Tree Health and the Structure of Rural Tree Populations in England, c.1550-2015

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: History


In order to discover more about the long-term development of tree populations we intend to focus our study on four English counties. Three of these have already been the subject of other research projects in landscape history - we already know much about how their landscape has developed over time, particularly in terms of enclosure (that is, the development of their field patterns). These counties - Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire and Norfolk - also have very different land use histories, providing a contrasting range of countryside types. In addition we would select a county within, or extending into, the Highland zone - probably Yorkshire. For each county we would:

1. Use maps and documents to examine how the wider population of farmland trees - those growing in pasture fields, on commons and in hedges - has changed over time in terms of density, species composition, age and management. Within the sample counties we would identify areas for which pre-nineteenth century tree surveys or similar information survives; and then compare the data for tree populations derived from these sources with that presented, for the same areas, by the late nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps and the 1946-8 RAF aerial photographs; and compare all of these with the current situation, on the ground today. Ground surveys would record the age and condition of trees, as well as their species and numbers. It should be emphasised that the nature of the evidence means that such samples would not be entirely random in character, but we would be able to contextualise them, and estimate patterns of potential bias, on the basis of our wider knowledge of the agrarian and landscape history of the districts in question. Analysis of the data would make full use of GIS technology, something with which the applicants have extensive experience; and recording in the field would be undertaken, in part by volunteers, and using hand-held GPS.

2. Use maps and documents to examine how the density, distribution and character of woodland has changed over time. For the period since the later eighteenth century it is possible to plot the distribution of woodland at a county level. Before this, only local maps are available, and for some districts none at all, so we would undertake more local studies and then use these to model the wider situation. Changes in the way woods were managed - the balance between wood and timber production, the relative importance of coppiced underwood and standard trees - would be examined using estate records, woodland surveys and the like. The more recent development of woodland can be examined using successive Ordnance Survey maps and such sources as the Land Utilisation Survey from the 1930s.

We would undertake a similar exercise for trees growing within landscape parks; and for orchards.

In order to obtain a better understanding of how far tree health has changed over time, and whether tree epidemic and infestations are now at a significantly more serious level than in previous centuries, we would undertake the following lines of enquiry.

1. Examine a wide range of published literature on forestry and related matters from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

2. Examine estate forestry records and correspondence, beginning with the evidence from the four sample counties (which can be better contextualised) but then extending our enquiries into other areas.

3. Examine archive photographs and films, again beginning with those available for the sample counties but, if necessary, subsequently looking more widely. For earlier periods we would also pay some attention to the comments of travel writers, diarists and the like, and to the evidence of paintings and engravings, although such evidence will need to be treated with caution.

Planned Impact

Scientific research directed towards the formulation of environmental policy may often benefit from the input of historians. This is especially true of the study of tree populations and the diseases affecting them. Any assessment of the extent to which tree health is deteriorating needs to take into account how the numbers, management and in particular age of rural tree populations has changed over the relatively recent past. It also needs to consider whether epidemic diseases and infestations, rather than being something entirely new, have also affected trees in the past.

In addition we believe that the proposed research will benefit those involved in the management of the countryside, both at a national level (DEFRA; Natural England) and more locally, including both institutional and private landowners. Currently, much attention is being paid to preventing the appearance of new tree pathogens by controlling the movement, and monitoring the health, of plant products and nursery stock; or by finding new ways of treating and controlling the diseases and pests in question. We would hope that the results of this project would encourage new, additional responses:

1. By assessing the extent to which there are identifiable economic reasons for the current dominance of certain species in the countryside, and to which the character of tree populations has changed significantly over time, we will stimulate debate about the use of a wider planting palette, including less familiar native trees, in the future in order to ensure greater forward resilience.

2. By obtaining a clearer impression of changes in the age structure of tree populations over time, and in the density of farmland trees, we will hope to encourage higher rates of planting, perhaps through influencing current public policies.

3. By assessing how far epidemic disease and large scale pests have (or have not) caused problems to tree populations in England in the past, we will contribute to a wider understanding of the scale of the current problems, and of the resources which should be committed to dealing with them.

In short, by ascertaining the extent to which tree health is a function, in part, of rural management strategies, we would encourage a wider policy response to the problem of new pathogens.


10 25 50
Description Our principal discoveries are:
1. Before the mid nineteenth century most areas of England had very high densities of farmland trees - upwards of 30 per hectare - of which over 75 per cent were pollards. This was largely a consequence of the need for fuel - densities were lower near coalfields and in other contexts where alternative fuel sources were available.
2. The minority of timber trees on farmland which were not pollarded - those grown for timber -were mainly felled before they were 60 or 70 years old.
3. In almost all areas, over 85 per cent of trees growing on farmland were of just three species - oak, ash and elm. This does not primarily reflect 'natural' factors but human choice: these trees provided the most useful kinds of wood and timber, and also grew well in a wide range of conditions.
4. The number of farmland trees fell steadily from the 1840s in all the areas studied, mainly due to the spread of coal as a domestic fuel.
5. Areas of woodland, in contrast, expanded steadily through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and into the twentieth. Contrary to popular belief, there is around twice as much woodland today (c.11 per cent land area) as in 1895, when the first government surveys were made (c.5 per cent).
6. There is no evidence for widespread epidemic disease of trees in England before the twentieth century, although the general health of trees was often poor.
7. The appearance of epidemic disease is the consequence of the more rapid movement around the world, since the late nineteenth century, of timber and live plant materials. Future epidemics are inevitable: we should aim to increase resilience by diversifying the species composition of rural tree populations (the dominance of oak/ash/elm being the consequence of past social/economic factors).
8. Independent from epidemic disease, tree health in England has declined steadily over the last century due to a decline in rigorous economic management: the average age of trees has increased and trees suffering from 'die back' or other signs of disease are no longer quickly felled.
9. Historically, the healthiest tree populations are probably those which were most intensively managed.
Exploitation Route All these findings are relevant to local and national government, given plans to plant many millions of trees to counteract the impact of global warming. We have sent copies of publications to relevant bodies.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Traditional tree populations and management on the Suffolk and Essex claylands
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation Woodland Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2016 
End 12/2016