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‘Culture’ can be defined as the values, attitudes, beliefs, artefacts and other meaningful symbols, beliefs and traditions of a country or people or a particular community. Heritage is usually taken to mean that which we value from the past and wish to hand on to future generations. The cultural aspects of woodlands can be identified through the following typology:

  • Activities, practices, skills and events include practices, skills and events that happen to be located within the forest.
  • Meanings, identities and representations can be attached specifically to forest-based sites and features and to particular trees. Spiritual or emotional attachments are also included as are inspirations derived from the forest for iconic images (the oak tree for England) and for traditional stories and myths (the Green Man).
  • Sites and features include both cultural heritage sites and features that happen to be located within the forest or woodland (typically scheduled ancient monuments) and sites and features of the forest (such as ancient trees, stands and landscapes). It also includes modern man-made cultural features such as sculpture features and other structures that have cultural interest and value and will be a legacy for future generations (Edwards, 2006).

Activities, practices, meanings and identities

The first two categories in the typology above are combined here as a number of studies include both different activities that people undertake and how these contribute to people’s identity or the meanings they associate with trees and woods and the benefits they gain from them. Woodland visitors can undertake a range of activities from walking to cycling to picnicking. Certain groups develop specific identities and practices around their activities such as mountain bikers. The values and meanings different groups of people associate with trees, woods and forests are varied and these can make a significant contribution to people’s well-being through for example:

  • Mental well-being – relaxing, getting away from the built environment,
  • Physical well-being – from undertaking different types of activities alone or with others.
  • Contact with nature – being in nature and the fresh air,  seeing wildlife and changes to landscapes
  • Sensory experience – the views, smells, sounds and textures within forests
  • Social connections – being with family and friends or meeting new people.

Sites and features of the historic environment

The historic environment is all around us, providing a key to understanding the past, and forming a valued connection with the cultural heritage of people and places. It ranges from individual features such as standing stones, through military or industrial sites, to large-scale urban or rural historical landscapes. Individual features do not need to be centuries old to make an important contribution to the historical landscape, and can range in date from the past century to many thousands of years ago.

The historic environment may incorporate aspects of natural heritage such as ancient trees, hedgerows and geological features, which may have had a significant influence on the character of the surrounding landscape and past human activity. Visible, above-ground objects are the most obvious form of evidence, but features may also remain intact below ground – these may often be unrecorded, and so at greater risk of accidental damage.

Very few parts of Britain are unaffected by past human activity – changes in the landscape are an important part of the human story and experience, and this is especially true in areas considered for land regeneration. An understanding of the historic environment of an area can enhance its value, guide future change, and provide both a framework and structure for regeneration projects.

Practical considerations

Implementing a land regeneration project is likely to involve identifying and conserving features of the historic environment (many of which will be referred to as ‘archaeological sites’) in accordance with national and local government policy. Planning legislation and guidance provide helpful advice on how to address historic environment issues in land-use change, regardless of whether a project requires formal planning permission.

Where features of the historic environment are above ground, they can be easily located and mapped. But many archaeological features are not visible above ground, and may be unrecorded. This may be more relevant where land-use change from agriculture is proposed, with archaeological evidence evident only from surface scatters, soil or crop marks visible in aerial photographs. In urban areas, former land use can often be very complex, with many phases in a small area. In many cases, much of this can be largely unravelled using historical maps and documents.

For many community-based projects, features can be used to provide a focal point with educational benefits. Archaeological interest should be seen as a guide to conserving and interpreting heritage features in the landscape, enhancing the cultural value of the scheme. Because many features of the historic environment can influence design plans, and may determine the nature of surrounding land use, it is imperative that advice on the historic environment is sought early during the project planning process, to maximise benefit and minimise later design alterations.

Where features of the historic environment are used to promote visitor access to a greenspace scheme, careful management may be required to prevent damage by erosion from unintentional, visitor-created trails or site vandalism.

Further considerations

The historic environment can take many forms and, if well managed, can increase the value of a greenspace project. But many engineering, management and routine maintenance activities have the potential to cause damage. This can usually be avoided through mapping and recording known features, increased awareness, informed guidance, active management, monitoring and periodic reviews of management procedures.

To what extent different survey methods may be required to identify aspects of the historic environment will depend not only on the former land use, but also on proposed uses. The locations of planned plantings, landscaping and infrastructure within a restoration design plan are therefore very significant.

  • Planning – it is essential to begin to identify features of the historic environment as early in the scheme as possible. With sympathetic regard for the feature, its context and the surrounding historical landscape, it will often be possible to make the feature a focal point of interest.
  • Cultivation – this should be avoided on or close to important features. The vegetation choice should be tailored to the depth of cultivatable soil.
  • Site drainage – where archaeological evidence occurs in wetland environments, waterlogged conditions can result in very good preservation of artefacts. Where waterlogged conditions and historic environment evidence are known to occur, actions that could reduce the water content should be avoided.
  • Engineering works – any major ground disturbance on or close to features of the historic environment may be detrimental. How far engineering works can be tolerated in the vicinity will depend on the type of feature, its depth (if buried), and the proposed works. For example, if a feature is known to be buried below 0.5 m of soil, creating an all-access path need not be detrimental.
  • Woodland – new woodland establishment is not usually recommended on or in proximity to features of the historic environment. However, there may be exceptions, for example to restore a woodland feature that has been removed from that context. If archaeological evidence is known to be buried deeply (more than 2 m), woodland establishment may be tolerated (depending on the type of feature) and may offer long-term site protection. Windthrow is the greatest concern; the woodland should be managed where this is perceived to be a risk.
  • Vegetation management – most features of the historic environment will require some degree of vegetation management to prevent the encroachment of unwanted species.
  • Erosion control – burrowing mammals, grazing stock and high numbers of visitors will inevitably damage features of the historic environment. Action should be taken to monitor and mitigate against this type of erosion.
  • Watching brief – this may be recommended during the engineering and establishment phases of a regeneration project. This is undertaken by a professional archaeologist, and involves periodic site visits and assessments.

