History in the making – the next chapter in the story of ancient woods

A precious historical artefact nestles deep in the recesses of my filing cabinet – a full set of paper copies of the original Ancient Woodland Inventory for England. The reports, compiled county by county, contain hundreds of copies of maps, with hand drawn boundaries of areas deemed to be ancient woodland, prefaced by pages of contextual information about the county and its woodland.

I still refer to them occasionally. Even though the maps are now available digitally and have been updated more than once since the Inventory was produced in the 1980s and ’90s, the text that accompanies them is not available anywhere else. I also like the connection that reading these reports gives with the origins of the inventory. They were produced through hours of work by individual human beings, tracing and transferring boundaries from paper maps, searching for and interpreting historical maps and documents, and in some cases visiting and surveying sites. The handwritten notes on which they are based are still held by Natural England in their Peterborough offices. In future, they may be seen as a historical source in their own right.

The original production of the Inventory was limited by availability of resources – both in terms of the time to carry out detailed research, and the sources available – and also by the technology at the time. It was also limited by the purposes for which it was envisaged it would be used – certainly not the detailed planning cases in which it is often called into question. There is pretty broad agreement of the need for an update, to make the Inventory more fit for the purposes for which it is now used – as set out in our Enough is Enough campaign and a previous blog on these pages.

With an updated Inventory there'll be more room in my filing cabinet...

With an updated Inventory there’ll be more room in my filing cabinet…

However, despite (and in some ways because of) technological advances, producing a new, better Inventory is not without difficulty. In this digital age we potentially have access to a lot more data, both geographical and historical. The process of interpreting all of this will still be down to individuals. And while understanding of ancient woodland and its importance has continued to develop in the last 40 years, increased policy protection for ancient woods means there is far greater pressure on the Inventory to be accurate, and for transparency and standardisation of the decision making process to classify woods, which is not as easy as it sounds.

Hats off, then, to Natural England, who are trying to move this forward. A further meeting this week brought together representatives from Natural England, Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust, the National Archives and others to thrash out some of the issues and come up with a plan to build on the work that has already been done to update the Inventory in the south east of England.

It feels as though things are moving in the right direction, and while for me it may feel like a sad day when it happens, it will also be a better one for ancient woods when the original Inventory is consigned to the history books.

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About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
This entry was posted in Campaigning, Climate Change, Conservation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to History in the making – the next chapter in the story of ancient woods

  1. Ash says:

    Does an INVENTORY exist for the whole of the UK? Or is it only England that holds this type of record? Is it too much to ask that the UK stops thinking in terms of England only?

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Hi Ash, all UK countries now have an ancient woodland inventory – in England, Scotland and Wales these were created in the 1980s and early 1990s by the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England). They are now held and maintained by the statutory conservation agencies in each country. In Northern Ireland, the Woodland Trust produced the inventory, which was launched in 2007 (www.backonthemap.org.uk).

      The inventories are all provisional. This means that woods may be added or removed from them, or their classification might change, if new evidence comes to light. Except in Northern Ireland, they do not include woods under 2 hectares (5 acres) in area. At the moment none of the inventories cover ancient wood pasture and parkland sites.
      Wales has updated its inventory recently, using better map sources and the benefits of GIS technology. In Northern Ireland, the Woodland Trust project produced an AWI some 20 years later than those produced for the rest of the UK, benefiting from lessons learnt elsewhere. England now lags behind, though many counties and districts in the south east of England have done the same, building up like a jigsaw a more accurate and comprehensive inventory of ancient woodland across much of the region that holds a higher density of ancient woodland, under greater development pressure than any other (http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/ancient-woodland/facelift-for-ancient-woodland-inventory/)

  2. sherwoodforestcommunityvision says:

    Reblogged this on Sherwoodforestcommunityvision’s Blog and commented:
    Interesting.

  3. daphnepleace says:

    Thanks, Kaye, I find this really interesting, and it leaves me wondering what were the sources used by the original compilers of the Inventory? And what were their sources… and so on. I’m wondering who/when/where/how were the very first records made of our woodlands? Or were woodlands so prevalent in the past that keeping records was not deemed necessary? Obviously, in those times, woodlands did not disappear to be made into golf courses and motorway service stations!

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