The landscape we see today is the product of thousands of years of interaction between humans and their environment. One of the greatest changes has been the transition from a largely wooded landscape to an open one of fields and moors. Currently, only around 13% of the UK is covered by trees, ranging from 19% in Scotland to 8% in Northern Ireland, however thousands of years ago the the level of tree cover would have been much higher.
Following the retreat of the last major ice sheets around 10,000 years ago, the tundra landscape of Great Britain and Ireland started to be colonised by the first trees, including juniper and willow. The height of forestation of Great Britain and Ireland is likely to have occurred by 5,000 to 6,000 years ago where trees would have grown wherever possible, though the exact extent of coverage would have been complicated by the presence of humans.
Woodland clearance likely began in the Mesolithic (circa 9,000 to circa 4,300 BC) when hunter gatherers would have made clearings to attract grazing animals for the hunt and make way for their temporary camps. These small areas of managed wood would have also provided material for the production of wood products.
The first large-scale clearance probably first took place during the Neolithic (circa 4000 to circa 2,500 BCE) as agricultural practices spread and intensified. During this period it was learnt that wood from a regrown stump was of more use than the timber from the original tree and so the practice of management by coppicing began.
The clearing of the forests increased in the Bronze Age (2,500BCE – 800BCE) with clearance taking place in higher elevations. The great majority of the woods still remained up to this time period.
With the arrival Iron Age and the development of more advanced and durable equipment clearances of the “wildwood” increased to allow for the cultivation of additional land and grazing needed for a growing population. During this period there were different methods used to clear the forests; felling, burning and grazing animals. These processes went on for hundreds of years and allowed the population to increase the arable land and the fields which they farmed.
Coppiced woodlands were used as sources of timber for their buildings, fences, roads, carts heating and cooking. They developed their woodworking skills to a fine art, which is in evidence in the remains of the houses, wheels, boats and other artifacts discovered.
And so by the time the Romans arrived the landscape had already been possessed by the local population and the field systems they created in the clearance of the forests have remained can still be seen today in the landscape.
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