage, or 2.7% of land cover.

A total of 207,100ha or 7% of woodland in the UK is covered by the four protected area designations. Of these protected woodland areas, about a sixth is covered by an NNR, which means that 0.1% of land cover in the UK has a significant protected forest area designation (a high proportion of NNR are publicly owned). The statistics do not reveal whether this is exclusively ancient woodland sites but, assuming it is, then only 9% of ASNW in the UK receives any significant protection. Applying the IUCN Management Categories to our protected forest areas, it is estimated that we may have 10,000ha of woodland in the UK that are in the highest categories of Ia and Ib. On this basis, only 3% of ANSW fall into this category, which takes it down to 0.04% of total land cover.

The Forestry Commission public landholdings include 58% of the ancient woodland area covered by PAWS in the UK, but only 3% of the area covered by ASNW. The landholdings also include 15% of the area covered by OSNW.

Where is ancient woodland?

The Woodland Trust provide a map of Britain showing areas of a high density of ancient woodland in their policy document Space for nature: Landscape-scale action for woodland biodiversity (

Individual ancient woodlands over 2ha in size can be located by using the Multi Agency Geographic Information for the Countryside website. Click on Interactive Map, select ancient woodland from the Habitat Inventories.

England's Forestry Strategy

In May 2006, DEFRA launched a consultation on a review of England's Forestry Strategy. In the background information supplied for the consultation, one of the documents contained an excellent summation of recent publications and a discussion about the creation of new wildwoods where natural ecological processes regain greater importance (see Section 5.3.3 Minimum-intervention forests and new wild woods in Review of Evidence for the Formulation of Forestry Policy in England). I responded to this consultation, and supported the conclusion in the Review that the scope for large-scale recreation of ‘wildwood’ landscapes that are dominated by natural processes should be investigated for their contribution to biodiversity, and the findings acted upon.

The consultation documents can be found at

My consultation response was received in time (, but I was dismayed to find that it was not included in the consultation. As usual, the DEFRA consultation response email address had failed on me, and so I sent it to the consultation co-ordinator who assured me that it would be passed on. The strategy was finally released in June 2007 (see and it is pretty underwhelming.

My thoughts on the Strategy for England Trees, Woods and Forests can be read here (