What was the Wildwood?
All regions of the world have a natural climax community. This is basically the end goal of any habitat's flora, and it depends heavily upon environmental factors such as climate, altitude, soil type, and scale. Britain, as a largely wet and mild, temperate set of islands has a defined climax community of
The wildwood consisted of all 18 of our native woodland types, each occupying their own niches, and the trees it consisted of are generally considered to be our only true-native trees. Anything thereafter is considered non-native or invasive. From picturesque birch woodlands on the northernmost tip of Scotland to the alder carrs of our historic wetlands, the wildwoods must have been incredible to behold, and not at all like modern England with its woodland coverage of only 13%. But when did it form, and how was it supported? And where did it go? On this page I'd like to explore the story of the British Wildwood -- where it came from, what it was, and where it went. Stay Tuned.
This page currently includes
Leading up to the Wildwood was...
The Ice Age
Our current Ice Age began 2.6 million years ago, with current day being in an interglacial phase of warmer climate. Colder episodes are referred to as glacials. During the glacial period preceding the Boreal Period (12,000-6,200 BC) Britain, still a peninsula of western Europe, was covered in a vast ice sheet excluding the mountain peaks of Scotland. The most recent glaciation period lasted from 100,000-12,000 BC, known as the Late Devensian glaciation. This stage is also often referred to as the Late Pleistocene or Late Glacial period.
Throughout the Ice Age we had
The Boreal Period (12,000-6,200 BC)
As the ice sheets dwindled away with rising temperatures, the UK entered a boreal phase with a
As the interglacial period advanced, the UK’s
Newly arriving in this period are hazel trees, which colonise and spread rapidly. Although hazel trees are now generally an understorey species, during this time they would’ve easily grown to 18-20m. Furthermore, toward the end of this period
By this period, birch and pine established themselves as the dominant species of our highlands, particularly to the northern end of the UK and mostly in Scotland. Down south and in the lowland areas, birch was mixed with hazel trees. However,
In the northern range (namely Scotland) pines become overwhelmingly dominant (and restricted there), whereas through the middle of England oaks dominate. The southern third is mainly characterised by lime trees, which should be characteristic of the region to this day. With these tall, competitive trees overtaking all of Britain, woodlands defined by those early pioneering species such as birch become rare. Particularly, in England, they are completely outdone by oaks and elms. Our pioneers still remain very common throughout other types of woodland to this day.
In regards to oaks, the Sessile Oak is more characteristic of northern uplands, while the English Oak is more typical of southern lowlands.
During this period we see the entrance of our last truly native tree species –
The Atlantic Period (6,200-3,800 BC)
As the interglacial period progressed, climate conditions became
Significantly, during this time we see
The World of the Wildwood
The wildwood is the resulting range of climax communities, reflective of our 18 native woodland types, caused by the Atlantic Period. Any areas of the UK that could be occupied by woodland, thereby excluding only beach dunes and mountains, were covered by this point by these settled woodlands.
Those earlier species of tree more acclimated to colder boreal environments were able to fill in the regions that the later trees more suited to warmer climates could not – moreover, the presence of birch woodlands towards the northernmost end represents the gradual spread of all colonising woodlands from the south. They had the most time to spread north, and so were still holding strong at the very north of the UK.
It’s easy to imagine these wildwoods as impenetrable and dense, uniform throughout, and undoubtedly in many areas they were. There is a theory known as the Vera Hypothesis, which argues that the wildwoods would have been managed into open areas naturally by our now-extinct wild grazing species – for instance, the aurochs (extinct since the Bronze Age). Evidence of this is in the strong presence of oak, a species which requires open ground to regenerate successfully. However, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary found in our pollen records. This theory is considered debunked.
Below you can see a list of each woodland's characteristic tree species, as well as where their regions would've been located.