Until comparatively recent times, trees and woodland were a vital source of fuel and raw materials, second only in importance to food. To ensure continuity of supply, woodland was carefully managed and conserved. Whilst timber trees were customarily the preserve of the manorial lords, the underwood growing on the ‘waste’ and common grazing land was often the main source of wood for most of the rural population. In the Medieval period, much woodland was cleared to create arable and meadow land and it was usual for such woodland that remained to be confined to steep slopes and marginal land unsuitable for growing crops. There was inevitably a tension between the need to conserve woodland whilst bringing as much productive land as possible under the plough to feed a growing population. This could only be achieved through the management of woodland. The Yorkshire Dales has never been as densely wooded as the south and west of the country and to a degree the abundance of stone was put to good advantage in constructing buildings of stone rather than timber. There appears to have been a local shortage of heavy constructional timber in the Medieval period, for the timber used in the building of Bolton Castle in Wensleydale was sourced from the Forest of Engleby in Cumberland.


The history of woodland management can be traced back at least 5,000 years to the Neolithic period when the first farmers utilised naturally occurring unplanted woodlands as a source of sticks and poles to make fences to contain their livestock and firewood for cooking and heating. The continual cutting of trees might have led to the disappearance of woodland, but for the ability of most British broadleaved trees to regrow from cut stumps which gave rise to a method of woodland management known as coppicing, where a tree is systematically cut down to almost ground level to leave a ‘stool’ from which new growth arises. Because the regrowth is particularly palatable to grazing livestock, it was necessary to enclose coppices within a stockproof barrier such as a hedge for at least seven years after cutting to enable the trees to put on sufficient growth to withstand grazing. Many woods were coppiced in rotation, in which a set area was cut each year. By relating the cutting areas, occasionally known as ‘coupes’ or ‘cants’, to the overall area of a wood, it was possible to gain a constant supply of wood without destroying the woodland – an early example of what today would be called ‘sustainable management’. In the Dales, rotations of 25 years or more were commonplace, compared with the shorter periods in southern England, where the climate is more amenable and trees grow faster.


There is an excellent example of a coppice wood in Freeholders’ Wood at Aysgarth in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. In this 32 acre (12ha) wood, which is owned and managed by the National Park Authority, you can see coppice management at first hand and in the nearby National Park Centre, learn about the long history of the wood and its use by the 30 ‘freeholders’ of Carperby village. The freeholders enjoy the ancient right of estovers – the right to take small wood for fuel. This right passes between the successive owners of each qualifying property in Carperby, and is not vested in individuals. In the 19th century each freeholder also had the right to graze a cow in the wood.


Many coppice woods in the Yorkshire Dales, particularly those belonging to large landowners, were used for industrial purposes. Many contain archaeological features which have resulted from their former use and management. These woods were used for a variety of purposes, mostly connected with the mining and processing of minerals. These activities required a constant supply of wood and timber for making equipment for the mines, for pit-props and for fuelwood.


For many centuries charcoal-making was an important Industry in coppiced woodland, for charcoal provided the principal fuel used in smelting the ores of iron and lead. Most broadleaved tree species were used for this purpose, but alder was particularly important as its charcoal could also be used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Another fuel, known as ‘white coal’, was used extensively for smelting lead, in which it was mixed with charcoal to reduce the intensity of the fire. In some woods, for example, Ivelet Wood in Swaledale and Grass Wood, near Grassington, you may discover bowl-shaped depressions with spouts that face downslope. These are the sites of chop-kilns, or ‘elling hearths’ used for producing ‘white coal’ (kiln-dried wood). White coal was so named because the bark was stripped from cut poles before they were dried. Oak bark was an important and valuable by-product of coppice woodland, being the source of tannin used by tanners for converting animal hides into leather. Bark was used in the tanning process until chemical substitutes became available in the early 20th century.


Technically Ivelet Wood is an area of wood pasture, an area of common land where commoners can graze their livestock and have access to woodland to supply firewood and sometimes timber. As grazing pressure has reduced on this relatively remote steep valley side, the woodland element has become more dominant. Elsewhere many former wood pastures have been overgrazed and become almost indistinguishable from other pastures, especially where common rights were extinguished as part of the Enclosure movement. Their former presence can sometimes be recognised from the existence of clusters of pollard trees or from place names. Pollards were trees whose branches were periodically lopped off about 2 metres above ground level. The resulting regrowth was out of the reach of grazing animals.


Alder coppice was a source of raw materials for making clog soles and large areas of alder woodland along watercourses and in other damp areas were regularly cut over by clogmakers until the early years of the 20th century.


Paradoxically, the industrial use of woodlands did not lead to their destruction but to their preservation, as a constant supply of wood was dependent upon the careful management of woodland.


In the present day, it will be apparent that the amount of woodland cover varies between individual dales. Wensleydale appears to be less wooded than Wharfedale, whereas Nidderdale is more wooded than Swaledale. The reason for this is rooted in the forms of land tenure present in the Medieval period. The woodland in dales held by religious orders was more intensively managed for industrial purposes than woodland in the dales under secular control, where the emphasis was less on industry and more on the pursuit of game.


Overall, the characteristics of the woodland are related to land-use and the hand of the small farmer can be seen in the coppicing of small fragments of woodland and management of hedgerows. This is particularly apparent around West Burton in Wensleydale where the hedged fields are more reminiscent of Devon than North Yorkshire.

Contributor: Ian Dormor



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