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Once upon a time in England - A history of England’s woodlands through the eyes of a forester


A brief look through history demonstrates that humans have always influenced the evolution of trees, flora and fauna. People have evolved with trees and the natural environment in England for many years and it is only in recent times that we have developed a disconnection with this process through the acceleration of climate change, global trade and movement, and the introduction of new pests and diseases.

2.6 million to 10,500 years ago:

Most of our native trees existed 2.6 million years ago. During the Ice Ages, ice swept back and forth over the landscape, scraping away the flora and fauna which would then recolonise. Humans further aided the movement of trees – as tree seeds were an important part of the diet, they moved with people. This probably accounts for trees being long established in areas that they could not have reached on their own after the last ice age.

10,500 years ago to 350 years ago:

The last ice mass retreated from England around 10,500 years ago and the original species native to the UK, such as birch and pine, migrated back. The English Channel formed 8500 years ago and restricted the natural movement of flora and fauna. However humans continued to move important food sources - tree seeds, acorns and hazelnuts – across the channel.

Before the advent of widespread agriculture 5000 years ago, most of the country was wooded. By the time the Romans arrived current levels of managed woodlands existed. They brought new species of trees with them, such as sweet chestnut, and the relationship between man and flora continued as a part of nature. Oak became established as the most dominant tree in our woodlands. It was well-used for firewood, iron smelting and the building of houses and warships. 

350 years ago to the present:

We are now well within the lifetime of a mature oak tree. Most of our woodlands by this time had been massively influenced by society’s demands on them. Many of our so-called relics of ancient woodland exist only in places where grazing livestock couldn’t reach.

The population of England 300 years ago was roughly 3 million people who lived mostly in rural environments. This changed with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of coal-powered factories.

By the start of the 20th century, motorcars and aeroplanes were in their infancy, but over the past 50 years global trade and travel has become part of everyday life, and England’s population has now increased to around 53 million people.

Along with climate change, the past 30 years has seen an unprecedented increase in the pests and diseases affecting our trees and forests. Whilst there is little doubt that this has happened on the back of a globalisation of the plant trade it was also predicted to increase with a changing climate.

People say that trees ‘have seen it all before’ and therefore must be resilient to the changing environment around them. However scientists say they believe the rate of climate change to be around 30 times quicker now, than it has been in the past. This time it’s man-made and whilst humans may be agile enough to adapt to the environment, it is probable that trees will need our help to do the same.

We know that to help our woodlands adapt and become resilient to the changing environment we need to plant more diverse forests, observe good biosecurity to limit the introduction and spread of pests and diseases, and protect our trees from damaging mammals.

So, we know what we need to do – and we need to act now!

Last updated: 11th April 2017