The Historic Woodlands of Devon
Ancient woodlands have always been an important part of the historic landscape in Devon. Much of the County (including Dartmoor) was covered by primeval forests after the Ice Age, where Mesolithic hunter-gatherers created small glades to attract deer and boar.
Several of these ancient woodlands have been preserved by rising sea levels as ‘submerged forest’ archaeological sites on Devon beaches for example at Westward Ho!, Thurlestone and Sidmouth.
By the Roman period, prehistoric farmers had largely cleared the ‘wildwood’ and remaining woodlands in some areas, such as the Blackdown Hills, may have been felled for charcoal – an important fuel for Iron-working which appears to have been a widespread local industry.
By the medieval period woodlands were seen as valuable assets, but small areas of woodland clearance for agriculture (assarting) continued to decrease their number.
Woodlands were often surrounded or internally divided by wood banks and sustainable management practices were common, including coppicing (or pollarding) trees to produce tools and everyday items and charcoal burning for fuel; pigs were also fattened on beech mast and acorns.
Many medieval ‘Ancient Woodlands’ have survived to the present day and are specially designated as important wildlife habitats
(MAGIC: geographic information about the natural environment from across government)
Woodlands and Archaeology
Historic woodlands often contain archaeological sites, relating to past management such as ‘charcoal platforms’ – D-shaped terraces cut into wooded slopes to create a platform for charcoal burning. Modern, secondary woodland can also grow up on abandoned settlements and former industrial sites, for example, woodlands are now extensive over the C19 ‘Wheal’ mines of West Devon, part of the designated World Heritage Site (WHS) area of Cornwall and West Devon. Many types of historic site from former quarries to relict field boundaries are found within Devon woodlands and recorded on the County HER. New surveying techniques such as LiDAR are helping archaeologists to locate many additional historic sites under woodland. The Devon Historic Landscape Characterisation shows areas of modern as well as ancient woodland across the county indicating how woodland land use has changed.
English Woodland Grant Scheme
This is one of a number of forestry commission schemes, to support and manage new woodland planting. EWGS applications are screened by the Historic Environment Service to check for known archaeological sites, since new trees and growing roots in particular can easily disturb well-preserved features. Overtime, new woodland planting needs to be balanced with its impact on the historic farming landscape of the County. Large areas of Devon contain distinctive curvilinear field boundaries which are based on open strip cultivation. Over three-quarters of Devon’s hedgebanks are thought to be of medieval origin. In general, it is not suitable to plant new woodland on historic farmland as surviving hedgebanks become isolated and overshadowed by the growing canopy. In addition, young trees generally need to be protected by fencing, which though not sympathetic with the surrounding historic field pattern often becomes established as a new boundary. Historic woodlands across Devon are usually found on the steepest valley slopes which historically could not be cultivated. Former historic woodland sites or areas immediately adjacent to them are the most appropriate for new tree planting.
Veteran Trees and orchards
As well as a rich woodland heritage, there are also impressive numbers of veteran trees in the county, either surviving in ancient woodlands or more likely in hedges and historic parkland landscapes. Traditional orchards are another type of wood pasture which have played an important role in the history of Devon husbandry, so much so that farm labourers were often paid in cider. Many historic orchards have been lost since WWII with farm modernisation, but new agri-environment schemes are helping to restore orchards to their historic setting. Historic woodland and orchard sites across Devon are shown on late C19th Ordnance Survey and former orchards are identified on the Devon HLC. Conifer plantations became increasingly popular in the post-medieval period, with larger parcels of ‘economic forestry’ being planted in the C20th often in upland locations, such as on Dartmoor.
Recreation of lost orchards can help to strengthen historic character, and locations of former orchards can be obtained from HLC. Ridges from former orchards may survive as parallel linear earthwork banks; these should be reused rather than flattened.
Tree felling in the County is regulated by the Forestry Commission (FC). Many individual veteran or significant trees have Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) attached to them, which allow local councils to protect them from felling. Archaeology sites under trees, including earthworks or below-ground features, are especially vulnerable to damage from felling and mechanical removal of timber. The Historic Environment Service are consulted by FC for forestry area felling operations and also check the FC list of online felling licence applications against the County HER to locate potentially damaging felling and provide advice. Protective archaeological management during felling often depends on the individual site, but general precautions can be taken including protecting earthwork sites with brash; avoiding use of heavy machinery in sensitive archaeological areas and felling downslope of historic trackways and boundaries. Felling can also provide opportunities for positive management of historic features including removal of trees and scrub from earthworks and ruins, where they are directly damaging the site or are vulnerable to windthrow.