The government has pledged £5.7m to kickstart the planting of a great Northern Forest that will span the country from Liverpool to Hull. With the M62 as its spine, it will cover approximately 120 miles of land, involve the planting of over 50m trees and take some 25 years to complete; costing an estimated £500m over that time. The project looks set to bolster Britain’s quite frankly rather pathetic woodland cover, provide a new habitat for wildlife and create opportunities for ecotourism in Northern England. Hooray, right?
On paper, the new Northern Forest seems like a marvellous idea, the benefits listed above coming alongside a whole suite of other advantages centred on air quality, flood risk, property value, carbon capture, biodiversity and mental health – time spent in woodlands has been shown to be of great benefit to our own wellbeing, but is the plan currently being hailed by conservationists and environmental NGO’s really what is it seems? Is it a sign of changing attitudes within the Tory party and a shift towards a greener vision for Britain, or merely an attempt to woo eco-conscious voters? And, just perhaps, distract from the government’s poor track record on environmental issues. Environmental journalist Patrick Barkham certainly thinks so, though he is also complimentary of the idea.
Like many, I initially welcomed the government’s commitment to the NNF. Given the associated benefits, the creation of a woodland of such magnitude should, of course, be embraced with open arms. Not at least because it potentially offers respite for a plethora of embattled species – the Dormice, Willow Tits, Wood Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers and butterflies who have not coped too well since our island lost the majority of its tree cover. That is, of course, if the woodland is done right. And I cannot help but hold some reservations.
I am sure many will share my distaste for the expansive spruce/fir monocultures that currently make up a large part of England’s remaining woodland. They are rather alien things, in truth; good for squirrels, coal tits and the odd goldcrest but little else. Thus far I have seen little mention of the type of woodland proposed for this scheme, and I must admit that given our current govs tendency to curry favour via quick-fix approaches, I worry that this bleak coniferous landscape is what we can look forward to with the NNF? Fast-growing, non-native species planted to maintain a party promise set to replace existing habitats (albeit troubled ones) with one of minimal value. Perhaps not, I am sure the Woodland Trust would never support such…
Is this what we have to look forward to?
If the plans for the NNF do go ahead with nature in mind, and the mix of trees planted- resembles that of our ancient woodlands, I fear I will still worry. Besides a welcome retreat for humans and a new habitat for our hardier wild species, what value will this new woodland have? Currently, woodlands across Britain are in very poor shape, predominantly as a result of overgrazing by Britain’s rampant and poorly managed deer population. With many woodland species currently suffering as a result. Absent proper management it is likely that the New Northern Woodland would quickly fall into disrepair and wind up in a similar, sorry state. People are already up in arms about the mismanagement of our ancient woodlands, besieged by developers and threatened by overgrazing and invasive species, and so far, we have done a pretty shoddy job at protecting what we already have. Who is to say things would be any different with the NNF? Would the woodland – huge in scale and difficult to manage – quickly fall foul of sycamore, balsam and ravenous ungulates?
Browsing social media in the days since the government’s announcement, there has also been worry about the habitats set to be engulfed by the proposed forest. Including one lady voicing concern over the peatlands of the Humberhead Levels, Pennines and Mersey Valley. A vital habitat which currently plays host to a number of species of conservation concern, ranging from breeding Curlew to threatened reptiles. Will the proposed plans take into account the removal of a vital lifeline for these species? Will suitable habitat be set aside or improved elsewhere to offset potential damage? I suspect not. At present, many of the non-woodland species currently dwelling across the proposed area are in an arguably worse state than our woodland creatures, and it seems somewhat irresponsible to inflict further harm on them. Indeed, the same could be said about areas of farmland set to be reclaimed for the plans. Sure, Britain’s agricultural land is in a largely sorry state but the Yellowhammers, Corn Buntings and Grey Partridge who depend on it do not adjust well to woodland life. Nor do many species associated with open country, for that matter.
Finally, there is also the issue of cost. Sure, the government looks set to fork out a paultry £5.7m and NGOs are set to contribute a substantial sum. Though together, these do not even come close to covering the estimated £500m cost of the project over the long-term. Where will the additional money come from? Will future governments recognise the value of the NNF and commit to further spending? It seems unlikely. Politicians are fickle creatures and it seems more likely the job will be left resoundingly half-finished. Would this be an entirely bad thing? I am unsure – charities would likely benefit through the expansion of their existing forest reserves and, with proper care, wildlife may flourish on these sites; though little would change elsewhere. I am not sure we should be taken in by promises unlikely to be kept in the long-term. Call me cynical if you must.
Looking past the novelty of a grandiose woodland stretching the length of Northern England, I cannot help but feel that the government could have achieved their aim of winning the hearts of environmentalists through other, more valuable tactics. Perhaps by restoring and yes, expanding, existing ancient woodland sites. And by recognising that greenery – while pretty – does not necessarily represent a healthy ecosystem. Perhaps resources would be better directed towards creating a mosaic of natural habitats likely to benefit the many, not the few. Efforts to halt the destruction of woodlands elsewhere by HS2 and proposed fracking certainly would not go amiss either; though I suspect we are not meant to discuss that. And that the NNF has been designed, in part, to distract from these, much as Patrick Barkham suggests above.
Ultimately, the New Northern Forest is an exciting idea. One sure to impress a suite of people ranging from recreational woodland users to rewilders, yet I, personally, remain unconvinced. In my (altogether unimportant) opinion, it seems like little more than a poorly planned attempt to earn brownie points from the green lobby while ignoring many more pressing issues in our countryside. Ignoring the enormous value of a diverse range of habitats and, indeed, established woodland sites while failing to plan effectively for the long-term. I may be surprised – in fact, I hope I am; but for now, I will continue to view future developments through sceptical eyes.