Case studies

Activities and meanings – cultural values of trees, woods and forests

A project that reviewed the existing and potential role of cultural values in forest planning was undertaken in 2009/10 and included field work and interviews conducted over a 6-month period.  A typology was created to differentiate between what the visitor brings to the woodland, what can be enhanced through contact with the site or site management and the benefits that can accrue from this interaction.

Table 1: Typology of cultural values
Cultural resources
(of both the visitor and the wooded site)
(that can potentially be experienced by visitors)
Intrinsic to visitors/users
(e.g. what visitors bring to their woodland experiences)
Intrinsic to site
(these can be enhanced and conserved through site management)
  • Social capital
  • Skills
  • Knowledge
  • Values
  • Archaeological remains
  • Historic features
  • Woodland diversity
  • Wildlife
  • Signs of management history
  • Stories
  • Practices
  • Artworks
  • Health and well-being
  • Social contacts
  • Personal pride:
    • Physical achievements
    • Personal knowledge
  • Education
  • Inspiration
  • Spiritual well-being
  • Economic:
    • Recreation and tourism
    • Local economic activity

The research highlights a distinction, in consultation and community engagement activities, between decision-making processes and service provision. Decision-making processes such as the Forest Design Plan (FDP) procedure entail a mixture of formal consultation and dialogue with relevant authorities, and more informal engagement with publics and interested parties. A similar process is associated with large scale decisions such as those demanding Environmental Impact Assessment or Public Enquiries. Service provision involves the everyday activities undertaken by, for example, Forestry Commission community, recreation and education rangers as they lead walks, run events, and education visits in which they engage with local communities, find out about their needs and as they encourage new groups to participate in forest activities. Through this service provision an understanding is gained of how people engage with and enjoy woodlands that can be utilised to change or improve delivery.

Recommendations for planning and research were made, including those focusing on the role of cultural values in consultation and community engagement.

Sites and features: Desk-based surveys and community engagement – Jeskyns

Situated in north Kent, Jeskyns is 147 hectares of greenspace that has been created by the Forestry Commission. The area is located in a region of known prehistoric and Romano–British activity, and there was a high probability of archaeological remains existing on the site. Prior to any landscaping or engineering works, a historic environment assessment was carried out to inform design and management decisions. This included a review of historical maps, documents and aerial photographs. Some of these showed how part of the site, and much of the surrounding landscape, had previously been used as orchards. To reflect this aspect of local tradition, now lost from most of the surrounding area, it was decided to re-establish orchard in some parts of the site both to preserve the cultural heritage of the area and as an educational tool.

Some of the aerial photographs showed the presence of crop or soil marks, which can indicate subsoil archaeological evidence. These guided some small-scale geophysical surveys and excavations. Findings from all these assessment processes were used to inform the local community of the project’s progress, and to engage volunteers for field-walking activities. Areas subsequently identified as containing potentially sensitive archaeological evidence were fed into the planning process and incorporated into open-space areas. A watching brief was put in place during the landscape engineering to respond to any archaeological evidence encountered.

By addressing the historic environment early in the planning stage, designs could work sympathetically with any sensitive areas and were also able to encompass aspects of the heritage of the surrounding community. The community were involved with aspects such as field-working, and were informed of progress, fostering a sense of ownership of the project. Archaeological and historical aspects of the site are being used as interpretative and educational features.



In the past few years, Forest Research has developed expertise in socio-economic research. Four of the key research themes of the Social and Economic Research Group are society and diversity; well-being and quality of life; forests and governance; and evaluation and appraisal.  Through these themes the social and cultural values of trees and woods are being researched.

Advisory work

The Social and Economic Research Group provides advice to the Forestry Commission and the forestry or greenspace sector on social and economic issues related to woodlands and greenspaces.


The Social and Economic Research Group can provide:

  • Advice on the design and conduct of social research
  • Research project design and management
  • Advice on social issues in forestry
  • Evaluation of social programmes
  • Advice on the design and conduct of research exploring governance and public involvement.

The Forest Research Woodland Heritage Services Group has a background of archaeological and ecological knowledge, combined with an understanding of woodland management and technical expertise in modern remote-sensing surveys and mapping. The Group works across Great Britain for clients in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Clients include:

  • Forestry Commission
  • English Heritage
  • Areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs)
  • County councils
  • Other land managers.

Further information

Edwards, D. (2006). Social and cultural values associated with European forests in relation to key indicators of sustainability (PDF-283K). Social and Economic Research Group. Forest Research, Farnham.

Relevant Forest Research projects

Forest Research Best Practice Guidance

Crow, P. and Tim Yarnell, T. (2008) Working with the Historic environment (PDF-982K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 14. Forest Research, Farnham.

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