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100 years of the Forestry Commission

8 July 2019 by Rolawn

Sunny forest scene

The magic of forests

Forests are home to myth and legend. On a summer’s day, the natural and shades of supernatural seem to play out in what feels like a fairy tale setting of sun-dappled forest floors and soaring tree trunks. Forests allow our minds to wander to tales of Robin Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Finn McCool and countless local legends of headless horsemen, lost orphans and the occasional dragon.

There is undoubtedly something magical about forests. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote Scottish-American naturalist John Muir. The year of Muir’s death saw the start of the First World War; an event that changed the landscape of the world forever and, with its insatiable demand for timber, helped to almost consign forest wilderness in the UK to the stuff of legend itself.

The creation of the Forestry Commission

Following the Great War, woodland coverage was at an historical low and accounted for just 5% of land area in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, the predicament of British woodland was taken seriously at the highest level and the Forestry Commission was set up on the back of a report to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. They began to buy and plant vast tracts of land with a view to replenishing lost woodlands and, importantly, to plan for a future demand for timber.

Within its first decade, the Forestry Commission had planted more than 138,000 acres across England, Scotland and Wales, taking the public forest estate up to 600,000 acres (around the size of West Sussex). The major bulk of the planting was of conifers which has shaped many of our forest landscapes today but around 7,500 acres of broadleaf trees were planted and grants were also made available to private landowners to replenish their own woodlands.

A mix of commerce and public recreation

The purchase and planting pattern continued apace. The demand for pit props, central to producing coal to feed the UK’s industrial heartlands, saw conifer planting account for 316,000 acres of forest by 1934. At the same time, the UK’s first Forest Park in Argyll, with two campsites and a visitor centre, was opening, igniting a public love affair with our forests.

World War 2 and another demand on the nation’s forests

The outbreak of World War 2 accounted for another period of felling on a vast scale with almost 30,000 acres of Forestry Commission and private woodlands clear felled. A shortage of timber workers during the height of the conflict saw women picking up an axe, drafted in to work as 'Lumber Jills' to help serve the huge demand for timber.

This second wartime decimation of the UK’s timber reserves pushed forestry higher up the political agenda, sparking ministerial responsibility for our forests as well as leading to research and greater investment and development. By the mid-1950s, the UK saw the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh ceremonially plant trees to mark the one millionth acre of Forestry Commission planting.

The Forestry Commission and wildlife

The 1960s saw the first wildlife rangers introduced and by 1964, the public was granted unlimited access to Forestry Commission land, starting the relationship with our forests that many of us have been fortunate enough to grow up with and love and appreciate today.

The Forestry Commission estate is home to many varieties of mammals, birds, insects, fish and amphibians from six species of deer (two native to our shores) that roam freely in many forests to rarer creatures like the red squirrel and the elusive Capercaillie. A love of wildlife draws many visitors but more adrenaline fuelled pursuits attract others and the UK’s forests are home to a wide variety of sometimes unexpected activities.

Activity on Forestry Commission land - mountain bikes, sled dogs and alpacas

Thetford Forest is the UK’s largest man-made lowland forest with 18,730 hectares to enjoy. This huge area hosts a 400 acre Center Parcs resort with all the facilities and activities you would expect, a high wire adventure park, an Arboretum, visitor centres and a huge variety of cycle trails for all capabilities.

There are also some less expected activities you might come across if you go down to the woods, especially on a winter morning. Thetford Forest, like some other Forestry Commission woodlands in the UK, allows the training and racing of sled dogs in certain areas, given away by the excited howls of what are predominantly Siberian Huskies hooked up to wheeled training rigs. Other dog assisted sporting activities are also growing in popularity in the UK, such as bikejor or canicross where fit canine pals of all breeds are hooked up to a bike or a runner. For a quick overview of dog powered and dog assisted sports have a read here, there’s also a handy guide to events that take place throughout the winter months if you fancy spectating.

Of course, many thousands of dogs enjoy the UK’s forests at a more sedate pace as they are ideal spots for dog walking and allow well behaved canines a lot more freedom than many areas. It isn’t just dogs that get walked; there are a number of forest sites where visitors can enjoy something different -  a lot closer to home than their native Andes - taking an alpaca for a walk!

While we often think of forests as being havens of peace and quiet, they are also fast becoming the venue of choice for outdoor music concerts. While music lovers enjoyed a relaxed and stunning backdrop to performances by stars such as Paul Weller, Stereophonics and Foals this summer, they were also contributing to the future of the UK’s forests with revenue from the concerts supporting the sustainability of the woodlands and their wildlife.

The next 100 years of the Forestry Commission

Forests are never static and stewardship of this magnificent resource can never rest on its laurels either. The UK is greener and richer in both environment and activity as a result of the revolutionary decision taken in 1919 to plan for the future. Poet Laureate Ann Duffy has written Forest to mark the centenary and as a celebration of the power and importance of our woodlands, this is a piece that will resonate with the many people who go to the woods to, in the words of John Muir, “wash their spirit clean”.

In the early years of the Forestry Commission, experimental gardener William Robinson gifted the fledgling organisation 1,000 acres of woodland as part of the Gravetye Estate in Sussex. This gift was marked this year by the creation of a garden for the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show with award winning designer Sarah Eberle. As the Forestry Commission continues to look to the future within its estate with experimental tree planting to tackle climate change, create more space for our wildlife and combat what is a growing threat from disease and pests, the Resilience Garden mirrored this on a small, more domestic scale, reflecting what we know and can predict about climate change including wetter winters and drier summers.

If you want to get involved in the Centenary there is a series of 10k runs being held in forests throughout the UK this summer.

Whether you feel like lacing up your running shoes or walking boots or slipping on a pair of wellies for a more festival feel, there are countless ways to enjoy the great outdoors and celebrate what has been achieved in the past 100 years.

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