Forests with no trees

Home| About the author | Have your say | Links | Site Map

Why do our maps mark forests that aren’t there?

Does it come down to what a forest means?

Does this forest system explain our ghostly forests of today?

When did the meaning of forest change from being a hunting ground to an area of woodland?

What effect did the forestry system have on our landscapes?

Only in Britain, with our historic record of woodland clearance, is it no surprise that we have forests today that have no trees. How so?

Large forest areas stand out in green on maps. The New Forest on the south coast; the Forest of Dean in the west; Thetford Forest in the east, Sherwood Forest in the Midlands; the closely spaced North York Moors forests of Broxa, Cropton, Dalby, Harwood Dale, Langdale, Pickering and Wykeham; Grizedale Forest in the Lake District; reaching up to the massive Kielder complex in Northumberland of Kershope, Newcastleton; Redesdale, Spadeadam, Tinnisburn and Wauchope Forests.

A move over into the Scottish Borders gives us Eskdalemuir and its Castle O’er and Crai Forests and, going west, the Galloway complex of Arecleoch, Bennan, Casphairn, Changue, Clatteringshaw, Corrideo, Fleet of Damcallon, Glen Trool, Kirroughtree and Penninghame Forests. These Borders forests are matched in size only by a few Forest Parks in the Highlands (Glen More, Tay).

I can’t tell you much about these forests except that they all contain trees, and lots of them. If however we look to the North Pennines, the King’s Forest of Geltsdale and the Gilderdale, Lune, Milburn and Stainmore Forests are all marked on the map, but they have no trees. The same goes for the Copeland, Ralfland, Skiddaw and Thornthwaite Forests in the Lake District.

Scotland is not immune from this phenomenon: the Applecross, Ben-damph, Fisherfield, Flowerdale, Glenshieldag, Kinlochlewe, Letterewe, Shieldaig, Srathnasheallag, and Torridon Forests in Wester Ross have no trees either.

A pattern emerges that these no-tree forests are located in upland areas, often in our National Parks (NP) and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or the National Scenic Areas (NSA) in Scotland. Thus the Forest of Bowland (AONB) has only the smallish Gisburn Forest to lend any trees to its name. The Peak District (NP) has the treeless Hope Forest; Dartmoor (NP) has the sparsely-treed landscape that is labelled Dartmoor Forest; there is no Exmoor Forest on Exmoor (NP); and there are almost no trees on Jura to make up the Jura Forest (NSA). And this high ground pattern of no-tree forests continues in the non-designated semi-uplands of the south Pennines with the treeless Forests of Pendle, Rossendale and Trawden.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that this treeless forest phenomenon is solely based in the uplands as the Charnwood and Needwood Forests of the National Forest (AONB) are treeless, as is the Clun Forest in the Shropshire AONB.

Why do our maps mark forests that aren’t there?

It is likely that all these ghostly forests were wooded areas some 8000 years ago. The post-glacial period saw a return of vegetation that eventually clothed most of Britain in woodland of some sort, and perhaps what is the southernmost part of Britain never completely lost its wooded coverage. Human impact on this woodland was probably slight since the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of that time relied on it for their food and shelter and were few in number.

In the following millennia, that extensive woodland coverage would diminish as the population of humans greatly expanded. A primary cause of the wholesale loss of woodland was the coming of agriculture 6000 years ago – woodland was cleared to make way for livestock and crops.

Titchmarsh dramatized this in his book and TV series of the British Isles as the first major man-made ecological disaster to befall upland Britain. In an upland area such as Dartmoor, the tree coverage stabilised the landscape against the greater exposure to wind and rainfall. When trees were cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washed soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Lowland woodland, perhaps lush by comparison, eventually went the same way, yielding to agriculture.

In a circular argument, others have proposed a change in climate either 4,500 or 2,500 years ago that led to the death of upland trees and a failure of their regeneration, thus indicating that the loss of tree coverage in the uplands was not solely due to human clearance. This would have presented a bonus to the burgeoning farming population in giving them land that did not need clearing, but how good would that land have been, compared to the lowlands that they had begun to exploit?

Whether the tree loss began 6,000, 4,500 or 2,500 years ago, and irrespective of whether it was climatic or human-induced, why are these ghostly upland forest areas still marked on maps today? Do they relate to that original but since lost woodland coverage – is there some racial memory that keeps them alive?

Does it come down to what a forest means?

We inherited the word forest after the Norman invasion in 1066. It didn’t mean woodland then as it was a term used to denote hunting grounds, foreshortened from the Latin forestis silva which literally translates to outside woodland, but its meaning was of a land separate from central administration or common law.

The Normans brought with them systems of regulation, with the forest system of Royal hunting grounds for wild deer having probably the most widespread significance for land use. In effect, it was a massive take-over as the Kings designated vast areas as Royal Forest even though they did not always own the land. They brought with them fallow deer to release into the wild and protected their hunting rights and ownership of wild deer through a Forest Law in 1217 that substituted common law in forest areas, and the various appointed forest officials and Forest Courts were kept busy administering fines to poachers and other transgressors. Of particular grievance within the system was a prohibition on landowners from fencing-off their farmland to keep deer out as they ranged freely across forest areas.

