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Amateur efforts bring back the forests

Friday 13 November 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard delights are large-scale operations to re-generate England’s woodlands –and congratulates the amateur volunteers and the charities that make such work possible

ACCORDING to one of those country fables dating back centuries, a squirrel with wanderlust could once upon a time travel from Bolton Abbey in Upper Wharfedale to Knaresborough, some twenty miles away, without ever having to touch the ground.

The whole of North Yorkshire up until the 17th Century was swathed in forest so thick that the tree branches virtually overlapped – an image almost impossible to conjure up today when the moorlands around Blubberhouses are just about as bleak and treeless as anywhere in Britain.

tree planting
Image:YDMT From little acorns

But the country which thrived on tales of Robin Hood and his gallant band in Sherwood Forest began a relentless battle against our native woodland some 400 years ago and it has been going on more or less ever since. Until now!

Back in Tudor times, mighty oaks were felled to build the ships of the infant Royal Navy, more trees were burned for charcoal, and many of the finest Elizabethan buildings which survive today can thank the stout timber beams which were at the heart of their design.

But these were mere pin-pricks on millions of acres of woodland which spread from Hampshire to the northern tip of Scotland. The type of tree changed, of course, from broadleaf to pine the further north you travelled, but Britain was essentially a forest nation.

The Industrial Revolution began the real rot, with timber in huge demand to fire blast furnaces before they learned how to use coal, and for building the new towns and cities to house the rural poor who flooded in from the countryside to work the mills, mines and factories.

But here in the Yorkshire Dales, and in many other upland areas of Britain, the coup de grace was delivered by one of the most placid creatures on the planet: the sheep. For by the 18th Century, landowners could make far more money out of wool than they could out of the basic farming methods of the day. But forests and sheep do not mix so the trees had to go. As a result, the Dales today have tree coverage of only 3.5% of the land area, as opposed to a (still low) national average of 9%.

The most infamous manifestation of this, of course, was the Highland Clearances, when whole clans of Scots were shipped off to the colonies, their villagers burned and not a few of them shot dead for protesting, one of the blackest stains on Britain’s already bloody history.

Thankfully, the situation was not quite so harsh in England – many of the rural peasants had already been cleared from the land under the Enclosure of the Fields acts – but a huge felling of forests began which, even today, is the reason why the Yorkshire Dales National Park is one of the most tree-free areas of the UK.

This sad state of affairs has long been recognised in the Dales and the national park has had for some years a grant scheme to encourage farmers and landowners to plant more trees. But funds are tight – and look likely to get even tighter in the next few years whilst Britain pays off its huge debts – so progress has been slow.

And that is why, this week, I have once again been given cause to raise a glass and toast the English amateur volunteer and the nation’s support of countryside charities to come up with the cash and the willing labourers in a sterling effort to bring back our native woodland.

As we reported on Tuesday (See News) school children throughout England will this autumn plant 300,000 new tree saplings in the latest instalment of a plan which has given the nation 1.5million new trees and miles of hedgerow.

forests and sheep do not mix so the trees had to go...

This is part of the splendid work of the Woodland Trust, one of my favourite charities, which manages thousands of acres of woodland in England, much of it near to towns – or even in the towns itself, like the famous Skipton Woods here in the Dales – so that urban folk can sample the simple but almost immeasurable pleasure of a walk in the woods.

Also in North Yorkshire, it was recently announced by another charitable body, the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, that 90,000 broadleaf trees will be planted in the Dales this winter – the ongoing part of an operation which has seen 800,000 saplings planted in 12 years.

This is music to the ears of anyone who loves our countryside and, in my case and perhaps many others, has lost all hope of a government which can find a few million here and there from the billions it has wasted on failed, urban-based regeneration and dubious IT schemes.

Once again, forward-thinking amateurs, backed by charity cash, have stepped in where governments have feared (or couldn’t be bothered) to tread. I am reminded that it was amateur volunteers who saved out canal network, on the verge of becoming a nationwide sewer, by restoring locks and digging out miles of grunge in the 1960s to save what has become a national jewel.

There is much talk in pre-election political circles of giving the voluntary sector more cash, support, and legal standing to allow it to get ahead with myriad jobs which the dead-hand of bureaucracy has crushed. Let’s hope that, for a change, the talk actually becomes reality. Restoring our native woodlands is a long step in that direction.

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