Trees – and woods – are having a rare moment in the news. The first saplings have just been planted in two vast new northern forests. The tree butchers of Sheffield Council have been forced by protesters to call a temporary halt to the slaughter of their own street trees. Beavers are back in our woods for the first time for over 400 years; and so, too, are pine martens (precariously). There’s even wild talk of the lynx (and the wolf) following soon. The demand for woodland ownership has never been higher.
And yet, despite this, Britain remains one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with a paltry 13 per cent tree cover (compared to the European norm of over 35 per cent). Recent figures suggest we could even be reverting to a state of deforestation and that the 20th century, at the beginning of which only six per cent of the land was covered by trees, was a short-lived shimmer of hope in a centuries-long story of aggressive deforestation.
The new forests are one attempt to remedy this. The first, at Doddington Moor in Northumberland, is the only conifer-heavy woodland the Forestry Commission has sanctioned in England for over 30 years. In just three years more than 600,000 trees will be planted, covering over 350 hectares. It will be a working forest (with an eye on amenity and conservation) and the trees will be mostly non-native conifers, with some broadleaves in the mix. They will be harvested regularly and are destined for houses, fences and industry. As the saying goes, “a wood that pays is a wood that stays”. The UK is the second biggest importer of forest products in the world, worth over £11bn last year. Doddington is a chance to prove we can grow our own.
This year China is planting 6.6 million hectares of new forest – an area the size of Ireland
The other Northern Forest is being shepherded into life by a coalition of community forest trusts, local government and tree-planting charities, all of them led by The Woodland Trust. One day it will stretch from coast to coast, from Hull to Liverpool, and over 50 million (mainly native broadleaf) trees will be planted, mostly on low-value agricultural land, connecting what little is already there (the north has under eight per cent tree cover), leaving plenty of room for moors and meadows, and surging into the cities (yes, even Sheffield), reconnecting 13 million people with their lost wild woods.
It’s a thrilling idea, announced with great fanfare by the government, who then grudgingly coughed up a miserly £5.5m to get things moving. The remainder of the £500m budget will have to be raised by the rest of us.
To put that in context, this year China is planting 6.6 million hectares of new forest – an area the size of Ireland. Our own Great Northern Forest will take 25 years and be a fraction of the size.
There’s ambivalence here, encapsulated by these new forests. Are trees just another crop, like wheat or potatoes, to be rotated and harvested? Is a wood nothing more than a collection of trees? Or are woods places of wonder and mystery – and is the very idea of trying to apply an economic value to wild nature an absurdity? Anyone who is enthusiastic about rewilding would agree: sometimes the best thing we can do with a landscape – with nature – is to leave it well alone. Or at the very least keep the sheep from eating a forest’s young trees (get yourself a wolf is the usual solution…).
The first task is to save what is left of our ancient woodland
Of course, there are many different kinds of wood: not just the conifer forests, and new plantations, but also places for every kind of activity, from paintballing to bird-watching. What one group needs (a place to shout and shoot people with paint) is incompatible with the other. But woodland lovers are starting to realise that what we need is more woods, of every kind, for everyone. We shouldn’t be fighting over the last scraps of wild Britain. There should be enough forests for fun, as well as woodlands of impenetrable tranquility and peace.
The first task is to save what is left of our ancient woodland (any wood that is over 400 years old). They are extraordinarily diverse in species – and are threatened by neglect and development. Once we start talking about the need to plant more trees, it’s a sure sign that we haven’t looked after what we already have. Conservation has failed.
Our woods are emptier than they have ever been. Not just of our vanishing fauna and flora, but also of us. Most people are cut off from the woods – and the only way to make the forests safe for the future is by opening them up to as many people as possible. The woods will only survive and flourish if we all have the chance to learn to love them. That means access for all; and different kinds of woodland for everyone. It means taking every schoolchild to the woods – to play and plant trees, of course, but also to see a working forest and learn about the uses of timber. We need to nurture the street trees in our cities. It means saving what we have and planting many million more trees. In the end, “the woods” are not something “out there”. What happens to them is our choice and will affect all our livelihoods. For once, the woods need our help.
Peter Fiennes is the author of Oak and Ash and Thorn: the Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain, out now (Oneworld Publications, £9.99) @pfiennes
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