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Learning to love our ancient woodlands

29 January 2019 Author: Sarah Lewis

Did you know that only two percent of the UK is covered by ancient woodland?

Trees are a link to our past, yet they are critical to our future. Ancient woodlands are the most bio-diverse in the UK, a critical carbon store and a haven for humans and wildlife. 

This is the land that has been continuously wooded since 1600 (the definition is different for Scotland) and is the last living link to the wildwood that covered the country after the last Ice Age. It has a heritage value that rivals our most precious historic buildings and monuments.

However, until I started work with the Woodland Trust on the RTPI’s new online training module I wasn’t aware of the definition of ancient woodland, why it is irreplaceable and under threat and, most importantly, why it needs to be protected.

Ancient Woodlands 3This is despite living within walking distance of Epping Forest, the ancient forest that straddles the London/Essex border, where I enjoy regular hunts for fairies in the forest with my young daughter. Along with growing up in a Shropshire village surrounded by ancient woodland. I only know now because I looked it up on Defra’s Magic Map.

Planners have vital role in protecting ancient woodlands

It appears that I am not the only planner who is not as aware of the role of planning in protecting ancient woodland as they perhaps should be. The Woodland Trust have reported a lack of knowledge amongst planners about how ancient woodland is defined and recognised.

They conducted a survey of town planners in 2016 and found that only 33% of planners were aware of, and a concerning 15% using, the Ancient Woodland Inventory that identifies over 52,000 ancient woodland sites in England.

This is despite the fact that 85% of the public feel that it was important to protect ancient woodland from development, according to a poll by Populus.

The Trust have responded by working with the RTPI to produce new online training that aims to improve planners' knowledge of their role in protecting ancient woodland and trees. It takes one hour to complete and gives a comprehensive introduction covering – definitions, identifiers, guidance, good practice and case studies.

What do you need to know?

Irreplaceable – Ancient woodlands and trees are irreplaceable. Their age and changes in soil conditions mean that we can’t just plant more.

Inventories – They exist for the whole of the UK to help you identify the location of ancient woodlands. But they are not definitive so there is potential for you to learn to identify them and report them to the inventories.

Identify – The visual clues that a woodland is ancient are not immediately obvious.

Importance – Ancient woods are home to more threatened species than any other habitat in the UK.

Impacts – The impacts of development on ancient woodland can be both direct (cutting down) or indirect (pollution, disturbance).

Insert – There is need and potential to integrate policies into local and neighbourhood plans to protect ancient woodlands and trees for areas where they exist.

Inspiration – Take inspiration from the case studies in the training module into your own work.

"Trees are a link to our past and critical to our future"

This quote from Clive Anderson, President of the Woodland Trust, has inspired me and hopefully will inspire you too:

“Trees are a link to our past, yet they are critical to our future. Ancient woodlands are the most bio-diverse in the UK, a critical carbon store and a haven for humans and wildlife. I am pleased and proud that the Woodland Trust and the RTPI have come together to work on this important module.

"Planners work on the front line, shaping the places we live in now and in the future. By understanding the value of ancient woods and trees, I do hope planners will give full weight to the benefit trees in general and ancient woodlands in particular are to all of us.”

The advice is applicable across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

To improve your knowledge on ancient woodlands and trees, complete our free,1-hour online training as part of you CPD at


Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis MRTPI, Planning Practice Officer, Royal Town Planning Institute