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Notes on Hatfield Forest

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An unspoilt piece of living history

Most of the English countryside looks the way it does because of the impact of farming. From the middle ages onwards, people have cut down forests, dug ditches, laid hedges and grubbed them up, improved tracks into paths, lanes and then roads, created ponds and later, filled them in: all in the interests of improving farming and trade. It is incredibly unusual to find a large piece of land which has been left untouched by this swathe of human activity. Hatfield Forest is one such area.

Hatfield was once a Royal hunting forest. The land belonged to the local lords (including at one time Robert the Bruce) but the right to the venison belonged to the King. The Forest is not packed with trees, instead the landscape is open, dotted with individual trees, small copses, and more dense areas of woodland. This mix gave animals cover whist also allowing the hunting parties to ride at full tilt over the ground in pursuit of wild deer and boar.

Hatfield Forest
Hatfield Forest

Although the land itself has been left in its pristine state for centuries, the landscape has been continuously managed. Traditional woodland management techniques of coppicing, pollarding and grazing have taken place throughout the centuries and are still continued today. The ancient coppices and wood pasture are probably relics of the original wildwood which grew over England after the last Ice Age. This is now so very rare that the whole forest is an SSSI. Oliver Rackham in his book 'The Last Forest' said that 'Hatfield is of supreme interest in that all the elements of a medieval Forest survive: deer, cattle, coppice woods, pollards, scrub, timber trees, grassland and fen, ... As such it is almost certainly unique in England and possibly in the world ... Hatfield is the only place where one can step back into the Middle Ages to see, with only a small effort of the imagination, what a Forest looked like in use.'

A forest is deemed to be ancient if its history can be traced back for at least 400 years. Hatfield Forest's history is documented for nigh on 1,000 years, but of course the area was forest long before it became a Royal Forest. Many of the individual trees are also ancient. Trees reach ancient, or veteran, status at different rates. An old birch tree is unlikely to live beyond 150 years, whereas with proper care and attention a pollarded oak can live for 800 years or more; some yew trees live for more than 1,000 years.

Trees are traditionally managed by coppicing (where trees are cut down to ground level but the root system is left; the tree will then re-grow from the base) and pollarding (where trees are cut above the browsing height of deer or cattle). In both cases, the resultant regrowth tends to be long and straight and so provides useful material for fencing, weaving, and making furniture as well as firewood and fodder. In the case of coppicing, the regrowth has to be protected from browsing or grazing animals. Some trees are deliberately left uncut, so as to grow denser and thicker wood which could be used as timber for constructing buildings or ships. This system of woodland management continues in the Forest today.

The wood from each type of tree had different uses depending of the characteristics of the timber. Alder for example burns badly but is durable in water, so it was used to make clogs and brooms, and was planted to bind river banks. It was also harvested to make a variety of dyes. Beech has a straight grain and is strong and easy to work, and was used to create furniture. The wood of the crab apple is tough and durable and was used for mallet heads. Larch was used for boat building, oak for buildings, furniture and boats; holly, strong and dense, was used for inlays and fine cabinet work.

As well as the trees, Hatfield Forest is home to over 3,500 species of wildlife, some of which are uncommon and threatened. The wild deer are the descendants the original medieval deer herd, and the rabbits in the park - like all rabbits in the UK – were brought here by the Normans. There is an artificial rabbit warren in Hatfield Forest which is a Scheduled Monument in its own right. Rabbits didn’t adapt very easily to the British climate and in medieval times, they were housed in artificial burrows where they were nurtured by a Warrener. It wasn't until the 17th century that they became naturalised.

Hatfield Forest contains over 400 plant species, and 600 different fungi. In late spring, the buttercup fields, perhaps the most extensive in England, are a joy to behold. The ancient trees, some over 1000 years old, provide the perfect habitat for some of the Forest's rarest insects, lichens and fungi.