Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Doom of English forests

The announcement that the British Government is planning a £250 million sell-off of England's publicly-owned forests has been met with huge opposition from many sections of society. While not all Forestry Commission land is to be sold off, and it will keep its role overseeing the country's woodlands, there is much uncertainty (to say the least) over guarantees over access for future generations. The fear is that private landlords may restrict walkers and mountain-bikers coming onto their land.

However, it is worth remembering that the Forestry Commission was created in 1919, not for public leisure needs, but to provide timber for the nation. The first world war had severely depleted Britain's woodlands and towards the end of the conflict, David Lloyd George, the prime minister, thought that the country was in greater danger of defeat through a shortage of timber than of food. The seriousness of the situation can be seen from this Observer report from April 21 1918 (click image to enlarge):

The Forestry Act of 1919 set up the commission with power but without a tree to its name. By 1939 though, it had planted 600,000 acres of new woods and in 1936 the first 'national forest park' was created in Argyll with others being established in Snowdonia and the Forest of Dean before the second world war.

Supporters of the forestry sale point to the fact that the commission has caused much environmental damage in the past, replacing ancient deciduous woods with commercial confiners, while whole areas have been covered in dark green blankets of forest with no regard for the surrounding area. Ennerdale in the English Lakeland is often cited as one of the worst examples of this and Harry Griffin, one of the Guardian's country diarists, was often critical of the desecration of the valley. However, the commission has changed its policy over the decades, a glimpse of which can be seen in this Griffin piece from July 1 1968:

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