Take a woodland in the Dark Ages, use it continually for extensive livestock raising at low stocking rates, do some firewood extraction by pollarding, and after several centuries you may end up with the cultural open landscape rich in wildlife known as Wood Pasture. Dr John Jackson reports.

WOOD pastures are distinctive places/ecosystems are not easy to pigeon-hole into a short definition. Generally speaking, they are characterised by widely spaced, open-grown, native trees and are or were grazed continually down the years by man’s livestock. Ageing trees predominate with an abundance of dead wood.

Wood pasture is a mosaic of habitats valued for individual park-like trees, particularly veteran and ancient ones, and the fauna, flora and fungi it supports, including a number of species that only occur there, and parkland. Grazing animals are fundamental to the habitat’s formation and continued existence and many sites are also valued historic landscapes. 

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These places are the product of centuries of continued stewardship by our ancestors and a direct link to the past land use and way of life. They are not primeval 'wildwood'.


The Biological Action Plan or BAP is a UK-habitat classification that classifies all terrestrial and freshwater habitats into 37 broad types. UK BAP Priority Habitats are a range of semi-natural ones that were identified as being the most threatened and requiring conservation action. 'Wood pasture and parklands' is on the list.

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So what are the characteristics that come together to add up to make wood pastures home to such a bonanza of biodiversity?

• Continuity – they have been managed by our ancestors down the ages and have long-lived individual trees
• Pollarding offered both a source of firewood and tree fodder, and prolonged tree-life expectancy
• Old trees – ancient or veteran specimens of native trees which are among the oldest organisms still alive in these islands
• The trees are usually open-grown, with spreading crowns/canopies and an abundance of deadwood 
• Ancient wood pasture and parklands have accumulated the ‘old-growth’ characteristics absent from many enclosed woodlands
• They are rich in uncommon niches such as wet or dry rotting wood, rot holes, nooks and crannies, old bark and hollow limbs and trunks, with deadwood on the ground and the standing trees
• As it slowly decays, the physical and chemical properties of woody material alters – as do the organisms that thrive on it 
• The micro-climate both in woodland parks and within the trees themselves differs from closed canopy stands
• Grazing by domestic animals has been on-going, moulding the grassland or heathland ground vegetation and providing a micro-habitat for sustenance for dung dwellers.

The unbroken plethora of uncommon micro-habitats or mini-ecosystems down the ages offers the unique conditions that a multitude of invertebrates, lichen and fungi need; many are rare nowadays as woodland pastures fell into disuse or the organisms were never abundant because they were very specialised. 


So wood pastures are a man-made landscape, moulded over the generations by livestock and by tree management. These sites result from a continuity of management and harbour elements of ancient, traditional, historic land usage. They are places that probably date back to the original wildwood frequented by aurochs or to Neolithic livestock herders.

Wood pastures were probably far more widespread in Anglo-Saxon times or the Dark Ages (410-1066) and were a regular feature in the landscape.

From Norman times, royal hunting forests and chases stretched across tracts of lowland England and some remain today, boasting these more open areas. Surviving cases are the New, Nottingham and Epping Forests.

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In these isles, woodland pastures were once a far larger and characteristic landscape until the Enclosures in the Middle Ages and the growing widespread practice of coppicing from the 18th century onwards. Deer parks were a must-have status symbol from Medieval times to complete your stately home as well as a useful source of venison and entertaining guests for the chase. Such parklands share many features in common with woodland pastures and are often considered together.

In their hay day there were over 3,000 deer parks across England, Scotland and Wales.

These varied greatly in size, from a few to thousands of acres. Today, the numbers have dwindled, yet documentary evidence and boundary earthworks continue to provide evidence of now-lost parks, as sometimes do the trees.


Sound statistics on the extent and overall condition of wood pasture and parkland are still being gathered, but a ballpark figure is that 10–20,000 ha are still in 'working' condition. According to the inventory of wood pasture and parkland on MAGIC – the official mapping website – there are 9,813 such sites, totalling 278,000 ha or 2.09 per cent of the land.

