Victoria Franklin – Conservation Graduate Trainee
Thanks to archaeologists and historians we know a lot about the people who lived and worked in the historic landscape, but less about the shape and ecology of the landscape. There have been a lot of theories by ecologists such as Frans Vera and George Peterken, who suggest that the landscape was fluid with more wood pasture rather than the closed canopy dense woodlands we’re more familiar with today.
Historic woodlands were a hub of life, providing fodder for livestock and materials for villagers, farmers, tanners, blacksmiths, carpenters, broom whittlers and charcoal makers. Trees were even a source for medicine, for example the bark of Pedunculate Oak Quercus robur was used as an antiseptic and Ash Fraxinus excelsior was steeped into tea and used to aid kidney problems. This eco-cultural hub seems a far cry from how we see woods today, often used as a place of tranquillity, for bird watching or to seek refuge from everyday life.
Over the past year I’ve been researching ‘Shadow Woods’ – areas where there was woodland in the past that is no longer there. These, now shadows of a former landscape, can be identified in a number of ways. As a starting point for the search, the Doomsday Book and historic Tithe and Enclosure maps can give an indication of how the landscape once looked. Researching old place and field names such as ‘Hagg’ meaning an area where trees were felled or ‘Hollin’ historically a word for Holly or browse, also give clues as to the location of previously wooded areas.
With permission from land managers, we followed up on potential sites by surveying for any ancient woodland indicator species, ground flora that has colonised over generations and gives an indication that the area has been continually wooded for a considerable length of time. These species will change from woodland to woodland and throughout the country, but include Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum, Ramsons Allium ursinum, Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella, Early purple orchids Orchis mascula, Primroses Primula vulgaris and Climbing corydalis Ceratocapnos claviculata. These plants continue to flower long after the surrounding woodland has gone. The residual flora and soils in these spaces are irreplaceable.
Any remaining veteran and ancient trees were surveyed for signs of being worked, which gives another glimpse into the past history of the wood. Coppiced trees such as willow were cut at the base when they are relatively young and the wood was used to make fences and shelters. Pollarded trees were cut just above the trunk to provide timber and fodder for animals leaving the tree alive to produce more wood in future years. An historically pollarded tree can be identified by having multiple branches.
Ancient and Veteran trees are home to a whole host of deadwood beetles, fungi, lichen mosses and plants that cannot live anywhere else. These trees, botanical indicators and the soil of ancient and shadow woods are irreplaceable micro-habitats that have taken generations to create, once lost they will be gone forever.
The Shadow Wood sites surveyed within the North York Moors National Park were all in upland locations, many in remoter areas with little human disturbance since they were worked woodlands. The majority of these sites have been classed as grassland or as scattered parkland with a small amount of ancient or veteran trees. This classification strengthens the idea that the historic landscape was often open wood pasture rather than closed canopy woodlands.
The hope is that identified sites can be targeted for woodland creation in the North York Moors National Park, therefore continuing and restoring life in these magical habitats, that are not only home to some amazing species and important trees but are a little bit of folklore too.
The Shadow Woods project within the North York Moors National Park has only been possible due to the dedicated work of Professor Ian Rotherham. His book Shadow Woods: a search for lost landscapes and publication Shadow Woods and Ghosts Survey Guide by C. Handley and I. D. Rotherham have provided invaluable research into these almost lost landscapes.