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What shaped Britain's forests?

1st Century AD

romans_bigMost of Britain was under the control of the Romans who, although they failed to completely occupy the land, reached as far north as central Scotland. They brought with them new building techniques and sophisticated weapons of war which would have been new uses for British timber. Forests then were mainly broadleaved in England and Wales with pines becoming more predominant in the north of Scotland, and the Romans would have had only a small impact on them.

By this time, however, the native population of Britain would have been about 5 million. Tree cover was rapidly diminishing due, mainly, to the use of wood for fuel and building and the clearance of forests by farmers rearing livestock or planting crops. As little as 25 or 30 per cent of the land may have been covered in trees and people were already turning to stone as a building material.

Legend has it that Pontius Pilate was born in Scotland – his father was a Roman envoy to the Celts – and that he may have, as a child, played underneath Europe’s oldest tree, the Fortingall Yew which can still be seen in a churchyard in Fortingall, near Aberfeldy in Perthshire.


By now Christianity had spread throughout Britain and this was the beginning of a great period of church building. The first version of Canterbury Cathedral was started in this year.

Even today, cathedrals such as those in Salisbury, Dunblane and Llandaff, in Cardiff are visually, and structurally, impressive. The use of timber, especially in the roofs, shows how much building techniques had advanced. Strong hardwoods such as oak would have been carefully selected for churchbuilding_bigboth strength and durability and the huge columns and high vaulted roofs show that mature trees with tall trunks and spreading crowns would have been used. Salisbury Cathedral alone is reckoned to have needed 26,000 tonnes of timber, mostly oak.

Given that builders would have used much bigger trees than we now have, it is estimated that Salisbury would have used all the oaks – at least 2,500 - from around 65 hectares of woodland (160 acres or nearly 90 football pitches).

Last updated: 11th July 2017