Sherwood forest is dying of old age and neglect. Logging, agriculture, industrial development, and poor conservation practices have decimated this once vast woodland. Forest managers and conservation groups are seeking the millions of dollars required to plant 250,000 new trees and regenerate the legendary forest. Even back in Robin Hood’s day, Sherwood—meaning “shire wood”—Forest wasn’t pure forest, but a mixed landscape of heath, pastureland, and wooded glades, with a few scattered hamlets. This royal hunting ground covered 40,500 hectares (100,000 acres), running 32km (20 miles) long and 13km (8 miles) wide. Only the king and his subjects could hunt here, but peasants could gather acorns, collect firewood, make charcoal, or graze sheep and cattle. It was truly the heart of Nottinghamshire.
Today, Sherwood Forest is a shadow of its former self, just a 182-hectare (450-acre) park surrounding the village of Edwinstowe, squeezed between the urban areas of Nottingham and Sheffield. Around 1,000 stout oak trees survive, but recently they’ve been dying off fast from sheer old age. The most famous, the Major Oak—touted as Robin Hood’s tree, though bark analysis suggests it may be younger than the 13th century—requires a lot of props and cables to stay standing.
Half a million tourists come here every year. Kitschy models of Robin Hood and his Merry Men are on display, and Robin Hood souvenirs sell like hotcakes in the gift shop. A weeklong summer Robin Hood festival features costumed jousters and jesters and troubadors aplenty.
But there’s more to Sherwood Forest than the Robin Hood legend. The organization English Nature is fighting to keep Sherwood Forest vital, designating it as a National Nature Reserve in 2002. In 2007 the protected area was nearly doubled by adding the Budby South Forest, a stretch of gorse-covered heath previously used for military training. With the two areas combined, already the local populations of nightjars and woodlarks are increasing, not to mention the great-spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, tawny owl, and redstart, which need old-growth forests to live. Over 1,000 types of spider and beetle infest the decaying wood of dead trees and fallen branches, deliberately left in place to feed them. Grazing cattle have been brought in to keep the woodlands open. Through these woodlands—a peculiarly English mix of oak, silver birch, rowan, holly, and hawthorn, with bracken ferns beneath—run footpaths and bridleways.
The tale of Sherwood Forest reads like a mini-history of Britain. Originally cleared by Roman legions, the Nottinghamshire countryside became fragmented in medieval times as great landowners enclosed their estates. (Scraps of the ancient forest persist on a set of private estates called the Dukeries, south of the town of Worksop). In the Industrial Revolution towns and factories sprang up, destroying more woodland, which in the post-war era was replaced with quick-growing conifers planted for timber. But with several area coal mines recently closed down, there may be a window of opportunity to revert more of this East Midlands region to woodlands, planting new oaks and connecting existing parcels in a continuous corridor. The next chapter of Sherwood’s story? It still remains to be written.