Hatfield forest is an incredible survival of a landscape little changed from medieval times. Here under the flightpath of Stansted airport there are hundreds of trees that were growing during Shakespeare's lifetime, coppice woodland, pollard trees, flower rich meadows, marsh and a history of land management little changed for 1000 years.Oliver Rackham felt Hatfield was so important he wrote a whole book about it called "The Last Forest".
Today in common usage the word forest tends to be used to describe a large woodland and forestry is woodland management, in medieval times the meaning was different. The word forest is a Norman term and it did not necessarily mean woodland at all, it meant an area with special laws particularly regarding the rights of hunting and tree cutting. Most forests were areas of open ground particularly heathland sometimes with areas of woodland which provided cover for game. This was the case with Sherwood, the New Forest, Epping, Dartmoor and Exmoor, the Forest of the Peak and many more. These places provided the crown not only with a playground for hunting but a source of game and timber.
Hatfield is a small forest but a remarkable survival in that it is pretty much unchanged from the earliest descriptions and maps. A popular misconception is that woodlands disappear when cut down. This is not the case, British woodland trees if cut down will regrow from the same stump and at the same time as light hits the woodland floor seeds germinate creating a thicket of new growth. This is an area of woodland at Hatfield that I helped cut down 19 years ago.
Wood pasture is another very special element of the medieval forest. Here grazing animals and trees have to coexist, if the trees were cut at ground level the livestock would kill them so the medieval woodcutter cut the tree above the head height of the livestock. The tree would regrow and end up with a short fat stem and multiple branches which again could be cut on rotation every ten to twenty years. Much is still unknown about the practices, did they cut in winter as we tend to do today? or in late summer so that as well as wood the branches would be valuable for fodder, leaves and bark would be eaten.
These trees are called pollards and the continual cutting greatly extends their lifespan, they tend to be hollow and the rotten centre provides home to a huge range of invertebrates (Hatfield is in the top ten sites in the UK for dead wood related invertebrates) The old bark is also habitat for rare lichens. A tree has to cover it's entire surface area each year with a skin of new cells. This means it is always growing fatter. If it has a big crown producing lots of food the growth rings will be wider, if it has just been pollarded and has a tiny crown the growth rings get very thin. So a very broad tree that has spent most of it's life with a very tiny crown can be very old indeed. Around 120 years ago pollarding became very unpopular and the pollards were allowed to grow naturally. Here are a few of the 800 or so pollards of 8 different species that survive at Hatfield.
And this oak is the biggest on the forest, hidden deep in the southern scrubs no one knows it is there unless they have been shown where it is. No trick photography here, I do look tiny because the tree is that big.
When I was at Hatfield we were struggling with the problem that these pollards now have huge crowns balanced on top of thin hollow cylindrical trunks and in high winds they can literally be torn apart. Also they were an aging population with no new pollards created in 300 years. We set about creating new pollards and also gently reducing some of the older ones to balance the crowns and reduce the risk of wind damage. This is an ash which I topped out, I remember as the limb hit the ground a dazed tawny owl few out of a hollow. A previous experiment in the 70's involved repollarding a number of trees in one hit but this massive shock had resulted in many trees dying. The new management of just rebalancing the crown was not ideal since it encourages growth high up rather than low down but it bought time. If I was still there I would think this tree is ready for cutting again now.
And this is new woodpasture. The area was mainly hawthorn scrub with young maiden trees growing through, we cleared the scrub, pollarded the trees and 18 years grazing has done the rest.
There are lots of things to learn by revisiting places. This tanalised fence on top of a woodbank I know to be 45 years old, we were impressed when I worked there that it was 25 years old and still sound. I have also known tanalised fences that were rotten after 5 years, it would be nice to know how this treatment was different.