Doddington Moor is England’s blueprint for how to grow a forest

Andy Howard, Project Manager for new woods Doddington Moor, explains the gruelling process of growing forests from scratch

Doddington Moor in Northumberland is one of the country’s attempts to reconnect flora, fauna and people with the dwindling woods of Britain.

With the first tree planted last month, the new forest 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.

But it was a long battle to get that first sapling – and project manager Andy Howard knows all too well the challenges behind boosting Britain’s tree count. He explains how you grow a forest.

Hint: Very slowly, before you even start planting.

Scotland vs England

In England there has been nothing like the project at Doddington Moor in 30 years. In Scotland, forestry is a bigger industry relatively speaking, so there is political support. The Scottish government have also made a commitment to being carbon-neutral by 2050. The policy is to become self-sufficient in building materials, and they are looking at biomass power plants. In England they’ve said: “We’ll build a nuclear power station and that’ll be one big hit that resolves all our problems, right?” North of the border conifers are accepted as part of the landscape and the economic benefit is recognised, whereas in England there are well-funded, loud pressure groups that see conifers as the devil incarnate. They believe we must have nice trees, we can’t have productive trees.

Productive woodland

Our purpose is to produce what we call productive woodland. When you build a house, your roof beams, furniture, fence posts – all of that stuff – gets made from conifer trees. Then we’re putting in a substantial amount of broadleaf, but we’ve chosen species that we believe will also enable them to become productive. A tree grows by reaching for light so if you’ve got competition these trees will go for it and grow quicker.

Mother Nature doesn’t work to civil service procedures

Proving that planting trees is not a bad thing

The general position of government agencies in England is that planting a tree is the last option for a piece of land. Often there’s then a habitat issue: is there some flora, fauna or ecology of higher priority than a tree? That must be protected, so the process of planting trees in England has been a monumental nightmare. As a result landowners have just thought: “You know what, I’ve got better things to do with my life”.

Red tape

At DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] meetings, I’m sat in a room with civil servants from across various agencies, all of whom are sat there to listen to the proposals – well, they didn’t listen – to give their opinion on the proposals, whether they’ve read them or not.

One of the positions was that the site should be covered in ground-nesting birds. It was 15 years ago, but there haven’t been any gamekeepers on the site for a decade because there has been no shooting on the site. They insisted livestock was reduced so grass has risen up. There is invasive bracken and rhododendron so any livestock we do put in would be poisoned. There are fox hunting bans so we’ve got loads of foxes on the site that eat any ground-nesting birds that do come, so there are none left. “Ah yes, but it’s a prime ground-nesting bird site,” they’d say. You go round and round in circles. Mother Nature doesn’t work to civil service procedures. We can’t undo all these things that have happened. Nobody wants to bring back fox hunting, so at one point I said, “Listen, the only way we can achieve that is by napalming the entire place and getting rid of what shouldn’t be there in your opinion. However, if we do napalm it there’s no way we can restore it to what you think it should be so we’re back to square one.”

A forest can and should be permanent

Can’t see the woods for the trees

You may have a romantic notion about planting a tree that will live forever, but it’s the forest which is permanent, not the tree. A tree has a life – it stops growing, stops absorbing carbon, and ultimately dies. That lifespan might be 50-75 years for a conifer, hundreds of years for an oak with other species somewhere in between. Trees have a lifespan and if you don’t do something with them then you kill the forest. But a forest can and should be permanent. It’s been a huge battle to get this one approved but hopefully we have broken the mould.