The remnant of the post-Ice Age original forest cover, ancient woodland is made up of native broad-leaved trees such as oak and ash and filled with such a profusion of flowers, fungi, insects, birds and other animals that it is sometimes thought of as "Britain's rainforest".
Officially defined as woodland that has been continuous since before AD1600, ancient woodland is the traditional English rural vision: tranquil and a touch mysterious, full of gnarled old trees, with a carpet of bluebells and anemones in spring and mushrooms in the autumn. It is home to more threatened species - from stag beetles to orchids - than any other habitat.
But it is now scattered across the country in small fragments that have been steadily shrinking; what is left - about 750,000 acres in total in England, Wales and Scotland - represents a mere 2 per cent of the area once covered. There are now only 501 ancient woods of more than 250 acres left in all of Britain.
By comparison, for all the deforestation during the past two decades, about 90 per cent of the Amazon rainforest still stands.
Now the Woodland Trust, a charity dedicated to conserving and promoting woods throughout the country, has decided to try to prevent any more losses. It is campaigning to get ancient woodland's special importance officially recognised by the Forestry Commission and by local planning authorities and it is actively fighting further threats to any woods.
Although the trust has hitherto had a low public profile, it is a body with some clout. With more than 100 employees, 60,000 members and an annual income of nearly pounds 15m, it has spent the last 27 years saving woods by the simple expedient of buying them outright. It now owns 1,000 in Britain, thought to be worth more than pounds 30m in total, in all of which the public is welcome.
But under a new chief executive, Mike Townsend, the trust is switching some of its considerable resources from woodland purchase to campaigning. Mr Townsend put the reason succinctly: "We can't buy them all," he said.
The first-ever official commitment to protect ancient woodland was made last December in the Government's "Forestry Strategy for England", which said: "We will review the effectiveness of the existing measures for protecting ancient semi-natural woodlands and, if necessary, introduce new measures to give them added protection."
The Woodland Trust is determined to hold the Government to this promise.
Earlier this year it commissioned a long technical report from an environmental consultancy on ancient woodlands' ecological and cultural importance and the failure of the planning system to protect them; the report has been sent to the Forestry Commission.
This month the trust followed that up with a list of the 24 ancient woodlands most at risk, which range from Upper Vert Wood, in Hailsham, East Sussex, which is threatened by a plan for a rubbish dump, to Birkhill Plantation, at Alloa, in Scotland, at risk from open-cast coal mining.
"We want to get a protection designation for ancient woodland that is recognised throughout the planning system, and we want to get the Forestry Commission to tighten up their felling licences accordingly," said Hilary Allison, the trust's policy director.
"Ancient woodland is irreplaceable. It is one of the great glories of our heritage and it's undervalued, under-recognised and under threat. It's nature's cathedral. It has a profound spiritual quality for many people when they visit it, with a sense of height and space and a great sense of peace.
"We wouldn't dream of knocking down a 12th-century cathedral yet we will knock down an ancient wood. We want to do something now to prevent anything further happening. We're saying, `Enough is enough'."Reuse content