Where we could be – with vision, national effort and political support
England’s woods and forests are embraced as vital to the health, wealth and well-being of the Nation and its people – recognised as having a key role in curbing climate change and enabling human society and wildlife to contend with its impacts. The more frequent and violent cycles of drought and downpour predicted by climate scientists at the end of the last century are now a reality. Our woods and forests are classed as a national network of strategic natural defences.
Following the country-wide outcry against its plans to dispose of England’s public woods and forests, the Coalition Government of 2011 changed tack, turning public brick-bats to bouquets by granting the Public Forest Estate (PFE) full and lasting protection. It received international acclaim following the UN International Year of the Forest with a commitment to restore England’s tree-cover over the next 50 years back to what it was at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 – around 15% of our total land area.
This effort proved to be all the more urgently needed following the near decimation of our native oaks by a series of invasive diseases, benefiting from England’s warmer, wetter climate. Spending on research into pests and diseases was substantially increased, with strong public support.
Unable to refute the hard evidence of the economic, environmental and social benefits delivered by well-managed woodland, the Treasury approved a long-term budget line for this visionary initiative – unleashing a collective effort from local communities, councils, businesses, private landowners, conservation groups and public bodies across the country. By 2050, over half a million hectares of new planting has been achieved – England’s 21st Century ‘Domesday Forest’ is on-target. As well as helping the country withstand and adapt to the impacts of accelerating climate change, new woods and forests are making communities across England better places to live, pulling in investment and creating thousands of new jobs.
An equal effort has been directed at bringing long-neglected woodland into positive management. Tens of thousands of privately-owned and community-run woods hum with activity – delivering valuable harvests of timber and fuel for heating homes in addition to providing vital ‘social services’ of carbon-storage, flood protection and a thriving network of wildlife habitats.
By 2050, England’s precious heathland habitats have been cleared of inappropriate plantations and returned to their former purple glory. Our remnant ancient woodlands long overdue protection as ‘the jewels in our woodland crown’, form the cornerstones of the Domesday Forest – all those damaged by coniferisation are now under restoration.
Forty years back, foresters and those seeking to make a living from woodland were an endangered species. In 2012, England’s woods and forests supported just over 100,000 jobs ; in 2050, there are double that number, requiring people with a wider range of skills to maximise the many and diverse benefits that well-managed woods provide. Jobs for young people – a key concern in 2012 – have been boosted by the much sought-after National Forestry Apprenticeship Scheme.
As thousands of long-neglected, shaded-out woods have been brought back into active management, so the numbers and variety of woodland wildlife have burgeoned. With sunlight once again reaching the under-storey, dormant seed-banks have sprung to life – bluebells and other woodland plants carpet the forest floor. The decline of woodland birds has been reversed – the nightingale’s liquid song is no longer confined to poet’s verses.
For all the efforts by individuals, communities, private woodland owners and commercial foresters, this vision could not have been realised without the leadership and strategic oversight of Forests for England – the publicly accountable successor to the Forestry Commission. Forests for England (FfE) is tasked with sustaining the character and diversity of England’s existing and future woodland, while ensuring the long-term commercial viability of our woods and forests. Its advisory and research role is underpinned by decades of practical experience on what is still known as the Public Forest Estate (PFE).
To those familiar with the jargon, what FfE does is ‘integrated land use’. To the rest of us, that means making sure our woods and forests offer they best they can, hectare for hectare, for the good of all – producing valuable timber and fuel, providing access and recreation for people, protecting homes and businesses from flooding, and helping our wildlife to hold on during this period of rapid change through a network of linked habitats.
In 2011, politicians questioned whether the country could afford to care for our woods and forests. In 2050, woods and forests are central drivers of a booming low-carbon economy. Vibrant markets exist for timber, woodfuel and carbon-capture. No urban development is conceivable or permitted without an equivalent investment in green infrastructure – trees, woods and forests are as integral to our urban quality of life as energy, water and sewerage systems.
Something else. Beyond their obvious strategic and economic value, the effort to renew England’s woods and forests has drawn people together, creating a sense of community, place, well-being, and that most elusive of cultural concepts, national identity – which like our woods and forests, seemed under threat in 2011.
Reproduced from Our Forests – a vision for England’s woods and forests
2 Figures for 2008 taken from the Annual Business Inquiry 2009 and Office for National Statistics regional gVA December 2009 published by the Office of National Statistics.