Old Growth Forests and Ancient Woodlands

by Michael Smith (Veshengro), RFA

An old growth forest, ancient or primary forest or ancient woodland, is a woodland of great age that exhibits unique biological features. Depending on tree species and forest type, the age can be from 150 to 500 years.

Old growth forests typically contain a mixture of large live and dead trees or "snags", while unharvested fallen tree logs in various states of decay litter the forest floor.

Foresters and botanists use certain criteria to determine old growth forests. Sufficient age and minimal disturbance is necessary to be classified as old growth. The characteristics of old-growth forest include the presence of older trees, minimal signs of human disturbance, mixed-age stands, canopy openings due to tree falls, pit-and-mound topography, downed and decaying wood, standing snags, multi-layered canopies, intact soils, a healthy fungal ecosystem, and presence of indicator species.

Second growth forest are forests regenerated after harvests or severe disruptions like fire, storms or insects is often referred to as a second-growth forest or regeneration until a long enough period has passed that the effects of the disturbance are no longer evident. Depending on the forest, to become old growth again may take anywhere from a century to several millennia.

Old growths forests are extremely important as old growth forests are often rich communities of great biodiversity harboring wide varieties of plants and animals. These species must live under stable conditions free from severe disturbance. Some of these creatures are rare.

The age of the oldest trees in an ancient forest indicates that destructive events over a long period were of moderate intensity and did not kill all the vegetation. Some suggest that old growth forests are carbon "sinks" that lock up carbon and help prevent global warming.

As said earlier, the characteristics of old-growth forest include the presence of older trees, minimal signs of human disturbance and therefore in Britain and much of Europe there are no real “ancient woodlands” and this despite the fact that many misguided and ill-informed environmentalists claim that there are. The great majority of all those forests and woodlands have been touched by human hands and many until not so long ago. All the woodlands often referred to as thus are in fact old coppice woodlands that have been worked up until the 1950's and cannot every return by itself to Nature.

Only at the border between Poland and Belarus there is a more or less primeval forest containing the last herds of European bison. Further in the East then, behind the Urals, there it is possible to find real ancient forests and woodlands. All other European woods and forests have, however, at one time or the other, often well into the not so distant future, been worked by man for human benefit.

The previously mentioned coppice woodlands of Southern England, for instance, if left to “return to Nature”, as is being demanded by those environmentalists that have no knowledge of forestry, will simply fall apart. Without man's intervention the thousand to fifteen hundred year old coppice stools will simple break apart and that will be the end then of those woods.

For this very reason, e.g. the fact that unless those coppice woodlands will break apart – literally – if not worked in the next couple of years again by woodsmen and underwoodsmen. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the use of those woodlands as productive woodlands would be re-initiated. Now would be a good time to start. The coppice stools will otherwise, if not coppiced again in the next couple of years, literally break apart and that will be the end of the trees and of the woodlands.

While it is often thought that ONLY old growth forests are carbon "sinks" that lock up carbon and help prevent global warming but in a way all forests, ancient and more modern, contribute towards the prevention of climate change. The term “global warming” is rather misleading nowadays as the warming, in fact, stopped about seven years ago and plateaued out and has remained at the same level ever since. Climate will, nevertheless, still change until the temperatures will fall again, as they have always been doing in this cyclic changes the Earth seems to be going through every 1000 or so years.

© M Smith (Veshengro), July 2008