Forests are the lifeblood of the planet, providing habitats for myriad animals across the the UK as well as helping to maintain the balance of the air around us.
Explore some of the UK’s most spectacular trees and woodlands, from wildlife-rich Kielder Forest in Northumberland to the giant pine trees of Scotland with our guide to the best forests and woodlands in the UK.
Ancient woods make demands on us: walk slower, be quieter, be still, listen to the age-old wisdom of trees. Age matters in nature, fosters continuity. Continuity matters in nature, fosters stable ecosystems. Stable ecosystems matter in nature, maximise opportunities.
The most stable ecosystems are the oldest, the least disturbed, the most natural, the ancient. ‘Ancient’ woods are, by the definition of our own era, older than AD1600. Why 1600? Because after that date, woodland planting began and has become commonplace ever since, so before that date the chances are that woods evolved by nature’s hand and at nature’s pace, like the mountains and the oceans.
How many forests are there in the UK?
According to the latest report by Forest Research, which was released in June 2019, the UK has 1.40 million hectares, including all Forestry Commission, Forestry and Land Scotland, Natural Resources Wales, Forest Service woodland.
It estimates that the area of woodland in the UK as of 31st March 2019 is estimated to be 3.19 million hectares. This represents 13% of the total land area in the UK, 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.
Thirteen thousand hectares of newly created woodland were reported in the UK in 2018-19, according to Forest Research. (Getty Images)
Who looks after Britain’s forests and woodlands?
The Forestry Commission recently celebrated its centenary, marking 100 years since essential work and tree planting was carried out to replenish Britain’s forests after the First World War. While the state owns much of the woodlands in Britain, the government body, the Forestry Commission, maintains the majority of the woodlands and forests in England. In Wales, the commission merged with Natural Resources Wales in 2013.
In Scotland, woodlands and forests are looked after by Forestry and Land Scotland while Scottish Forestry is responsible for policy and regulation.
In Northern Ireland, forests are managed by the Forest Service of Northern Ireland.
The First World War changed many things in Britain, and the country’s woodlands were no exception, with the conflict ultimately transforming Britain’s forests. Did you know that just 100 years ago many of the forests we enjoy in England today didn’t even exist?
Founded in September 1919, the Forestry Commission began work to restore England’s forests and woodlands that had been lost during the First World War. Celebrating its centenary year in 2019, our guide looks at the history of the UK’s forests and woodlands, wildlife to spot and the best forests to visit.
What does the Forestry Commission do?
The strain of the First World War left woodlands in a state in disrepair, and by 1919, woodland cover was at an all time low of 5%. It was decided that an urgent solution was needed, and on the 1st September 1919, The Forestry Act was passed.
This act created the Forestry Commission – a body that would create woods and forests owned by the state.
Today, the commission is England’s largest land manager and custodian of the nation’s public forests. It manages the nation’s forests, which consists of around 20% of England’s woodland.
Best forest and woodlands in the UK
Grizedale, Cumbria/Credit: Getty
Set right in the heart of the Lake District, between Windermere and Coniston, Grizedale Forest offers wonderful walks, thrilling mountain bike trails and artful sculptures, not to mention the stunning Lakeland views.
Home to the only remaining indigenous woodland red deer herd in England, Grizeland is a haven for wildlife with roe deer and red kites to be seen along with barn owls and buzzards.
Find magical sculptures among the trees on an eight-walk through this hilly Lake District forest.
Rydal and Grasmere, Cumbria
A stroll in the footsteps of the Wordsworth family offers exquisite reflections of autumn colour in the still waters of Rydal Water at Grasmere in the Lake District ©Getty
On 23 October 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her journal: “A breathless, grey day that leaves the golden woods of autumn quiet in their tranquillity, stately and beautiful in their decaying. The lake is a perfect mirror.”
A six-mile circular tour around Grasmere and Rydal Water illustrates perfectly how her description of the autumnal landscape is just as evocative today as it was when she wrote it in her journal 215 years ago.
Kielder Forest, Northumberland
Kielder water resevoir and forest in Northumberland ©Getty Getty
Explore tranquil Kielder Water, the uk’s largest man-made lake, tethered to the western border of Northumberland National Park. Surrounding the water is the largest working forest in England (250 square miles), home to a wealth of wildlife including ospreys.
Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
Forest of Dean ©Getty
Take a walk or cycle along one of the Forest of Dean’s numerous trails, passing time-worn stations and former collieries through enchanting ancient woodland.
