HERE in Ryedale we are blessed with more than our fair share of ancient woodlands – that is, forested areas that have been in continuous existence since the year 1600.

Virtually no tree planting went on in this country before that date, so any wood in place then was almost certainly part of the great Old English Wildwood.

Pre-Bronze Age England was almost entirely blanketed with mixed, deciduous forest but over the intervening 3,000 years, us humans have drastically cut it back.

Today only 10 per cent of the country is tree-covered and of that only two percent is ancient woodland. Even my elementary maths skills can cope with the calculation revealing the sad fact that we are now left with only 0.2 per cent of our original ancient woodland – a precious habitat indeed.

“Does it matter how old it is?” I can hear some of you asking. Well, yes - woodland is not just a collection of trees but a staggeringly complex ecosystem involving a huge variety of microorganisms, fungi, plants and animals which takes hundreds of years to develop and thousands of years to mature.

The diversity contained within an ancient English oakwood is one of the natural wonders of our islands; it is estimated, for instance, that a single veteran oak tree can support 280 species of insects. No wonder then that campaigners get so irate about the ancient woodlands scheduled to be destroyed to make way for the forthcoming HS2 rail development.

If, like me, you are interested in which of our local woods qualify as ancient, there is a Natural England directory online which has them all mapped and named.

A much simpler method exists, though, as there are a number of woodland plant species that are only found in woods of great antiquity. These species are called ancient woodland indicators and if your local wood has good numbers of plants like dogs mercury, bluebell, woodruff, yellow archangel, ramsons and wood anemone, then it’s almost certainly very old.

Not all of these plants flower in April but one that is at its blooming peak at the moment is the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa).

For me this member of the buttercup family is a glorious harbinger of spring that I look forward to seeing every year and my first for 2020 was on March 18 in Caulkleys Wood, near Hovingham.

As with most eye-catching flowers, the purpose of the bloom is to attract pollinating insects and wood anemones seem to be very effective on that score ... hoverflies absolutely love them.

Ironically, most of this pollinating effort goes to waste as the resulting seeds are infertile in the main, with the plant spreading year-on-year using underground rhizomes. At 6ft per hundred years, this process is very slow, so the longevity of the unbroken acres of anemones in Caukleys Wood becomes clear.

The best time to appreciate the beauty of wood anemones en mass is on a bright, sunny day when the flowers are fully open. In dull weather, and at dusk, the petals close together to form a skirt-shaped structure which has led to the country names of moggy’s nightgown (where a moggy is a mouse) and grandmother’s nightcap. Other names like “smell foxes” refer to the plants musky aroma and acrid taste.

That bitter taste is a useful forewarning that wood anemones are poisonous to humans. This fact and their ghostly white colour probably led to the Chinese name of death flower.

Ironically, the Romans are said to have treated the blooms as good luck charms and would pick the first flower of spring to ward off fever… without eating it presumably.