British Deforestation

We tend to think that cutting down trees and destroying forests is a recent part of human history, so it is surprising how long it has been going on in these islands.

The largest phase of clearing woodlands in the British Isles was in the late Bronze Age, some 3,000 years ago, and continued through the Iron Age into the Roman period.  The clearances were uneven, with large regional variations.

In the south east, much of the region wsa cleared in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and there are clear signs of agricultural activity, grain storage and extensive field systems.

East Anglia at the same period saw the clearance of much fo the Fens, and some cereals grown but marine incursion caused this to be stopped.

The South west showed a wide range of behaviour; the Somerset Levels, a rich source of wildlife, were still heavily woded into the late Iron Age. But the huge swathes of windswept moors, ie Bodmin, Dartmoor and Exmoor were cleared in the Bronze age into the late Iron Age, so these regions became open landscape with settlements based on stock raising and agriculture.

The Midlands saw substantial clearances through the Iron age with some significant forests left.

The north west and north east saw most of the regions cleared in the late Bronze age into the Iron age, with much agricultural activity, especially in the north east.

Scotland and Wales were partly cleared in the Bronze age, with a revival in the late Iron Age and Roman periods.

Cereal production was long thought to be concentrated in the south, but the above shows it was far more widespread, so the notion that the British were savages living in forests has had to be reassessed to see them as far more agriculturally advanced. The landscape had many boundary features, and settlements often with roundhouses.

Their crops were initially the Neolithic Emmer wheat, but this was soon overtaken by Spelt and some bread wheat. They also grew barley, which was more suited to poorer soils than wheat, and oats, and rye. They also grew peas, beans and flax. This widespread agriculture also points to the population of these islands being much higher and more advanced than had been previously believed.

8 thoughts on “British Deforestation

  1. Yes, countries like Ireland have been entirely deforested. It’s quite sad if you come from a place like Australia where if you drive out a few miles from any capital city, you normally see trees to the horizon. Not everywhere, true, but it’s a feature of our country that I love.


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