In Autumn, amidst a ruddy blaze of oaks, beeches, larches and sweet chestnuts, it’s easy to forget that this land has been shaped by industry, from tree-felling for shipbuilding in the 16th century to coal mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Relics of this past are dotted throughout the forest, including the former Lightmoor Colliery at Foxes Bridge, which closed in 1930.
Explore this spectacular forest with our family bike ride through over muddy trails in search of one of Britain’s most elusive mammals, the wild boar.
Rivington Wood, Lancashire
Sunlight breaks through the remains of Rivington Terraced Gardens, designed by Thomas Mawson between 1905-1922 ©Alamy
In the early 20th century, soap baron Lord Leverhulme created a terraced garden of Japanese lakes, pagodas, archways, Romanesque bridges and an elaborate ballroom. By 1925 it was all abandoned and today is being reclaimed by nature.
Like the remains of a lost civilisation, the ruins and follies of Lord Leverhulme’s terraced gardens add a real spirit of adventure and discovery to an autumn exploration of Rivington Wood.
Unearth crumbling archways and overgrown terraces with a three-mile walk.
Hackfall, North Yorkshire
Overgrown temple in Hackfall Wood ©Getty
The beautiful Hackfall Wood near the village of Grewelthorpe between the Yorkshire Dales and Moors appears to be wholly natural but it in fact owes a lot of its current appearance to the intervention of John Aislabie, who bought the land in the 18th century, and his decedents. John was famous for his landscaping work at Fountains Abbey, while his son William built many follies in the woods that line the winding River Ure. Recommended by Wordsworth in his tour guides and responsible for inspiring JMW Turner, this is enchanting woodland.
Padley Gorge, Derbyshire
Millstones dot the forest floor ©Getty
The river Derwent arcs through the eastern Peak District in a wooded vale with looming moorland shoulders.
Tributaries tumble from the tops, foaming amid wizened woodlands little-changed in centuries. Padley Gorge has the best of these, draining Burbage Moor to the Derwent at Grindleford. An enchanting stroll explores this chasm before looping up through woodland-shrouded industrial heritage.
Priestley Wood, Suffolk
Priestley Wood ©Roger Jones, Geograph
One of the best spots for spring blooms in the country; Priestley Wood is a veritable burst of colour from March onwards.
Over 130 plants and flowers have been identified in the woods with wild garlic making an appearance alongside various orchids, primrose and bluebells. In amongst the flowering plant-life, it is possible to find one of the county’s two wild pear trees. However, the fruit is inedible so sadly won’t provide a nice snack to go with the picnic.
New Forest, Hampshire
Bratley View in the New Forest ©Getty
Many visitors leave the New Forest slightly disappointed.
Having expected a sprawling expanse of thick woodland, they are faced with vast areas of heather moorland punctuated by coppices and woods that are home to a plethora of wildlife, including the famous New Forest ponies, the grazing cattle, deer, red kites and flora unique to the region.
Here, the word ‘forest’ refers to its ancient meaning: a royal hunting ground. In fact, it’s not all that new either, having been planted during the reign of William the Conqueror, so the name is a little bit of a misconception.
All the same, there are countless walks, activities, picnic areas and several scenic drives to enjoy in what is a beautiful part of southern England.
Ingleton Falls, North Yorkshire
Pecca Falls ©Getty
The Ingleton Waterfalls Trail in North Yorkshire is a wonderful walk along the rivers Twiss and Doe, steeped with trees on both banks. The trail takes in nine woodland waterfalls over the four-mile trek around some of Yorkshire’s most lovely countryside on the edge of the Dales.
It’s easy to see why it has been designated a site of special scientific interest.
Open since 1885, the trail is on private land so it does cost a small fee to follow the trail, but it’s worth it. What greets you is a series of spectacular falls set in beautiful woodland – Thornton Force is a particular highlight.
For information about how to help preserve and enjoy our ancient woodlands, visit the Woodland Trust website.
Cragside sits between the Northumberland National Park and the North Sea coastline ©Getty
A grand water-powered mansion, built by a vastly wealthy and eccentric Victorian inventor, cloaked in dense woodland dotted with follies, grottos and burbling brooks.
It sounds a place conjured in a work of fiction, but Cragside does indeed exist, in the wilds of Northumberland.
Take a walk through the grounds and look out for Douglas fir, western hemlock, giant sequoia – some towering above 50m – along with beech, Norway spruce, pedunculate oak, Norway maple, Scots pine, larch, common lime and silver birch, creating a majestic riot of autumn colour. It’s a true woodland wonder.
