pic: Alice Holt Forest © The Forestry Commission

A Nation of Tree Lovers

18th October 2019

The Forestry Commission is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Jack Watkins reviews a new book telling its story, and salutes its achievements …

In 2010, when the government of the day was looking for ways to raise some quick money as part of its austerity drive, it mooted selling off the public forest estate. The strength of feeling against this plan, made clear in popular fury across the land, was intense enough for it to be ditched very quickly. On reflection, what sedate and innocent protests those now seem, when today the entire country seems angry and on, or about to take to, the streets to shout about their concerns. What is clear, however, is that the future of the Forestry Commission, as the guardian of those public forests, has never seemed more secure.

As Jon Snow, Channel 4 news anchorman and tree lover (he is both a patron of Trees for Cities and chairman of the Heart of England Forest in Warwickshire), writes in his forward to a new book, British Forests: The Forestry Commission 1919-2019, the Commission ‘ranks with the NHS and the Houses of Parliament as key to our British way of life. For 100 years it has overseen the preservation, support and development of the woodlands, and forests of our green and pleasant land.’

This widespread affection for a government body must, in part, stem from recollections of the familiar timber Forestry Commission signs on childhood outings to the countryside. For many, their very first experiences of the wilds probably came via the freely accessed Forestry Commission estates.

However, the Commission was not originally created for the delectation of ‘we the people’. Britain may pride itself as a nation of tree lovers, but its woodland cover has long trailed that of its European mainland counterparts. Between the time of William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book to the end of the First World War, England alone lost two-thirds of its forests, a process that had quickened during the war when, it’s been estimated, a third of the trees in Britain had to be felled to keep up with the demand for timber for pit props and trench duckboards.

It was to remedy the nation’s timber deficiency that the Commission was created via the passing of the Forestry Act in the autumn of 1919. ‘Starting almost from scratch as far as Britain was concerned, the Forestry Commission was instrumental in the formation of the forestry industry as we know it, possessed of high-tech machinery, forestry colleges, tree nurseries and scientific knowledge,’ relates British Forests.

Well, high tech up to a point… The act of harvesting timber remained highly physical into the 1960s. Early tractors were too light to haul timber in woods, so although foresters designed all manner of clever aids, from aerial ropeways and winches to narrow gauge railways, to move the timber, the cross-saw and axe remained the primary felling tools, with chainsaws not arriving until the 1960s. Over 50% of timber hauling was still being done by horses in 1960, though this figure had dwindled to 14 % by the end of that decade.

It’s worth noting that horses have made a comeback in recent years, especially on Forestry Commission sites in East Anglia, extracting timber from woodland where the modern, heavy-wheeled machinery can cause damage to sensitive habitats. The book has some evocative black and white archive photos. One shows workers planting the early forests, capped and jacketed gentlemen moving along muddy furrows, carrying the young trees in a bag on their shoulder, planting them individually by hand with a spade or mattock. Most tree planting is carried out the same way today.

Science came in the form of tests for rates of tree growth. You may recall that, while the Commission can now bask in the status of being a national treasure, it was lambasted for many years for covering large parts of the nation’s open spaces with monotonous evergreen plantations. That’s true enough. Much ancient woodland and heathland was sacrificed in pursuit of this policy. However, the prime objective, remember, was to remedy the timber deficit as fast as possible – the shortage was again exposed in the Second World War when the newly planted woods had yet to reach maturity – and the tests had shown that the likes of the Sitka spruce, Japanese larch and Corsican pine, were rapid growers, and these, along with Douglas fir, certainly outperformed slow-growing native broadleaves like the oak, beech and our only native conifer, the Scots pine. It’s interesting to read, however, that as early as the 1930s, there were complaints about the deplorable impact of the newly created conifer forests on the landscape.

It was also in that decade that the idea of the potential of the forests for public recreation began to take hold, doubtless spurred on by the celebrated mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire in 1932, pushing for the right to roam, the creation of National Parks, and greater access to the countryside which was still essentially in the hands of private landowners.

The idea of multipurpose forestry, which recognised the importance of wildlife conservation and access and recreational value for people in forest management was something that had its origins in the forest ranger systems of America. The Forestry Commission’s first Wildlife Ranger was appointed in 1964. Grizedale Forest in the Lake District was the first location to establish a nature trail in 1961, with a campsite quickly following in its wake, encouraging visitors to experience an overnight stay in a forest environment.

The 1960s and 1970s were the decades when the idea of public recreation truly came of age, aided by the spread of car ownership. By the 1990s, the Commission was the largest single provider of outdoor recreation in the UK, but for the most part, the prime appeal of the forest remains the simple pleasure of walking, rather than the pursuit of more energetic outdoor activities. ‘To this day,’ says British Forests, ‘most of the visits to the nation’s forests are for a simple walk in the woods. The forests of England, Scotland and Wales are criss-crossed with trails offering everything from quiet riverside strolls to hikes up to stunning viewpoints.’

Accordingly, it’s estimated that there were 226 million visits to the Forestry Commission estate in 2017/18. There’s also been an effort put in, with considerable success, to targeting audiences less likely to pay a visit. An award-winning Gruffalo trail, complete with the all-important Gruffalo app, has attracted 1.67 million visits across England.

There’s no doubt that cabins, campsites and holiday cottages have boosted the Commission’s income, but alongside that, it has increasingly become more conservation-minded. The era of blanket conifer plantations has passed, and the Commission has become a leader in sustainable forest management, or in other words, the stewardship and use of forests in a way that maintains biodiversity and does not damage other ecosystems.

The last of the three sections of British Forests is given over to a selection of the best of the Commission’s forests, all of them ‘open, day and night, all seasons round. They are our shared inheritance.’ One of these is Wendover Woods, a forest with a mix of broadleaves and conifers that enjoys wonderful far-reaching views across the Chiltern Hills and the Vale of Aylesbury. This autumn it is one of several sites where a special commemorative avenue is being planted to mark the passage of the Forestry Act of 1919. Truly it was an act of great foresight, even if the legislators could hardly have imagined how, a century on, we would need trees more than ever, for reasons far beyond a supply of timber.

The Forestry Commission 1919-2019, edited by Ian Gambles, with a forward by Jon Snow, is published by Profile Editions, £25, profileeditions.com For details of Forestry Commission centenary events, visit forestryengland.uk/100

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