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.
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.