Who will gain from the Northern Forest?

Plans announced this week for a Northern Forest of 50 million trees running from the Humber to the Mersey mark more than a bold attempt not only to overcome recent low woodland planting rates in England.

Image: Flickr/Andrew (CC BY 2.0)
Image: Flickr/Andrew (CC BY 2.0)

The aim is also to put trees where they can best meet a raft of economic, environmental and social objectives over the next 25 years.

The Woodland Trust and other bodies involved with implementing the project have prepared a prospectus that puts the project at the heart of the area’s wider development. "Greater prosperity across the North has to be green," it says.

"We start with a clear case for a major economic uplift from increased property values and regional attractiveness. We can reduce the risk of flooding for up to 190,000 people, create thousands of new jobs, store thousands of tonnes of carbon and make the citizens of our great Northern cities and regions happier and healthier."

Proximity to current and future residential areas is key, it notes, and with 650,000 new homes and £75bn of hard infrastructure investment planned across the Northern Forest area in the next 20 years, "the time is now to ensure that a strategic plan is agreed for a significant increase in woodland cover, including street trees".

Woodland Trust director of conservation Austin Brady says: "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. We’ll need to continue to work with Government and other organisations to harness new funding mechanisms such as those promised in the Clean Growth Strategy."

The trust will partner with the five community forests that sit within the proposed area for the Northern Forest, namely the Mersey Forest, Manchester’s City of Trees, the White Rose Forest in West Yorkshire and the southern Pennines, the South Yorkshire Forest and the HEYwoods project in the Hull and East Yorkshire area.

Around 230,000 trees have already planted in the City of Trees, including 333 street trees and 67 orchards in the wider Manchester area, and it manages some 225,000ha of woodland in all. Its director Tony Hothersall tells Horticulture Week: "The Northern Forest will give us added impact and resources, and allow us to deliver a lot more."

City of Trees finds opportunities for planting with the help of the Forestry Commission, which "has acquired significant areas of land", as well as local authorities and private landowners, he adds. On these sites, planting "ranges from whips to standard trees purchased from UK nurseries with good biosecurity, though some of the larger trees we use in hard landscapes may have been grown overseas initially but will have had an appropriate quarantine period" he says. "Quality and disease-free status are key for us."

While it hosts a number of volunteer planting days, "we don’t get volunteers to plant street trees". Besides such work, "there is a range of different roles required to put together and maintain a high-quality environment," he adds.

Targeted economic, environmental and social objectives

  • economic uplift from increased property values
  • reduced risk of flooding
  • jobs creation
  • improved timber supply
  • increased carbon storage
  • general improvement in health and wellbeing of locals

Price tag

The overall price-tag of the Northern Forest has been put at £500m, making the Government’s initial contribution of £5.7m seem paltry, although "it’s great to have something", says Hothersall. "We will now look at other funding sources including Government departments, though it’s also an opportunity to look at other funding streams and to get more people on board."

For the horticulture industry, HTA director of horticulture Raoul Curtis-Machin says: "The plans for the Northern Forest are great news, especially given the low numbers of tree planting in recent years. We hope that the growers are engaged from the earliest opportunity to ensure that there is plenty of lead time to produce the stock."

Welcoming the news, Cheviot Trees managing director Harry Frew says: "England has not been hitting its planting targets for many years now and this can only help. However, in the forestry industry we are only too aware and familiar with how long it takes for ideas to actually be processed, approved and come to fruition, especially a project of such size."

He adds: "Another concern is that there is always great difficulty persuading landowners to plant trees to meet existing targets, and for prospective tree planters to find land to plant on. It will therefore be a long and very challenging process. No sowing will take place until the hard work of planning and approval has been undertaken, and meaningful contracts in realistic timescales are put in place to supply the UK-grown nursery stock."

The forest prospectus also devotes a chapter to the aim of improved timber supply, describing wood as "a critical resource in the green economy". The news has been further welcomed by the Royal Forestry Society, whose chief executive Simon Lloyd says: "We are delighted to see this will be mixed planting. A diverse range of species, both native and non-native, will ensure greater resilience and sustainability of the forest. Softwoods form the basis of grown-in-Britain timber and this will be good news for local economies as well as helping to reduce flood damage and other environmental benefits."

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