A scattering of better-known examples around the home nations are Burnham Beeches in the Chilterns, Sherwood Forest (Nottinghamshire), Borrowdale and Glenamara (Cumbria), Dinefwr Park (Carmarthenshire), Glen Finglas (Stirling) and Glenarm (Co. Antrim). These forms of land use are not unique to the UK. They exist across continental Europe and are sometimes at a far larger scale than here. Classic examples are the Dehesas of Extremadura in Spain or the Anatolian Plateau in Turkey. 


Rearing livestock beneath trees is an early case of agroforestry and has elements of rewilding too. Pollarding provided both an ongoing source of firewood and tree hay and kept the new tree shoots out of the reach of hungry livestock. 

Ongoing browsing, grazing, trampling and dunging by ungulates will suppress most bushes and regenerating trees. Take away the animals and the abandoned sites would soon scrub up. 

Different animals have singular effects on a grassland sward and floral composition – the method of feeding cattle is distinct from ponies or deer or sheep or even geese or pigs at pannage. As an example, when feeding, cattle wrap their tongues around longer grass and wrench it off, which is very different from deer or sheep, which can graze on a much shorter sward, or even geese, which can peck at shorter pasture. Cattle tend to be bulk feeders compared to the more selective deer. 

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Trampling is distinct for each ungulate too. The hoof prints of heavyweight ones may break up the soil to a greater extent and even the indentations they leave behind can fill with rain and offer yet another home for insects that need small puddles to breed in. And different breeds of cattle influence the vegetation in dissimilar ways – traditional ancestral breeds such as English Longhorns (White Park) can prosper where modern ones struggle.


Until the turn of this Millennium, land managers, tree folk and conservationists in the UK paid less attention to woodland pasture and old trees in general. They were a Cinderella of the conservation camp in a bit of a backwater. Things move on and nowadays over 20 projects are ongoing on woodland pastures.

These ecosystems generally present a mosaic of open-ground habitats where the trees are open-grown and often pollarded, so live longer and left to decay gracefully with a specialised assemblage of wildlife both above and below ground. These BAP sites offer a concentration of habitats associated with over-mature trees which would have been found elsewhere, but isolated in closed canopy woodland. Hollow trees or hulks are the most valuable niche of all. 

These open grassy sites with a scattering of quirky trees are popular places for the public to visit too, from casual walkers and campers to occasional festivals or similar gatherings, and bring with them their own challenges for site managers. With the spectre of health and safety looming large, should you tidy up or leave or fence off, or what? 

Each Ent-like tree may need protecting from humans too. Popular pastimes range from climbing on them, playing Tarzan by swinging on dead, fragile low branches and setting hollow standing trunks alight. But things move on.


Until about the turn of the 21st century, wood pastures and old trees in general were undervalued and under recorded. Society was not quite sure where these important living monuments were, so the search was on. Very old, specimen or champion trees are still turning up and are now recorded for posterity on databases such as those from the Ancient Tree Forum, the Woodland Trust or TROBI.

To pool knowledge on these special places, the Wood Pasture and Parkland Network (WPPN) comprises a group of experts and organisations keen to promote the benefits of this land management system for biodiversity, history, culture, landscape and people that has lasted for centuries.

Like many scarce, fragile ecosystems, woodland pastures and their inhabitants need special care. Any work on ancient or veteran trees merits specially trained, expert arboricultural TLC to perpetuate them. Recognising this, the Ancient Tree Forum devised the VETcert programme to encourage, teach best practice and accredit professionals wanting to enrich and accredit their knowledge of managing later-life trees. 

Modern techniques to perpetuate or restore WPs range from maintaining the status quo to haloing surviving old trees, veteranisation, careful pruning or re-pollarding, de-compacting the ground and managing or modifying the grazing regime – both the timing, intensity and species of herbivore. And, in some sites, commencing wood pasture afresh or creating new pollards. 

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Of course, these ecosystems face similar challenges to their continued existence from pests and diseases, pollution and climate change, as all trees elsewhere do. 

Some financial support comes under the Countryside Stewardship for the upkeep, renovation or even creation of such places, plus some more local monetary financial support may be applicable. 

Woodland pastures are an irreplaceable historic, cultural and picturesque landscape, teeming with specialised and scarce species of wildlife. Stewardship now set in motion should ensure their continued existence for generations to come.