In the 1690s Gregory King estimated that there were only three million acres of cultivated woodland left (about 8 per cent of England and Wales) and another three million of forests, parks and commons. And the contraction was still going on. There was hardly a county in the kingdom, thought a contemporary in 1764, where one would not find places called 'forest', 'grove' or 'park' which were now arable or pasture or bare heath. In the 1790s, when John Byng sat down to list the changes which had occurred in England since the seventeenth century, he put high on his list the further erosion of the old woods. By 1800 there were no more than two million acres of woodland in England and Wales, and by the beginning of the twentieth century the percentage of the United Kingdom occupied by woodland (4 per cent) would be the lowest in Europe.
To many, this development symbolized the triumph of civilization. Forests had originally been synonymous with wildness and danger, as the word 'savage' (from silva, a wood) reminds us. Early man, it has been plausibly suggested, preferred open country to woodland because it was safer: he could see what was coming and guard against it in advance.  When Elizabethans spoke of a 'wilderness' they meant not a barren waste, but a dense, uncultivated wood, like Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, 'a desert inaccessible under the shade of melancholy boughs'.
A mid-seventeenth-century poetical dictionary suggests as appropriate epithets for a forest: 'dreadful', 'gloomy', 'wild', 'desert', 'uncouth', 'melancholy', 'unpeopled' and 'beast- haunted'.  In New England, Plymouth Colony was founded in a 'hideous and desolate wilderness ... full of wild beasts and wild men ... and the whole country full of woods and thickets'. The colonists were aghast at the sight of a countryside covered by 'wild and uncouth woods'; and they set about destroying trees so as to make 'habitable' what Cotton Mather regarded as 'dismal thickets'. Only 'wild creatures' they thought, would 'ordinarily love the liberty of the woods'. Old England, explained the Elizabethan lawyer John Mariwood, had also originally been 'a wilderness', but the early inhabitants had destroyed 'the woods and great thickets' near places of human habitation so that they would provide no shelter for dangerous wild animals: 'by that means the wild beasts were all driven to resort to those places where the woods were left remaining to make their abode in them ... so that... the first beginning of forest in England was propter defectum inhabitants populi, for want of people to inhabit those vacant places wherein wild beasts were.'
The woods, therefore, were homes for animals, not men. Hence the poet William Browne could describe wild beasts as 'forest citizens'. Hence also the assumption that any men who lived in the woods must be rough and barbarous. The first human beings, it was widely believed, were 'woodland men', homines sylvestres. The progress of mankind was from the forest to the field. The ancient Britons, thought the eighteenth- century antiquary John Woodward, were barbarous and savage and their towns were 'groves and thickets', surrounded by a hedge or ditch.   The Irish, said an Elizabethan, remained 'wood-born savages', while John Locke contrasted the 'civil and rational' inhabitants of cities with the 'irrational, untaught' denizens of 'woods and forests'. The ancient Hindus, thought Edmund Burke in 1783, had developed a civilization possessing 'all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods'. Only by being drawn out of forests would men be led to civility.
Untamed woodjands were thus seen as obstac Literary convention as well as actual experience thus underlay the seventeenth-century commonplace that forest-dwellers tended to be lawless squatters, poverty-stricken, stubborn and uncivil. But it was undeniable that the woodland areas really did contain cabins erected by beggarly people, who had gone in search of space, or employment in the charcoal industry, and had squatted illegally, often free from the normal social restraints of church and manor courts, and subsisting by pilfering timber and game. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would see many bitter disputes between forest-dwellers and the officials of the Crown and the larger landlords, who tried to impose more efficient control upon the resources and inhabitants of the forest areas. Competing claims to land use led to mutual hostility and misunderstanding; and it is not surprising that those concerned to maintain the social hierarchy disliked woodlands as potential black spots: the forest, said the agriculturalist Charles Vancouver in 1813, was a 'nest and conservatory of sloth, idleness and misery'.
As well as being the scene of protracted social conflict, the forests were also disliked because they provided a refuge for outlaws and a base for dangerous criminals. Selwood Forest, for example, was a notorious haunt of bandits and coiners until Thomas, Viscount Wey-mouth, built a church there in 1712 and began to cut the woods down. Cranborne Chase harboured smugglers and deer-stealers; and many other forest areas had a similar reputation. Even clumps of trees on the roadside were disliked because they provided a hiding-place for robbers. Fulbrook in Warwickshire had once been a safe route for travellers, lamented the fifteenth-century historian John Rous, but when it was imparked by its noble owner the hedges and pales provided shelter for dangerous thieves.