One theory (Vera, F.W.M, 2000) suggests that wood-pasture is the closest type of landscape to that which existed in prehistory. Pollen records show that oak and hazel, which require open conditions to regenerate, were continuous throughout prehistory. According to Rackham (1986), ‘wood-pasture is well documented in England for the last 1200 years, but these written records probably only tell the last one fifth of the story that began in the Neolithic Age’.
Natural wooded, grazed, landscapes became managed wood-pastures with the domestication of stock. With limited winter fodder, numbers of stock were kept at a level which could survive through the winter. In winter, when growth stagnates, browsing and grazing is at its most damaging, but in spring and summer, when there is too much to eat, some is left ungrazed and unbrowsed. This not only allowed the survival of seedling trees, but meant that grasses, herbaceous plants and annuals would flower, as in a hay meadow. In turn this supported invertebrates, leading to the diversity of species of plants and animals which are typical of mosaic landscapes with trees, scrub and grassland.
The Domesday Book (1086) recognised silva pastilis or wood-pasture, as opposed to silva minuta or underwood/coppice. Old records list regulations about fruit, felling for timber, and cutting of foliage for fodder, but there is no regulation on regeneration, presumably because it happened naturally. Vegetative or coppice regrowth had to be protected from livestock, but protection of seedling trees was not required, as sufficient grew up protected in thorny scrub. Thorns and holly were considered so important for the regeneration of trees that a statute dating from 1768 laid down a punishment for damaging thorns and holly in the New Forest (Rackham, 1980). Palatable species such as ash, elm and hazel tended to decline under grazing, whereas species such as oak, beech and hornbeam, which are less palatable and better able to withstand browsing , tended to survive.
Domesday records that nearly all woodland which was not coppice was some type of wood-pasture. Most were communal, with rights to grazing, fuel, fencing wood, timber, and other products long since apportioned. Pannage, the right to feed swine on acorns, was less important in Britain than on the continent, as the acorn crop in Britain is less reliable. Some wood-pastures were later enclosed as parks (see below).
Trees intermixed with pasture had a number of advantages. Trees provided shade and shelter for livestock. Their branches could be pollarded at 2.3m (6-10’) above ground level, out of reach of grazing animals, to provide winter fodder or to produce many of the same woodland products as coppice underwood. Sometimes the trees were left to grow up for timber, or even ‘shredded’ by repeatedly cutting off the side branches, leaving a tuft at the top, a practice still seen in parts of France.
Pollarding, like coppicing, reinvigorates many species of broadleaved tree and prolongs their lives. Even when pollarding ceases, these trees are likely to live on despite retrenchment, when branches die back to remain as ‘stag’s heads’. Many surviving pollards are 300-500 years old. These veteran trees, worthless from the point of view of timber production, are important for the habitats they provide for lichens, bryophytes, the specialised invertebrates of dead or dying wood, and for hole-nesting birds.
Compared to the rest of Europe, Britain retains a large number of wood-pastures with ancient trees.
On the wooded commons, which were a feature of lowland Britain, the trees themselves were often owned by the lord of the manor, but commoners had the right to cut pollard poles for fuel or feed. Grazing was carefully regulated, with commoners allowed to graze a certain number of animals. Wooded commons had disappeared in many areas by the 13th century. Many had been taken over by private landowners and cleared for cultivation, and others had been enclosed as private parks. Where grazing was unregulated, either over-grazing resulted in treeless commons, or under-grazing allowed tree cover to spread. Commons have characteristic straggling outlines, because they comprise land which it was no one person’s duty to fence. Houses tend to front the common, with their private land to the back.
Parks or policies, as they are known in Scotland, are enclosures for semi-wild animals. They came into vogue under the Normans to contain herds of fallow deer, an introduced species. There were also parks for red deer, semi-wild white cattle, hares and swine. The Domesday Book (1086) records 35 parks in England, a number which Rackham (1990) estimates grew to a maximum of about 3,200 by 1300, covering nearly 2% of England, and enclosing about a quarter of the woodland of England.
Medieval parks usually had a characteristic compact outline with rounded corners to save fencing costs. Often they contained both woods and pastures, but unless they were protected the former tended to turn into the latter, from the effects of grazing and browsing. After a decline in the late middle ages, there was a revival under Henry VIII, who created at least 7 parks, the largest of which, Hampton Court Chase, enclosed 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of land and 4 villages. Some of those parks which remained through to the 17th and 18th centuries were remodelled by the great landscape designers. Many old trees were retained, valued for the air of antiquity which they gave to the landscape. There are about 100 parks still in use in England, mostly for fallow deer.
Winter-grazed woodlands are typical of parts of the upland North and West. These are woods where domestic stock are enclosed, or where sheep and deer are allowed free access from the adjacent uplands during the winter months. In many areas the seasonal migration from the open moor to sheltered woodland was essential to the grazing economy.