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steeped in history

Hainault Forest has had a very turbulent history

Did you know…

Henry III consumed over 1900 deer from the Forest during his reign from 1216 – 1272.


Let's Start at the Beginning

Large, densely wooded areas – that’s what most of us think of when a forest comes to mind. But historically, forests were much more than that. Let’s rewind to the early 1100s – that’s how long we know the landscape of Hainaut has been forested. Back then, forest was a term used for an area of land dedicated to royal hunting, and would have been a patchwork of habitats including areas of woodland, wetlands, settlements and open grassland areas used for grazing.

Hainault formed part of the vast Forest of Essex; owned by the crown and used as a royal hunting forest. Anyone living within it was subject to forest law. In reality this applied to most of Essex, and forest law defined everyday life. Only the king was allowed to hunt deer, and forest dwellers were subject to all kinds of restrictions – with serious consequences if not obeyed.

The creation of the Charter of the Forests in 1225 meant that everyday people were given more freedom and rights to use and collect resources from the forest for food, fuel and industry. This allowed people to graze animals like pigs and cattle, and to harvest timber via pollarding. The scale of this activity was huge; creating a semi-industrial landscape that shaped the structure of the forest and we still see that influence today. The charter remained in place for 100s of years.

Keeping Things

In Ship Shape

In the late 1700s a commission was set up to review the state of forests across the country, including the royal forests of Essex. They recommended that the area should be disafforested and the timber used for ship building by the Navy.

Although still debated, the historical impact of the Royal Navy on British woodlands was sizeable. Oak trees were the preferred tree for the hulls of ships and Hainault had quite a density of oak growing making it a popular harvesting forest for the Royal Navy shipyard down at Chatham.


Biggest Threat

By the mid 1800s timber for shipbuilding was increasingly less important and much of the forest was seen as wasteland that could be put to better use. London had a hungry, growing population and farmland was in demand.

In 1851 an Act of Parliament was passed to remove the forest’s legal protection and make way for large scale clearing. 100,000 trees were felled in the space of three short weeks, with steam ploughs ripping trees clean out of the ground.

The Birth Of The

Modern Day Conservation Movement

Luckily, a few people recognised the true value of the forest, for wildlife and for recreation. This included Edward North Buxton (shown left), a local MP and Hainault Forest’s life saver. He spearheaded a campaign which ultimately saved what was left of the forest, and later came to the rescue of nearby Epping Forest too.

By lobbying parliament and harnessing public pressure, Buxton is often thought to be the pioneer of the modern conservation movement, and his efforts meant that the forest at Hainault reopened to the public in 1906.

Today, we’re following in Buxton’s footsteps and continuing to protect Hainault Forest, for now and for the future. The 1000s of veteran hornbeam pollards that once provided much needed firewood for the ovens of London are now what make Hainault so unique and special.

We’re working hard to ensure these magnificent trees remain with us for as long as possible; as homes for wildlife and an important reminder of the forest’s long relationship with people.

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