The Charter of the Forest

The Charter of the Forest

The Char­ter of the For­est

This year is the 800th anniver­sary of the sign­ing of the Char­ter of the For­est.  It was a com­pan­ion doc­u­ment to the Magna Carta and this char­ter re-established the rights of com­mon­ers to free access across land that had been taken away or “afforested” by the Nor­man kings.   In this period, a “for­est” was a place of hunt­ing, not nec­es­sar­ily a place of trees. It included heath­lands, grass­lands and wet­lands.  The word “forestis” was orig­i­nally a medieval legal def­i­n­i­tion declar­ing an area under the King’s law. It is refer­ring to being out­side (Foris) the com­mon law.  It was only in the 19th cen­tury that for­est became syn­ony­mous with “plan­ta­tions”, and later the birth of the Forestry Com­mis­sion in 1919 as a new tim­ber indus­try evolved in place of the older tra­di­tions of cop­pic­ing with standards.

Not many peo­ple realise, but vir­tu­ally the whole of Corn­wall and Devon were des­ig­nated a Royal For­est under the reign of King John to hold rights over access and hunt­ing.   This caused wide­spread resent­ment since the peo­ple pre­vi­ously had rights to graze, to for­age, to pan­nage [allow pigs to feed on acorns], to hunt and to take wood.  Such was the oppo­si­tion that in 1204 these areas were “dis­af­forested” and only the more open Dart­moor and Exmoor were retained as Royal Forests.

The Darley Oak

The Dar­ley Oak

In Corn­wall, the Dar­ley Oak near Upton Cross, may be the only ancient tree to have sur­vived from that period as a Royal For­est.  In other parts of the coun­try, the For­est pro­tec­tion was more con­tin­u­ous such as Epping and Sher­wood Forests and many more ancients sur­vive.  How­ever, the Nor­man lords and Earls were so keen to hunt the deer, they intro­duced the fal­low deer and sought per­mis­sion to “empark” spe­cial areas within their lands with banks and cleaved oak planks called a “park pale” to keep the deer in. With the Kings per­mis­sion these became pro­tected reserves for sole use of the landown­ers and their guests for deer hunting.

Corn­wall had at least 18 hunt­ing parks, includ­ing Restormel and Bocon­noc, many of which have sur­vived in some form until today.  These have become the sanc­tu­ary of valu­able ancient trees because they were keenly pro­tected.  The very old­est trees have a huge range of asso­ci­ated wildlife, which can include ferns, birds, bats and fungi as well as a hun­dreds of asso­ci­ated insects and other inver­te­brates.  In his new book, Aljos Far­jon states that Eng­land has 126 liv­ing ancient oaks of 9m girth or more while the rest of Europe includ­ing Scot­land and Wales has only 97 (A 9m girth tree could be 850 years old).  We are now the stew­ards for a hugely impor­tant land­scapes and ancient trees of immense bio­di­ver­sity value. The land­scapes in which these grew were typ­i­cally wood pas­tures with some wood­lands, not dense forests, and these led to the wide spread­ing open grown oaks we recog­nise today.

The Drayton oak, Shropshire, with a 9 metre girth.  Photographed on an ecological survey of the Raby Estate.

The Dray­ton oak, Shrop­shire, with a 9 metre girth. Pho­tographed on an eco­log­i­cal sur­vey of the Raby Estate.

The Corn­wall Ancient Tree Forum is one of sev­eral local groups affil­i­ated to the national ATF.  It under­takes tree record­ing, organ­ises field vis­its, pro­vides man­age­ment advice and pro­duces a newslet­ter.  Key mem­bers can pro­vide talks, train­ing for vol­un­teers in tree record­ing or for pro­fes­sion­als in man­ag­ing vet­eran trees and sites.  Con­tact if you would like to find out more or be put on the mail­ing list. We would also like to hear from you if you think you may have dis­cov­ered a new ancient or vet­eran tree or would like some advice


Tim Kel­let

Corn­wall Ancient Tree Forum