What is forest?

The excellent UK site History and Policy carries a paper by Ben Cowell, written earlier this year, in the wake of the UK government’s proposal to sell off much of the public forest estate. There was a public outcry, which appeared to take the government by surprise. Cowell suggests that had policy-makers been more aware of the history of contestation regarding rights and access to forest, the government would not only have been more prepared, but may also have formulated its proposal differently.

In the article, Cowell outlines how claims over forests have been contested for at least 800 years in the United Kingdom, and historically, so important was access to forests, the Magna Carta (1215) contained clauses setting out rights to forests. These were later expanded upon in the Charter of the Forest (1217), which unlike the Magna Carta (which dealt with the rights of barons), provided for rights, privileges and protections for commoners in relation to access to forest lands. This was significant because forests were critical to the economic well-being of commoners: it was  the most important potential source of fuel for cooking, heating and charcoal burning, as well as as a source of food, and a place to graze animals. (There were in fact specific terms for these rights: pannage referred to providing pasture for pigs; estover to collecting firewood; agistment to grazing, and turbary to cutting of turf for fuel.)

Importantly, the term “forest” did not refer to the physical meaning that we associate it with today: i.e., “a large tract of land covered with trees and underbrush”, rather it was a legal definition – an area of land over which the Crown exercised rights of hunting and timber harvesting. “Forest” was not limited to woodland, but could include heath, grassland and wetland – indeed anywhere deer and other game could be hunted. Cowell’s paper further suggests that the word derives from the Latin “foris”, meaning “outside” – therefore it was a term that related to a legal boundary rather than a category of landscape.

It would be interesting to explore what “forest” means to people in the New Zealand context (and whether we inherited any of these ideas of forest, given the dominance of our English and Scottish (and Irish) ancestry). Given our very different history, and different historical interactions with forest in New Zealand, it would likely be a quite different – but equally illuminating – discussion.*

* Noting for instance, our traditional avoidance of the term altogether, by referring to indigenous forest as “bush”.

Photo top: New Forest, a former royal hunting area in the south of England. It was created in 1079 by William I (known as William the Conqueror) as a hunting area, principally of deer. Picture above right: “Pigs grazing in forest” a print from 1871.

Source/further reading: Forests, the Magna Carta, and the “New Commons”: Some thoughts for the Forest Panel

2 thoughts on “What is forest?

  1. envirohistorynz December 10, 2011 / 1:28 pm

    In an email response to this post, Ben Cowell, the author of the article discussed, provided the following comments:

    I was really interested to read your blog, and your thoughts on how the word ‘forest’ might apply in NZ. Here in the UK the forests issue has not gone away – it is currently the subject of a review by an independent panel, which will be publishing an interim report shortly. The precise definition of ‘forest’ is one of the issues they have been grappling with – hence my posting.

    I was also inspired to write as a result of my involvement with a fascinating academic research programme that has just ended in the UK – the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Landscape and Environment programme. It has funded various fascinating environmental history projects, and there is great interest in the links between academic enquiry in this field and the practice of policymaking.

    More information on the programme can be seen here: http://www.landscape.ac.uk/landscape/index.aspx

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