Magazine article Geographical

A Forest for the Future: Ten Years Ago, the National Forest Company Embarked on an Ambitious Plan to Establish the Largest New Forest in England for Nearly 1,000 Years. Nigel Hicks Reports on the Progress of the Project and Reveals How It Is Helping to Transform Rural Economies in the Midlands

Magazine article Geographical

A Forest for the Future: Ten Years Ago, the National Forest Company Embarked on an Ambitious Plan to Establish the Largest New Forest in England for Nearly 1,000 Years. Nigel Hicks Reports on the Progress of the Project and Reveals How It Is Helping to Transform Rural Economies in the Midlands

Article excerpt

What do you do with a post-industrial landscape scarred by abandoned mines where jobs have become scarcer than winter sunlight? The answer: cover as much of the region as possible with a new forest and then develop forestry and tourism industries. That may sound like an improbable step back towards a pre-industrial era, yet it's a process that has been ongoing in the Midlands for the past ten years, and one that is proving to be increasingly successful.

This is the National Forest, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year. Its management body, the National Forest Company (NFC) was established by the government in 1995 with the aim of generating a new 500-square-kilometre forest across the dying coalfields of Derbyshire Leicestershire and east Staffordshire. It was a bold initiative, the largest forest to be planted in lowland England in nearly 1,000 years. It was greeted by the local people with a huge wave of support, yet at that time, sceptics were thicker on the ground than trees. It was difficult not to see their concern: despite the large areas of derelict mine and quarry land just begging to be forested, if the scheme was to be a success, the overwhelming majority of the required land would have to come from farmers. How on Earth was anyone going to persuade them to switch from lucrative arable crops to unprofitable forestry?

Ten years on, the sceptics have fallen silent. Ranks of gently swaying saplings march across much of the landscape, and what was once just an act of faith is now clearly becoming a reality. Environmentalist Jonathon Porritt recently planted the forest's six millionth tree on behalf of the NFC. Woodland cover across the region has jumped from a paltry six per cent in 1995 to 16 per cent today, more than halfway to the ultimate target of 30 per cent. Although no-one actually believes that the forest can generate an entirely new economy, tourism is already growing and forestry businesses are starting to emerge. At the same time, the improved environment is attracting new businesses to the area. It's a remarkable achievement, and one that looks set to continue.

"When we first started out, people used to ask me, 'Aren't you daunted by what you're expected to achieve?'" says Susan Bell, chief executive of the NFC. "My answer was always 'No'. To me it was something quite exciting. Looking back, I think I should have been more daunted than I was. This is a project aimed at bringing about enormous change to a landscape and, as a result, to the lives of people living in it. We're doing it without the force of law, purely by persuasion, working with communities and not telling anyone what they have to do."

The concept behind the National Forest originally sprang from a report published in 1987 by the Countryside Commission (now the Countryside Agency). An area of the Midlands, stretching across parts of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, was chosen from among five possible sites, and in April 1995, the NFC was formed, financed by what is now the Department of Farming and Rural Affairs. This is a forest in an already crowded

environment. Inevitably, it will never revert to a pristine wilderness: there are, after all, 200,000 people living within its boundaries--concentrated in the towns of Burton-on-Trent, Swadlincote, Coalville and Ashby-de-la-Zouch--and despite the heavy mining and quarrying, the majority of the land is intensively farmed. "We've never envisaged wall-to-wall trees," explains Bell. "The plan has always been for a maximum forest cover of about 30 per cent, generating a wooded landscape in which the towns and large areas of farming would nestle."

In the early days, planting programmes relied heavily on the local authorities, community groups and conservation organisations such as the Woodland Trust, one of Britain's largest woodland-protection bodies. They concentrated on forestation of derelict mines and quarries, as well as on the occasional farm sold in its entirety to either the NFC or the Woodland Trust. …

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