Interactions between human industry and woodland ecology in the South Pennines: 1600 – present

Quarry track and oak coppice, Long & Scarr Woods, Copley, Halifax. Photo taken by H Lewis, reproduced with permission of N Kasanicka.

Quarry track and oak coppice, Long & Scarr Woods, Copley, Halifax. Photo taken by H Lewis, reproduced with permission of N Kasanicka.

The early modern period saw intense economic and social changes in many parts of Britain. Industrial growth was not based solely on fossil fuels, but on sources of renewable energy: water, wind and wood. For an upland region like the South Pennines during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, woodlands were not only a resource but often a site of industrial activity. Trees would be stripped of bark for tanneries, felled and then converted into charcoal to feed local ironworks. Large amounts of wood were required for supporting the expanding mining sector, as well as numerous other industries such as wool-combing, clog-making, lead-smelting and construction. From around 1600, these intensifying patterns of use are visible in the increasing management and value of woodlands in the region. The extent and type of industrial activities were influenced by the existing nature of the landscape, changed how woodlands were managed and had long-lasting impacts on woodland ecology.

Over the course of the 1800s, improved transport links and changing technology extinguished the role of wood as an industrial resource in the South Pennines. Woodlands were rapidly re-invented as spaces for amenity, leisure and health. This is a perception which was only strengthened during the 20th century.

Now there is another shift under way. In a world concerned with notions of sustainability and locality, there is growing interest in the role that wood can play in the economy of the region. This change inevitably causes tensions within communities, often based on a polarised view of woodland history – are these spaces for working or walking? Felling or feeling? One problem is that this history is grossly under-researched, and what is known is rarely publicised. This project aims to use a multidisciplinary approach to bring this forgotten history to light, and facilitate an informed, and hopefully shared, redefinition of our woodland heritage.

Many methods will be used to unearth evidence. Archival documents such as estate records, conveyances and timber sales provide a rich insight into how woods were worked and perceived, owned and sold. Old maps tell us about changing boundaries and can be given new life by techniques such as LiDAR. This can highlight woodland archaeology, which exists in great quantities but has not been investigated. Excavation of charcoal hearths will hopefully yield valuable material for analysis – charcoal fragments can provide information about past woodland management and ecosystems. Evidence for woodland management can also come from pollen analysis and the ‘living archaeology’ of veteran trees. Interviews will be conducted with people who have borne witness to changes in woodlands during the twentieth century. This oral history will play an important role in ensuring that knowledge of the recent past is not lost.

This research will lean heavily on the expertise of local history groups, and will run alongside a project initiated by Pennine Prospects: Celebrating our Woodland Heritage in the South Pennines. Engagement with the public will be a key factor in the success of this research – information will be shared in an accessible manner so that concepts of woodland heritage are based, as much as possible, on the evidence of the past. This will include events such as traditional charcoal-burning, work with educators, talks to local groups, published material, as well as working with a number of organisations such as The National Trust, local authorities, Forest of Bradford and The Woodland Trust.


Hywel Lewis is a Heritage Consortium PhD student based at the University of Bradford, and his secondary institution is the University of Hull. He gained a first class undergraduate Masters degree in Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham in 2005. In the intervening years he has been a self-employed dry stone waller before helping to establish Blackbark Woodland Management LLP in 2011. This is a workers’ co-operative focused on bringing woodlands in Calderdale and East Lancashire into regenerative management, selling firewood, sawn timber and niche woodland products.

Supervisors: Dr Jill Thompson, Dr Jane Bunting and Dr Ian Rotherham