Nowadays the word ‘forest’ is usually taken to mean a large, densely wooded area. The association of the Forestry Commission with plantations of conifers has helped equate ‘forest’ with dense, mainly coniferous woodland. However, the word Forest, as in the New Forest, Forest of Dean, Sherwood Forest and others described an area that was subjected by the king to special law, called Forest Law, concerned with game and hunting. Forests were not necessarily wooded, and many comprised large areas of heath and moorland. A Forest was a place of deer, not of trees (Rackham, O, 1986).
William the Conqueror introduced the system of Forest Law, which had long been operating in Europe. By Domesday (1086) there were about 25 Forests, and the number grew until by the time of King John (1199-1216) there were 143 Forests in England. Although the hunting of deer and other game was important, the operation of the Law and the revenue gathering which accompanied it was the main reason for the Forests’ existence. A corrupt bureaucracy developed, and the tension caused between the king and the nobility led to the curtailment of the king’s power under Magna Carta (1215), after which no more Forests were created in England.
The location of Forests was related partly to existing Crown lands and palaces, which needed provisions of deer and game for feasting and entertaining. Forests were mainly on heath and moorland soils which were not suitable for cultivation. The most wooded areas of England, such as the Weald and the Chilterns, had few Forests. The total area of Forest in England was about one million acres, or 3% of the land area, but less than half was wood-pasture. The Crown did not have a dominant interest, as Forests included commons with pre-existing common rights, and most of the grazing and woodcutting was done by the landowners and commoners.
Similar systems developed in Wales and Scotland, with over 100 Forests created in Wales and about 150 in Scotland. The Forest system slowly declined in England, with many subject to Enclosure Acts, which turned them over to commercial forestry or low-grade agriculture. In Wales and Scotland the Forests lasted much longer than in England, with some operating in Scotland until modern times.
Many of these ancient Forests keep their names, but as an institution, only the New Forest survives, with its courts, verderers and other traditions. Many Forests retain important areas of wood-pasture, heathland, moorland and other valuable habitats. Some of the ancient trees of Windsor Forest still exist in what is now Windsor Great Park, and the New Forest contains an exceptional number of ancient trees.