Ancient coppiced beech tree (WTPL/Archie Miles) - when ancient trees have been actively managed, through coppicing or pollarding, they can often look much younger than they actually are.
Ancient Woodland Archaeology at Risk
In 2013 the Government set out initial plans for a ‘biodiversity offsetting’ scheme in England in a green paper consultation. The fundamental principle underpinning the concept of biodiversity offsetting is that, when a planning decision involves the loss of habitat, new habitat is created or restored elsewhere to compensate, thus offsetting the environmental impact of the development.
Although this may have potential positive benefits for some habitats, there is concern that the current proposals do not exclude ancient woodlands. These sites are not only unique ecological habitats, but are also important historic landscapes with the potential to contain a wide range of irreplaceable archaeological features, including worked and veteran trees.
‘Ancient Woodland’ is a definition that is used to refer to woodland that is known to date from at least 1600, a period in which reliable maps first started to be produced. This is not a precise dating however, and some ancient woodland may be of a much earlier date. During the past centuries the majority of these woodlands have been actively managed and shaped by human activity, which has created a unique archaeological resource that can tell us all sorts about how past communities used and relied on natural resources.
Ancient woodland is recognised as an important habitat within the National Planning Policy Framework, and the original biodiversity offsetting green paper supported the view that some habitats (including ancient woodland) are irreplaceable and should be excluded from the scheme, however comments from the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, in January (2014) suggest that this advice has so far been ignored.
The Government have yet to release an official response to the initial consultation.
What is the potential impact for archaeology?
Ancient woodlands have the potential to provide a unique insight into land use and land management practices, and in the development of local industries, over hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of years. In the past woodlands have been actively managed to produce essential raw materials for agriculture, construction and for local craft and manufacturing industries, with different species of tree often used for specific purposes.
The traces of these uses are often still visible in the form of pits and platforms (including the remains of charcoal and white coal production sites), earthworks (including banks and roadways), structures (including buildings and boundary structures) and the ‘living archaeology’ of worked trees (including those shaped by coppicing and pollarding). These features should be celebrated as a unique and irreplaceable part of our country’s archaeological heritage, which cannot merely be ‘replaced’ by re-planting. Once destroyed, the information held within these unique historical landscapes is lost forever. However, this significance is currently often not well understood, or even recognised, within the planning system, as demonstrated by the current Government proposals.
The current National Planning Policy Framework states that “planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss” However, the Woodland Trust has recently reported that there are at least 380 Ancient Woodland sites across the UK currently under threat from development.
In contrast to this, local interest groups across the country are becoming increasingly aware of the historical importance of their local woodlands, and there are many active community projects recording and conserving historic woodland and woodland archaeology across the country. With the increasing focus on local decision-making within the planning system, it is more important than ever that these community groups are properly consulted as part of any decisions about the development of historic woodlands in their local area.
The CBA is supporting the Woodland Trust’s campaign to exclude ancient woodland from biodiversity off-setting schemes, and has written to the Government to voice our concerns about this issue (see letter below).
The CBA is also calling for an open and constructive discussion of the different options for ensuring a more in-depth understanding and assesment of the potential archaeological significance of historic and ancient woodlands within the planning process, and for more meaningful engagement with local communities in decisions over planning decisions that impact on historic woodlands.
What Can You Do?
If you share our concerns, please write to your local MP and ask them what they are doing about this issue. If you need to find out who your local MP is, and how to contact them, the Write To Them website is a useful resource.
There is more information about the Woodland Trust campaign, and updates on the Government's bio-diversity offsetting proposals, on their website.
There is more guidance on writing to your elected official and local campaigning on our Local Heritage Engagement Network page.