Teign Gorge, Devon
Hannicombe Wood in Teign Gorge ©Getty
The River Teign tumbles off windswept moors, swirling and carving through a spectacular gorge overhung with crooked oaks and beeches. The fresh autumn air invigorates the soul, while the peace is occasionally broken by the chilling bellows of a stag ready to rut.
Deep within this valley in the northern fringes of Dartmoor National Park, an ancient woodland is returning.
Banagher Glen, County Derry
Banagher Glen, County Derry ©Getty
Banagher Glen in Northern Ireland is one of very few pieces of forest in the United Kingdom that is just about untouched by human hands – at least as far as deforestation is concerned.
Set back upon a steep ravine, carved out by the Glenedra and Altnaheglish rivers, the trees are difficult to access and have therefore made cutting them down more effort than it was worth. The oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn and holly trees provide an excellent habitat for wildlife, including red squirrels. Legend has it that St Patrick trapped the last snake in Ireland in the woods, where it still lurks to this day.
Baluain Wood, Perthshire
Falls of Bruar, Baluain Wood ©Alamy
Pull on your boots and step into a reclaimed forest, climbing through trees of golden larch, towering Scots pine and magnificent mountain ash in search of a roaring Cairngorms cascade
in the late 18th century this narrow glen was virtually devoid of trees. Following a visit in 1787 he wrote The Humble Petition of Bruar Water to the Noble Duke of Atholl. This 11-verse poem contains the lines: “Would then my noble master please, To grant my highest wishes? He’ll shade my banks wi’ tow’ring trees, And bonnie spreading bushes.”
Much to his credit, the Fourth Duke of Atholl acquiesced and the first trees were planted in 1797. The Fourth Duke of Atholl Lord John Murray’s ambitious planting scheme would eventually include 120,000 larch and Scots pine. In time, Planter John, as he became known, was to plant over 15 million trees throughout his estates, many of which, today, create an unbridled display of golden glory during the months of September, October and November.
Take a walk through the woods.
Pressmennan Wood, East Lothian
Pressmennan Wood ©M J Richardson
Forests and woodlands have forever been entwined with our folk tales, myths and legends. And Pressmennan Wood is no exception.
Glingbobs and Tooflits are the creation of the Woodland Trust Scotland and author Robin Wood. They exist in and around the woodland, hiding behind secret doors and stained-glass windows set into the trees, and children are tasked with finding them as they follow the trail through the trees.
Located on the slopes of Deuchrie Dod, the forest is home to a variety of flora, from conifers, to wild garlic, dog’s mercury and wild raspberries.
Tay Forest Park, Perthshire
Tay Forest Park near Pitlochry ©Getty
Tay Forest Park is a fabled woodland of giant Douglas firs, fairy-tale bridges and an ancient oak. The park is home to some of Britain’s tallest trees, along with mysterious tales of legends and dragons.
Cutting the southern limits of the forest in two are the gorgeously clear waters of the River Braan, where a series of cascades descend to Black Linn waterfall before flowing into the River Tay near Dunkeld.
Glen Finglas, Stirling
Glen Finglas ©Richard Webb, Geograph
This spot is the Woodland Trust’s largest estate, and one of their most beautiful and most accessible, with great routes to explore the woodland wheelchairs and buggies.
Found in the heart of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the area is home to some of Scotland’s oldest trees, stunning waterfalls, lochs and heathland. Parts of the forest such as Little Drum Wood have excellently surfaced paths, opening up this wonderful country space to all.
Cwm Rheidol, Ceredigion
Vale of Rheidol ©John R Jones
Journey on a steam train through the coppery autumn hues of a narrow valley amid hissing steam and blasting whistles on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, spotting rare mammals and lively falls.
The Vale of Rheidol Railway was opened in 1902 to export lead and timber, and to import passengers into the valley’s densely wooded heart.
These days, a journey on the steam train from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge is still the best way to appreciate the extent of Cwm Rheidol’s woodiness.
Coed y Brenin, Snowdonia
River Mawddach flowing through the Coed y Brenin forest park in the heart of Snowdonia National Park ©Getty
Coed y Brenin Forest Park covers 9,000 acres of woodland and river valleys. Its 500-million-year-old rocks with their deposits of copper and gold once made it a centre for mining. Now it’s managed for timber and recreation, with well-marked mountain-bike, walking and running trails.