Sherwood Forest: Ye Old Shire Wood

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.