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 The number of trees in the landscape was far, far greater before the industrial revolution. Timber trees were felled young and more than two thirds of all trees were pollarded, principally for fuel. Both ensured a young, vigorous population: although it is often assumed that pollards were allowed to live far into senescence, most seem to have been taken down and replaced after 150 years or so. Since the late seventeenth century 90% of trees in all the studied areas were oak, elm and ash, although the rank order of these displayed much variation, strongly patterned spatially. This dominance had little to do with 'natural' factors. Local distinctiveness was also present in 'minority' trees, making up the remaining 10%, and these trees were more prominent in their respective regions in the more remote past. Tree disease was considered a fairly normal part of life, and what we now think of as 'oak decline' appears to have been seen as an indication that a tree was ready for felling. But there is little evidence yet of epidemic disease, except perhaps in elm. Future resilience of tree populations against disease would be best served by diversifying away from oak and ash, and by increasing the numbers of 'minority trees' characteristic of particular regions. The overall numbers of farmland trees began to recover after the late 1970s, following a steady decline continuing for two centuries, although this is only if we include close-set trees in outgrown hedge and similar group planting: the numbers of free-standing trees has continued to fall. The area of woodland, however, has increased over the past century in all areas studied, roughly doubling in most cases.
Exploitation Route We hope to advise on planting policy and management to help ensure resilience in tree populations, but too early yet to say quite how.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The report prepared as a result of this project has been submitted to DEFRA, and is currently being considered by them, alongside the results of other recently funded projects.into tree health. The original research was also extended into new areas (Essex and Suffolk) at the request of the Woodland Trust, who are currently planning a major campaign of re-planting farmland. Some of the findings, both of the original research and of this follow-up work, is helping to inform their selection of tree species.
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

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