The end of the eighth century brought the Vikings to Britain; among the first recorded raids were in Wessex (787) and on the Holy Isle in Northumbria (793).
It was probably myth that the Vikings laid waste to forests – they valued wood too much to do that and were prolific and accomplished carpenters. What is certain is that they used the most valuable timber around to construct new longships, raiding native woodlands, including the oakwoods, of the western coast. Only the best trees would have been selected and the poorer quality trees would have been left. They would also have "nailed" longship planks together with nails made from yew.
This was the year of the Norman Conquest of England, the start of the Domesday Book and the beginning of an age of castle building. The Domesday Book, when it was completed in 1086, showed that forest cover in England had dropped to 15 per cent (there were no records for Scotland or Wales but it is thought they would have had slightly more cover).
Some of the castles started at this time still stand today, among the finest examples being Caernarfon, Stirling and Windsor. St George’s Chapel at Windsor and Stirling’s Great Hall are classic examples of the building and woodworking skills of that time.
It was William the Conqueror who first declared an area in southern England Nova Foresta (the New Forest) and made it a Royal Hunting Forest.
The royal connection is also evident in Wales. While the current Prince of Wales was invested at Caernarfon, according to 12th century legend, a previous Prince of Wales – Llywelyn ap Iorweth slew his faithful dog, Gelert, mistakingly believing the dog had killed his baby son. To this day there is a memorial in the village of Beddgelert (Gelert’s grave), nestled in the forests where the Prince once hunted.
By now, King John was ruler. It was he who signed the Magna Carta, a part of which was a list of land ownership and rights, including forests. The document was signed under the Ankerwyke yew at Runnymede, and the tree is still there and alive.
The population of Britain at this time is thought still to have been around 5 million, but by now, much of what we see as a present-day rural landscape was thought to have become established.