Sometime back in the 1960s the government dreamt up a scheme to pay farmers to plant trees on their land. Thousands of trees, mainly conifers, were planted and then forgotten. Twenty five years on they survived as spindly poles with a tuft of green on top, useless to man or beast. As a woodsman I saw them on my journeys up and down the country.
So when thirty square miles of the East Midlands, including Staunton Harold, were selected as the site for a new ‘National Forest’ twenty five years ago, I predicted a similar fate. The money to plant was generous, and the farmer kept the land, but there was no mention of cash for subsequent management. First thinnings are a net cost. Another problem with woodland, unlike corn or potatoes, is that thinning can be put off for a few years, but not indefinitely.
An early aim was to obliterate the scars of mineral extraction, and this has been achieved. Thirty percent tree cover was the target, about twenty per cent has been planted and is unlikely to much increase, with farmland now so expensive. Areas which were blots on the landscape have become tourist attractions, The planting has been mainly of native and deciduous trees, though climate change and tree diseases are now prompting a wider palette.
Most importantly, thinning and management are now being actively encouraged. Contractors skilled in thinning by machine have entered the market, bringing down the initial cost. With thousands of acres to tackle much of it in scattered small blocks, there is a long way to go. We are not ‘out of the woods’ yet, but increasingly we should be able to see the light between the trees.