Land in the Royal Forest system did not necessarily have to consist of woodland for deer to thrive, and was more likely to be a mix of heathland and farmland with maybe some woodland that could provide cover for the deer. Thus Royal Forests were often to be found near the King’s palaces and the houses of his nobility rather than where any of the larger fragments of woodland remained. An estimate from the Domesday Book of 1086 is that woodland and wood pasture coverage was only 15% but that 25 Royal forests were already in place.

The Royal forest system was not devised solely for the recreational pleasure of the Royals and nobility, its more important purpose was to ensure a supply of deer and perhaps wild boar for celebrations and feasts, and for that game also to be used as gifts to gain authority and influence. Thus orders for so many deer were communicated, and would be harvested from forests across the land to be dispatched to London or wherever they were needed. In about half the forests, the Kings owned harvestable woodland, again the products meeting Royal needs or gifted as favour.

Within 150 years, there were anywhere between 80 and 150 forests, confusion arising between forests and chases, the latter sometimes denoting privately owned hunting grounds outside of the royal forest system. Whether forest or chase, it is likely that all the hunting grounds were delineated by physical features - for the Royal forests, there were mere (boundary) stones which were immovable boundary markers owned by the King.

Does this forest system explain our ghostly forests of today?

We certainly know that the forest system encompassed the uplands, with 39 or so of the moors in the Pennines and Lake District afforested, including Bowland and Rossendale. This was also the case for the uplands of the south in Dartmoor and Exmoor. And the Scots embraced the forest system as well, with the fourteenth century Forest of Ross explaining many of the ghostly forests on the map there today. (A recent project has indexed the hunting forests of England and Wales, and it lists many of the treeless forests that I identified from maps above – see the Oxford University website below.)

I can’t hope to convey the complex and sometimes contradictory history of the forest hunting system, how it seems to have given rise to the parkland system, and how it withered in the face of agricultural expansion and the Enclosure Acts (see further reading below). The forest system survived for many centuries because it was vital to the royals and nobles for deer hunting and for a system of patronage that bestowed richly endowed official posts, a chance to hunt legally in the forests, and gifts of venison (the trading of venison was not made legal until 1827). Forests and forest lordship were symbols of supreme privilege, and signs of the enormous value of forest patronage and the benefits that could be bestowed were evident well into the nineteenth century.

When did the meaning of forest change from being a hunting ground to an area of woodland?

It’s not easy to be certain, as the significance of woodland in forests varied by century and region. However, in the late eighteenth century, a Royal Commission investigating the condition of Crown woods and forests made recommendations for the development of timber production. Plantations of oak and pine followed over the next fifty years, and in 1851 the Deer Removal Act encapsulated the common grievance amongst landowners against wild deer, considering them to be a pest. By 1919, when the Forestry Commission was set up, we can be sure what everyone meant by a forest, as the Commission’s purpose was the buying up of cheap land for tree planting.

What effect did the forestry system have on our landscapes?

Ironically, the forest system was a throwback to the days of the hunter gatherers of a few thousand years before. Up until the Norman conquest, it is likely that agriculture had mostly superseded the taking of wild animals in Britain for basic subsistence. The development of the forest system brought with it a systematic return of wild game hunting, albeit only for the benefit of royalty, nobility and their acolytes.

Management of the forest system, geared as it was to producing game and timber for royalty and nobility, gave us lawns – areas of enclosed pasture within a forest to provide grazing and hay for deer – and groves – a collection of timber trees only. It also gave us parks, which at first were an enclosed area in a forest where deer were collected and trapped after entering over ‘leaps’ and thus were ‘parked’ for protection and maintenance. Later, parks became an enclosed area outside of the forest system in which the rights of hunting benefited its lordly owner, and whose successors in the seventeenth and later centuries employed grandiose landscaping schemes to embellish their park land.

You would have thought that management of landscapes for optimizing wild game populations would have brought a resurgence of wild landscapes, as they did in twentieth century America. Perhaps if deer and wild boar had not been so adaptable and had had so many years to get used to a predominance of open country, then we may have seen a return of woodland to many of the landscapes from which it had been lost. Instead, the forest system worked within the modified landscapes that it inherited from agriculture, and its legacy is not much more than some historic landscaped parklands and a few words carried on into our modern day language.

It is time to rid our maps of these treeless forests.

Mark Fisher, 6 September 2006

Langton, John (2006) Forests and Chases of England and Wales c. 1500 to c. 1850 – Towards a Multidisciplinary Survey, St Johns College, Oxford University
Muir, Richard (2005) Ancient trees living landscapes, Tempus ISBN 0-7524-3443-8
Rackham, Oliver (1994) The illustrated history of the countryside, Phoenix ISBN 1-85799-953-3
Titchmarsh, Alan (2004) British Isles – a natural history, BBC Books ISBN 0-563-52162-7
Quinion, Michael (1996) No Trees In The Forest? Chasing a changing sense