The Northern Forest, daughter of the National Forest, conceived January 2018

Today a new forest for the North of England was announced, to stretch from Liverpool to Hull, joining up the wonderful community forests of that part of the country. It’s our version of the Great Green Wall, which is designed to stop the spread of the Sahara and provide livelihoods across Africa. I’m happy that a commitment in a white paper which nearly disappeared without trace seems to have survived. I’m happy when green projects are big and backed by big players from government to serious NGOs such as the Woodland Trust and the Community Forest Trust.

I’m hopeful as well as happy about the announcement, because the National Forest, further south, was even more startling and ambitious at the time it was announced, nothing having been done like it in this country’s forestry up to then. It is now growing and maturing, this year hosting an international festival, Timber, on a site which a few years ago had hardly any trees. Communities have recovered pride and employment after the end of mining. Tourism – as well as a transformed landscape – continue to grow. I was privileged to lead the project from 2006 to 2014.

To my happiness and hopefulness about the Northern Forest I add these thoughts (my own, not those of the Royal Forestry Society where I am the Immediate Past President). They are based on what we did at the National Forest and what we could have done better, and what we know about the planting and care of trees at a large scale in areas of big populations.

  1. Know why you are planting trees. There may be many reasons (public enjoyment, carbon capture, healing the landscape). This will influence what you plant, how and what you do later on.
  2. However, for whatever reason you plant, spend money on doing it well. Choose good seed, plant at the right distances, protect them in their early years. Judi Dench in her recent tv programme showed how mature woodlands have a hidden, supportive and communicating ecology. Never have as many genuine and yet actorly ‘Oh, gosh!’es been uttered in one programme. Young trees planted in former arable fields or over coal mines have none of this: we can’t pretend to mimic nature and we need to give them an intelligent fighting chance.
  3. Given climate change and the amount of disease affecting trees, be more diverse in the species planted than the National Forest was thirty years ago, so that these risks are spread.  Some foresters are truly pessimistic about planting any broadleaves at present and it is good to see that there is planned to be conifer in the mix.
  4. Adopt the old understanding of ‘forest’, ie areas with open glades as well as true woodlands. Epping Forest, my new stomping ground, is extraordinarily varied and exudes a history ranging from coppicing for firewood to hunting by the monarch. Build on the wonderful work of Lawton, published a few years ago, emphasising the joining up of different habitats, all managed well and appropriate to their areas. His mantra about these big ecosystem areas was that they needed to be ‘More, bigger, better, joined’. (Later, ‘better’ was recognised to be the most important of these – the quality of the habitats).
  5. Be obsessed with realising the value of the forest. This doesn’t mean economic return necessarily, in the form of timber, (though let us hope there are products taken out from about twenty years’ time). But it means working out who is going to value it and who will pay for that. I wish it had been easier to get the NHS to fund more activity in the National Forest, for example, an area with its fair share of ill health.¬† Put in lodges and cabins as soon as they are viable; don’t be afraid of developments nearby and within, which cross-subsidise the long term care of the trees. Have sentiment about trees but don’t be sentimental.
  6. Take communities with you. There were examples some years ago, including in the Welsh valleys, where new woodland was not taken to the heart of local people and much work was needed to turn this round. Perhaps the loss of jobs was so much more profound than even trees could heal. But today, given the experience of the National Forest and record of the Community Forests, we can be confident that people west to east across the country will be proud of this great venture. I wish it and the Woodland Trust leading it with great local organisations, very well indeed.