Woodland Palaeoecology

Ancient woodland has long been a focus for British ecologists, defined as a woodland that has existed continuously since AD1600. After AD1600 the planting of woodland became more common and so any woodland that pre-dates this is more likely to be ‘natural’ in origin. These woodlands are of specific importance as they often contain a diverse range of flora and fauna.

A variety of records can be used to identify an ancient woodland. Most commonly, historical documents are used to ascertain whether the woodland has been present for over 400 years, for example, if the site is included in estate maps or even in the Domesday Book (AD1086). However it is also possible to use palaeoecological techniques to investigate the age and species composition of ‘ancient’ woodland.

Claire Jones uses the analysis of pollen contained within sediment cores taken from inside the present-day woodland canopy. She is able to reconstruct the vegetation species present in the woodland at various sections throughout the core. By identifying the species growing in the area, it is possible to reconstruct the degree of openness of the woodland and indeed if there were periods where woodland did not exist on the site. With the aid of radiocarbon dating these changes in vegetation structure can be dated and we can establish if woodland has actually been present at the site for over 400 years.

Recently Claire investigated Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor, UK, thought to be a rare relict example of an upland oakwood and one of only three on upland Dartmoor. Oak is the dominant tree within the woodland and its dominance is the cause of much speculation. The high species diversity and presence of Atlantic brypophytes have awarded it the classification of ancient woodland status. After analysis it was discovered that the site had in fact been wooded for over 1200 years, confirming its ancient woodland status. The dominance of oak was also found to be a recent development, occurring in the late 19th century.