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A History of Wood Pasture and Parkland

The distant past

What did Britain look like before hunter gatherers settled down to become farmers? The evidence we have points to an original landscape which was similar to wood pasture, with open grass, patches of scrub, individual trees and some stands of closed canopy trees.

As people started to settle and farm the open grassland, the different elements of wood pasture developed into the distinct habitats we know today – grassland or heathland, woodland or wood pasture.  

Through maps and other historical documents, we can sometimes reach as far back in time as the Anglo Saxon chronicles to trace the origins of today’s important wood pastures and parklands including Sherwood Forest, Windsor Great Park and the New Forest.

As people became more settled

Wood pasture systems have been part of human life since pre-history. 

In Roman and later Anglo Saxon times the least ‘civilised’ parts of the landscape were the richest in the ‘beasts of the chase’; wild deer and boar especially. These great tracts of unoccupied wood pasture after the Norman Conquest were owned by the King and became subject to Forest Law , which strictly controlled the venis in other words the wild deer, and the vert, the holly and ivy which were important sources of food for the animals in long hard winters.

Through all of this, the wildlife value of the old open grown trees has remained high. No matter how we use them in the future, we must ensure that we keep their underpinning of biodiversity for future generations.

After King John the size of Royal Forests shrank and these wild lands were tamed into farmland or common land. However the best remnants for deer were enclosed as medieval deer parks. Deer were an icon of status for the wealthy and powerful. In the late 17th Century and early 18th Century,  landscape designers such as ‘Capability’ Brown and Repton loved the natural appearance of these deer parks and celebrated the open crown trees as a key feature. They planted the very latest fashions in New World plants and trees and many of these still survive as veteran trees providing habitat for other species.

The best collections of ancient trees surviving today are found in Royal Forests such as Sherwood Windsor and Savernake.  And the New Forest with its long continuity of commoning is perhaps one of the largest and best examples of wood pasture left in the UK.

Back to the Future

The historic value of wood pastures and parkland its productivity or its status. Over time they have become increasingly remarkable for their heritage and biodiversity value. Many parklands are now used as attractive venues for large scale events in return for income for the owners.

Many agriculturalists are starting to consider how they can integrate trees and shrubs in their farming systems; trees with grazing animals, trees alongside cultivated areas or trees alongside orchards.

There is no doubt that tree’d landscapes provide multiple benefits.  At the same time, they are attractive and allow food production. There will be new opportunities to promote these habitats because of their great attraction for people as places of recreation.

This historic and sustainable style of land management, productive without modern man-made inputs is seeing a resurgence. Only now are we beginning to understand wood pasture and parkland as a habitat in its own right. It has had an exciting, rich and varied history and its role in people’s lives has changed over the centuries from providing food and firewood for common folk to hunting grounds for nobility, it has been a status symbol and an exhibition of landscape design.

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