Why do we have less woodland than the rest of Europe?

Every now and then someone asks me a question which is so obvious and yet I had never really thought about it. I have regularly noted that our woodland cover (13%) is very much less than the European average of about 35%, but a recent query made me consider it a bit more.

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Forest map of Europe from the European Forest Institute.

There are problems with how you define woodland cover – how much of the open woodland in the Spanish Dehesa or Portuguese Montado is included – but that cannot be the main reason for the range of variation across the continent. Spain and the Hungarian plain stand out as relatively sparsely wooded, probably because they are on the dry side.  Across the north of the continent, tree growth is limited by the cold. However, the map also shows that Britain is not completely out on its own: there are gaps down the Atlantic seaboard, with Ireland, Denmark and western France poorly wooded.  Did this western seaboard not have as much woodland to start with, was there just much less clearance over much of the continent, or was reforestation more extensive there than with us?

There is debate about how dense the post-glacial tree cover was some 8,000 yrs ago, but there is good evidence from pollen remains that it was much denser than now, through parts of the Atlantic fringe (Nielsen et al., 2012). Localised areas were more open (but still probably more than 50% tree-covered) on some of the sandy soils of Jutland, but with much higher levels in central Germany. Fyfe et al. (2013) applying the same approach to pollen records from Britain, found similarly strong regional variation. In Scotland, the maximum tree and shrub cover was reached by about 6700 years ago. This was 60–90% in the south and the east, but dropped to about 50% further north on the mainland, and to even lower levels on the Orkney Islands and some of the Western Isles.

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Partially wooded landscape in north-west Scotland

In England, the pre-Neolithic woodland cover estimates (c.6000 years BP) varied from 60–90% in the south and east to 30–40% in the uplands of Dartmoor and north-west England. Heather, grass and/or other herbaceous cover increased as the tree and shrub cover declined. These data are consistent with a trend towards increasing development of bog under the more Atlantic climate of Britain and Ireland compared with the Continent. The data- sets are biased towards uplands and wetlands, with no data from the bulk of central England where tree cover might be expected to be highest; this may also contribute to the higher estimates of openness compared with those found on the Continent. There are also places, such as the Wiltshire Chalk, where evidence in the form of snail shells suggests there may have been more permanent openness, often in association with signs of human activity (Allen, 2017). We may have been a bit more open to start with, but a lot more woodland seems to have been cleared in pre-history and not come back in Britain.

Closed woodland in central England, open areas on parts of the chalk?

Relatively high rainfall and milder winters (courtesy of the Gulf Stream) would have allowed our ancestors to keep more livestock, and in particular, to have over-wintered more stock outside.  Where the winters are more harsh the limitation on the number of stock is how much winter food can be stored for them. If soil fertility dropped, e.g. where heathland developed on former brown earth soils, the areas could still be farmed through extensive grazing; in arable areas such land would be abandoned to tree cover. In the uplands the development of blanket bog would slow woodland regrowth.

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Chillingham Park Cattle – outside all the time

Was there also been more active reforestation in the densely wooded countries? This might seem counter-intuitive to start with. However countries with a strong and vibrant forestry tradition are more likely to have had the expertise and interest in expanding it: they had the economic competitive advantage in timber to start with. In addition, France was more dependent on wood for fuel because it lacked the abundant coal reserves that Britain has;  Germany lacked the empire that provided a source of raw materials including timber for Britain following industrialisation in the nineteenth century.

French and German afforestation

There is probably not one single factor that explains Britain’s low cover, but rather a combination of climate, topography and farming culture, at least some of which we share with the other countries of the Atlantic seaboard. So thank you, Robin Hanford, for triggering this enquiry.

ALLEN, M. J. 2017. The southern English chalklands: molluscan evidence for the nature of the post-glacial woodland cover. Molluscs in Archaeology: Methods, Approaches and Applications, 3, 144.

FYFE, R. M., TWIDDLE, C., SUGITA, S., GAILLARD, M.-J., BARRATT, P., CASELDINE, C. J., DODSON, J., EDWARDS, K. J., FARRELL, M., FROYD, C., GRANT, M. J., HUCKERBY, E., INNES, J. B., SHAW, H. & WALLER, M. 2013. The Holocene vegetation cover of Britain and Ireland: overcoming problems of scale and discerning patterns of openness. Quaternary Science Reviews, 73, 132-148.

NIELSEN, A. B., GIESECKE, T., THEUERKAUF, M., FEESER, I., BEHRE, K.-E., BEUG, H.-J., CHEN, S.-H., CHRISTIANSEN, J., DÖRFLER, W., ENDTMANN, E., JAHNS, S., DE KLERK, P., KÜHL, N., LATA1OWA, M., ODGAARD, B. V., RASMUSSENM, P., STOCKHOLM, J. R., VOIGT, R., WIETHOLD, J. & WOLTERS, S. 2012. Quantitative reconstructions of changes in regional openness in north-central Europe reveal new insights into old questions. Quaternary Science Reviews, 47, 131-149.



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