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International Year of Forests – History of Woodland on Merseyside

A photo of early morning sun among the Oaks and Plane trees of Sefton park, Liverpool.

Golden Park Woods by Wild Eepe, via Flickr

This year has been declared as the International Year of Forests by the UN (see the Echo for some of Liverpool’s plans).

Many of you may already appreciate the ecological importance of the west coast of Lancashire, and the very modern Mersey Forest (8 million new trees planted since 1994), but there’s a much longer and fascinating history of woodland and forest in this area.

The origins of the woodland

As the glaciers of the last ice age began to retreat about 12 – 10,000 years ago the dry land left behind became tundra – a cold, dry landscape only slowly populated with shrubs, moss and lichen.

Only gradually did the first woodland – larger plants such as juniper, then birch, hazel, elm and oak – establish themselves. By around 5000 years ago a forest we might call familiar – oak and elm – had become permanent features of the landscape. It was around this time that humans made their first impacts on the natural environment.

Prehistoric woodland

The earliest periods of human activity in the north west of England are the Mesolithic and Neolithic (the middle and new stone ages). As the effects of melting ice had not fully taken effect, the sea was around 20m lower than it is today. If you’ve visited the Crosby coast you’ll know just how shallow the slope of the land is, and so the coast was 15-20km further out than it is now.

It wasn’t only humans and animals which occupied this land, but of course also the trees of the widespread oak woodland. As the sea level rose and the land was flooded, these trees were submerged and protected under layers of water and silt. The petrified remains of tree stumps can therefore still be seen at low tide right across the coast from Anglesey to Southport.

As well as the drowned trees, areas further inland would have suffered from periodic flooding and water-logging, creating marshy ground, ponds and streams.

By the Neolithic, gaps started to appear in the woodland, trees being felled by humans, who used the land for their first attempts at farming.

As time moved on through the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages (and into the Roman period), wherever people settled the forest was cleared. The climate had also become colder and wetter again at the beginning of the Bronze Age, and so marshlands and bogs spread to replace tree cover.

Medieval Merseyside

One of the major sources of evidence for medieval settlement in the region comes from place names, but these often give little glimpse of the woods of the period (they mostly talk of ‘British farm’, ‘boundary river’ and ‘settlement’). An exception is West Derby (deorby = enclosure with deer, or a hunting park), and we know that Edward the Confessor had a hunting lodge in the area (possibly that which once sat on Lodge Lane). This suggests that the landscape (perhaps for many miles beyond West Derby itself) was covered in trees and pasture – suitable habitat for the deer.

It’s important at this point to define a special use of the word ‘Forest’. A Royal Forest was not just a collection of trees; it was a space likely enclosed by a bank and ditch, known as a pale, perhaps even with a fence on top, and came with a whole host of regulations, privileges and restrictions on its use.

Roger of Poictou, one of William of Normandy’s allies in the invasion of 1066, was rewarded with the Hundred of West Derby, and brought Toxteth, Croxteth and Smithdown into one royal forest, cementing West Derby’s administrative importance then, and paving the way for Liverpool’s birth two hundred years later.

Toxteth and its Park

Toxteth remained as a fenced-off royal park for hundreds of years, and in fact the restrictions on building or farming in royal parks began to hinder Liverpool’s growth in the 16th Century. James I eventually ‘disparked’ Toxteth in 1604, and entrepreneurial farmers rapidly began to take advantage of the newly available land, transforming it from tree-and-pasture to pastoral and arable land.

While there was no longer much royal passion for hunting in Liverpool, the city grew rapidly in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and farming, industry and housing nibbled away at the edges of rural Lancashire. It was only in the late 19th Century that efforts were made to preserve some of these green and pleasant areas for both the rich merchant classes who lived in Toxteth, and the poorer workers who occupied much of the inner city and inner suburbs (Kirkdale, Everton and eventually also Toxteth).

For this reason we have a string of parks around the old city boundary, two of which – Princes and Sefton Parks – could be said to have remained undeveloped right from the era of the medieval hunting forest (although whether any of the trees there today have such a long pedigree is questionable!).

Woodland on Merseyside

We leave off where we came in: with the Mersey Forest. This modern project could be said to be the successor to the ‘green lungs’ of Liverpool which were opened in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It could also be seen to be restoring the natural woodland which covered the area for millennia before Liverpool started to thrive.

The ancient woodland of this part of the world developed gradually after the last ice age, but was slowly cleared by prehistoric communities of humans who used the land to farm and rear animals. This process was slow at first, of course, and eventually much of the woodland was fenced off and protected from change by royal order.

Over the past 200 years industrial and commercial concerns saw the clearance of almost all the woodland, until the city’s benevolent (or self-interested) rich put new walls in place, to protect parks for the benefit of all the city’s inhabitants. Still the environment deteriorated in the face of human action until the later years of the 20th Century. Preservation of natural resources became a much more prominent concern, and in 1994 the Mersey Forest was created as ‘woodlands on your doorstep’.

The project, via the Mersey Forest partnership, has had great success in regenerating woodland on Merseyside, as set out in their ‘5 Facts’:

  1. Through community and partnership working, we have planted more than 8 million trees.
  2. To date more than 6,000 hectares of new woodland and improved habitats have been achieved, an area 500 times the size of Wembley Stadium.
  3. Since 1994, more than 70% of the woodlands in The Mersey Forest have been brought into management to secure their long-term future.
  4. For every £1 invested in The Mersey Forest, £8 of outputs is generated, thanks to the way we maximise our funding.
  5. 60% of people living in The Mersey Forest use their local woodlands – with nearly 20% visiting at least once a week.

So in this International Year of Forests, take some time to appreciate Liverpool’s long forest history, and hope that Merseyside’s woodlands will continue to thrive for millennia more.