Comment: Can’t see the North for the trees

Forest plan offers ready made symbol for England’s North-South divide 

Forests are great – especially ones that are allowed to grow naturally with all the wild wonder and chaos that entails – but is the forestation of a huge swathe of northern England really what the region needs?

By Mark Cantrell

Dark Forest.jpg

THE Government has backed the creation of a huge forest that will stretch coast-to-coast across the north of England, a gesture that invites a rather tempting satirical interpretation.

In the spirit of such mischief, we might choose to see this is an arboreal take on Donald Trump’s proposed wall: Conservative politicians are bent on erecting a barrier against the ‘grim’ northerners. Well, a curtain that will obscure the place from sight and mind, at any rate.

The trouble with this notion, of course, is that the proposed forest is situated a little too far north for ‘southern comfort’. In any case, forests are rather ‘people porous’ – so not much of a barrier then: far better, perhaps, to see it as a distraction from more pertinent issues of national and regional significance.

Even so, the Northern Forest has its proponents – individuals and agencies motivated not by political sleight-of-hand, but a genuine faith in the benefits and the beauty of forestation – and they have welcomed the Government’s backing for the project.

“England is losing tree cover,” said Austin Brady, director of conservation at the Woodland Trust. “We need to make sure we are protecting our most important habitats such as ancient woodland as well as investing in new major woodland creation schemes. Existing approaches to increasing woodland cover are stalling and existing delivery mechanisms, such as community forests, are under threat. A new Northern Forest could accelerate the benefits of community forestry.”

Forests run deep in our cultural outlook, even if in our modern urban and rural landscapes the real thing has been pushed to the background. Long gone are the primordial forests of pre-Roman England; lost to myth and legend and ancient farmer’s crude axes, but still they flourish in our minds. Whether the dark and sinister woods of fairy tale, or the sun-dappled undergrowth beneath the eaves of a copse on a summer jaunt, forests and trees hold an allure.

But forests are more than just a setting and a prop for the human imagination: they’re home for a wide variety of life. Every forest, indeed every tree, is a complex eco-system we’ve learned (insufficiently) not to disregard. Sure, we know forests play a role in generating oxygen and taking carbon out of the atmosphere; we appreciate wood as a material for construction and for craft, even as a fuel. They also play a role in managing rainfall, soaking up the groundwater, and ‘venting’ it back into the atmosphere. Overall, however, we’ve not really appreciated them enough.

Forests in the North are sparse compared to the national average – just 7.6% of woodland coverage compared to the UK’s 13%, while in Europe the average coverage is 44%. Meanwhile, in 2016 only 700 hectares of land were planted with new trees, way below the Government’s target of 5,000 hectares a year, so the North is deemed ripe for reforestation.

“This new Northern Forest is an ambitious and exciting project that will create a vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England stretching from coast to coast, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy,” said environment secretary Michael Gove, when he announced the Government’s backing for the proposed forest.

“Trees are some of our most cherished natural assets and living evidence of our investment for future generations. Not only are they a source of beauty and wonder, but a way to manage flood risk, protect precious species, and create healthier places for us to work and live.”

Image courtesy of The Woodland Trust

The Northern Forest will not only help to reduce flood risk, it is claimed it will also adapt some of the UK’s major towns and cities to make them more resilient to projected climate change. Reforestation will also help to create jobs, and give a boost to the UK’s timber industry, as well as assist in soaking up atmospheric carbon. Forests, in this respect, are the very epitome of a green investment.

With all that said, then, what actually is the Northern Forest? Well, it’s what will emerge from the planting of 50 million trees over the next 25 years. That’s the plan put forward by the Woodland Trust and the Community Forest Trust, with the UK Government providing £6 million to fund the first tranche of forestation.

For the Government, it’s part of a so-called ‘Green Brexit’ package: part of a so-called 25-year Environment Plan to “leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”. The plan takes in efforts to tackle plastic polluting our oceans, and other measures intended to tackle humanity’s impact on the natural world (well, at least as far as a small European island with fast-diminishing global significance can muster, but that’s another story).

“It is vital that we leave our planet in a better state than we found it, with cleaner air, stronger protections for animal welfare and greener spaces for everyone to enjoy,” said the Prime Minister, Theresa May. “Progress is being made. We’re investing over £3 billion in improving air quality, tackling marine pollution by banning harmful plastic microbeads and increasing sentences for animal cruelty to five years.

“But to create an environment fit for the future we can’t stop there, and that is why we are supporting the creation of this new Northern Forest and will shortly be setting out our ambitious vision to further support the environment and protect its good health for generations to come.”

Wonderful, we might think, with just a hint of sarcasm there. It’s easy to be cynical about such measures when they spill from a politician’s mouth; don’t mention fracking, or the loss of ancient woodland as HS2 cuts its way through England’s spine. Ministers can be fickle in their nature, and this evidently isn’t lost on the Woodland Trust’s Brady, but even so, for now the organisation has something to work with.

“The North of England is perfectly suited to reap the benefits of a project on this scale, but this must be a joined-up approach,” Brady said. “We’ll continue to work with Government, and other organisations to harness new funding mechanisms such as those promised in the new Clean Growth Strategy to plant extensive areas of woodland to lock up carbon. This will ensure we can make a difference long term.”

The forest will span 120 miles along the M62 corridor, and stretch from Liverpool on the West coast to Hull on the East. Along the way, it will embrace towns and cities such as Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds, and Chester. It’s expected to be worth £2 billion to the national economy.

The Northern Forest is expected to accelerate the creation of new woodland and support the sustainable management of existing woods. Many more trees, woods and forests will also deliver a better environment for all, or so it is claimed, offering improved air quality in towns and cities; mitigation of flood risk in key catchment areas; and support for rural economies through tourism, recreation, and timber production. More trees, the argument goes, will also improve our sense of well-being and help improve our health.

The first planting is to begin in March, according to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), with the assistance of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Woodland Trust, which has already committed to investing £10 million in this project, will begin planting at its 680-acre site at Smithills, Bolton.

As it grows, the Northern Forest will connect the five community forests in the north of England: the Mersey Forest, Manchester City of Trees, South Yorkshire Community Forest, the Leeds White Rose Forest, and the HEYwoods Project, with so-called green infrastructure and woodland created in and around major urban centres such as Chester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester.

Trees alone, of course, will not a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ make. The region needs rather more than a great forest to shift its economic trajectory. No, among other things, the North needs investment in rail electrification, in transport infrastructure; it needs economic diversification to create resilience and good jobs; it needs the autonomy to make its own decisions on its own terms, and not simply within the whims and preconditions of Whitehall devolution deals. We wouldn’t want to lose sight of such wood among the trees.

A Northern Forest certainly appeals, but as it spreads its eaves from West coast to East, we must avoid it becoming a kind of long grass where the North’s wider issues can be sidelined.

Remember the satirical opening point: the forest may not become a barrier, but it can all-too-easily become symbolic of a deep-rooted divide.


Mark Cantrell, Stoke-on-Trent, 14 January 2018

Copyright © January 2018. All Rights Reserved.

First published on Medium.




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