The Forgotten Forest

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When visiting the Northumberland coast this autumn, I stumbled across the remnants of a past ecosystem. What at first appeared to be logs washed up on the shore turned out to be remains of an ancient forest that once grew here. Jutting out from beneath the sand and pebbles is a thick, black layer of peat resting on top of clay that has been exposed by the turbulent sea. Tree stumps erupt from the peat, with tangled roots sinking beneath the former woodland floor.

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Peat resting upon the layer of clay on Low Hauxley beach
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The trees are still in the same places where they grew 7,000 years ago
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The surface of the peat is still soft and spongy

Gradually being exposed by the actions of the sea, the old forest on Low Hauxley beach dates back approximately 7,000 years. Despite their age, the tree stumps are very well preserved, appearing to have only died a few years ago.

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7,000 year old tree stump
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Fragments of Silver birch bark is beautifully preserved in the surface of the peat

Following on from my previous paleoecology post, I thought it would be interesting to look at the landscape back then and see what species were co-existing with modern humans in the British Isles. Archaeologists found signs of human footprints, alongside those of brown bear, wild boar and red deer on the surface of the peat.

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A human footprint-shaped indentation in the peat

These woodlands were composed of pine and oak with alder, birch and hazel. Part of a mosaic of scrub, marshland and boggy areas, these habitats connected with Doggerland: an area of land that connected Britain with mainland Europe before sea levels rose high enough in 5900 BC to transform Britain into an island.

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Oak, pine and silver birch

It is interesting to discover the remains of these fairly recent ecosystems, of which remnants exist today. Imagine how Britain’s habitats would have looked like from satellite images since the end of the last glacial: from thick ice sheets and tundra over 10,000 years ago, to an almost entirely human dominated landscape today. During this interglacial, the climate has warmed and cooled, habitats have dramatically shifted in size and distribution, and wildlife has moved with them.

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Many forests flooded as sea levels rose

7,000 years ago, Mesolithic Britain was a land of vast forests spreading out to the horizon, with pockets of riverine habitats, fens and heaths. Woodlands covered almost 60% of the country and grasslands covered less than 20%.

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Mixed deciduous woodland covered around 43% of Mesolithic Britain

Tarpan (a species of extinct horse) roamed in herds through the marshland and woodlands. Beavers coppiced small trees and created open pools, benefitting a wide range of other species: fish, birds, insects. Elk and deer browsed amongst the trees, pursued by wolves. And people. In this wild landscape, humans had an impact as prominent hunters, with a primarily meat-based diet.

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Large mammals would become easier targets in open habitats such as marshland or grassland

Late Mesolithic humans of the time were hunter-gatherers, entirely dependent on the flora and fauna they lived alongside. Our ancestors exploited a wide range of animals for protein, from ungulates to smaller mammals. Plants were an important source of nutrition in the form of fruit, nuts and roots.

One site in North Yorkshire (Star Carr) found that the Mesolithic diet of large animals consisted of mainly aurochs, followed by elk, deer and boar. Fur from beaver, fox and pine marten was utilised by the hunters, and they also kept domestic dogs. Red deer skulls were even used in shamanic rituals.

Today, a walk in the woods is a chance to relax, escape the stresses of modern life and connect with nature. 7,000 years ago, the woods were our home, essential for our livelihoods, providing food, fuel and shelter. They were also a place of danger, with threats from carnivores such as bears and wolves and large herbivores too. Perhaps our instinctual fears of these ancient hazards are why woods are used frequently as locations for scary scenes on film.

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Although humans were skilled hunters, they would still have been vulnerable in the woods

Only recently have humans become less reliant on local woodlands and other habitats for meeting their needs. Yet the natural world is still crucial for our wellbeing: of over 100,000 years of the existence of Homo sapiens, we have spent only 4% of that time living in urban environments. Studies have found that there are myriad benefits when we connect with the natural world: “If we don’t build nature and wildlife into the very fabric of our society, we will fail to stem chronic diseases, high stress and associated poor mental health.”*

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We are still inextricably linked to the natural world, gaining a variety of benefits from the environment

It may seem like an incredibly long time ago that we were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, but we well are adapted for living in natural environments. Our evolution is intertwined with the existence of the rich variety of plants and animals we have always lived alongside. 7,000 years ago, our ancestors may well have appreciated the heady scent of bluebells in spring, the sweet song of blackcaps and blackbirds and the rich colours of the leaves in autumn.

Although many of the large animals they lived alongside are extinct or rare in Britain today, small areas of their habitats still exist. Hopefully we can continue to preserve the special species and habitats we live with today so they are still here in the years to come.

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Natural events led to the demise of this forest, but thousands of years ago there was still plenty of space for large tracts of woodland to thrive in Britain.

 

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