British Forests: The Forestry Commission 1919-2019

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Read 14/06/2020-27/06/2020

Rating 5 stars

Book 3 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge.

This centenary publication about the history of the Forestry Commission is a fascinating insight into the origins of the organisation, in the immediate period after the First World War, and its development over the last 100 years.

After introductory essays and a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, British Forests is divided into three parts: an overview of the first 100 years; a series of illustrated essays about the natural history and science of trees and how the public forests are managed; and a gazetteer of some the nation’s forests and woodlands, each entry with potted histories, wildlife types and things to do.

I was aware of the Forestry Commission, thanks to visits to public forest managed by it, but I didn’t really think about it until 10 years ago, when there was concern that the government was to sell off public forest to the private sector. I was one of many who responded to a consultation document that stopped this plan going ahead. Four years later, the government was at it again, but more sneakily this time, using an infrastructure bill to introduce measures that would make the sale of public forest easier. I signed a petition that time. It fended off the threat to the forests.

I’m glad, because the introduction to this centenary celebration tells me that in the last 100 years, we have only regained a quarter of the forest land lost between what was recorded in the Domesday Book and what had been lost by the end of the First World War. Population growth, industry and cheaper sources from across the Empire saw the area of land occupied by forest fall from 15% to 3% over a period of 850 years. While it’s impressive that the Forestry Commission has made relatively rapid progress to reverse that decline, albeit against a tide of privatisation under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, we’re not in a position to start losing more forest again. The health of the planet depends on there being more trees, not fewer.

Illustrated by black and white photographs of people at work in the forests and the technology they have used at different periods in the Forestry Commission’s existence, part one of the book is a chronological history of the Commission, and far less dry than I thought it might be.

The Forestry Commission was set up because it became clear during the war that the British economy’s reliance on imported timber left the country in a weakened position in times of crisis. This recognition of the need to address a weakened infrastructure position was similar to the one that led to the establishment of the Electricity Commissioners in 1920 – the year after the Forestry Commission. It was the result of British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George’s mission to rebuild Britain as a better place to live, with a stronger economy and better supported population. The work started by Lloyd-George’s government was consolidated by Stanley Baldwin in his second term as Prime Minister. Baldwin’s second government is widely viewed by historians as a modernising government, and oversaw such things as the birth of the National Grid, the development of modern marketing through Sir Stephen Tallents’ Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, and the first steps towards opening up access to the public forest.

This interwar period of British History is my favourite – can you tell?

The original impulse behind the Forestry Commission was financial – securing a national stock of timber and creating a sustainable employment base for rural areas – but the public access aspect of its role quickly became important, too. It’s this public access aspect that interests me, particularly now, when green spaces in urban areas are often hard to find. Heading out to the nearest public forest, in my case Delamere Forest in Cheshire, scene of joyous day trips in both childhood and adulthood, is a tonic, and I’m glad to know that public access became part of the Forestry Commission’s remit.

The difference between the Forestry Commission and the Electricity Commissioners was the latter had an existing industry that just needed to be managed better. The Forestry Commission had to build an entire industry, developing training courses, building and managing a seasonal workforce, and creating marketplaces for its products. I learnt that Delamere Forest was instrumental in developing markets for the products from thinning the newly established woodland. Reading about this management of the forest brought into focus the reason for each visit as a child being slightly different. There are established public paths through Delamere, but sometimes a familiar path is closed off while foresters manage the tree stock. Newly discovered paths, the result of diversions around thinning and felling, would have disappeared by the next visit. Each trip was an adventure.

It took fifty years for the forest to mature and the timber stock to become secure. Through that time, most of the work planting, felling and milling was done by hand, supported by steam driven timber mills. Foresters largely lived a nomadic life, moving from forest to forest to carry out the work. The Forestry Commission provided housing in the form of cottages for families and shared accommodation for single men. During the Second World War, the Women’s Land Army provided Lumberjills through the Women’s Timber Corps. Initially, it was thought the work would be too difficult for women, until the Commission realised that women were working productively in private forests, and so Lumberjills joined the war effort. It made me laugh that the WLA at first decided not to advertise that Lumberjill opportunities existed, for fear that women wouldn’t want to do the other WLA jobs.

It was interesting to read about the increase in mechanisation of forestry processes and the impact that had on the Commission’s original aim to provide employment in the rural economy. The advent of machines capable of doing the work of twenty foresters inevitably meant that forestry communities began to break up. Mechanisation, however, coincided with an increased interest in wildlife and ecology conservation, which helped to replace some of the jobs lost to mechanisation.

Even before conservation became established government policy, the Forestry Commission acted as guerilla conservationists.

Many of the Commission’s staff had long been ahead of their time in taking steps to benefit wildlife – such as ride-side enhancement or enhancing a pond and hiding this work as part of routine ditch maintenance or road maintenance …

It wasn’t always so. One of the foresters working as a trapper in the 1950s and 60s recalls being paid to shoot wildlife in the name of woodland management. Some of the species they slaughtered (his word) include animals that are now endangered and protected, such as red squirrels and capercaillie, which this forester recalls shooting ten or twelve of in a week. Since the 1980s, though, the Commission has worked to protect and reintroduce many rare species. The Commission was also responsible over the first sixty years of its existence for some of the destruction of heathland in Britain, and has changed its working practices to ensure heath is reintroduced and managed properly as part of a wider ecosystem that includes the forest.

The Commission’s focus on planting coniferous forests to maximize the profitability of its produce led to the conversion of many traditional broadleaved forests up to the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s saw the introduction of the term Ancient Woodland to cover native woodland habitats and these began to be protected, to provide “conservation, recreation, sport and landscape”, alongside wood production. Some of the converted sites are being returned to their original broadleaved woodland states. This is covered in more detail in the second part of the book, through discussion of habitats, the impact of climate change, the pressure from conservation groups to restore ancient woodland, and the ways in which pests, including deer and grey squirrels alongside disease and parasitic insects, make management of forests complex. Part two is punctuated by beautiful colour illustrations of trees.

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The silviculture chapter is an accessible introduction to what’s involved in establishing and maintaining a community of trees. I like that forests are thought of as communities, with different species, some from other countries, and trees at different stages of development. I was interested to know about the management of British broadleaved forests that have developed over millennia and been managed since the Neolithic through coppicing. I learnt that silviculture in Britain started to change in the 17th century, with more oak introduced to feed the shipbuilding industry. When I studied Biology at A Level at the end of the 1980s, I remember learning about the transition of land from marsh through heath to oak woodland, with the latter presented as the pinnacle of a mature ecosystem in the British Isles. From this book, I gathered that this focus was fairly recent, drawing on silviculture policies that favoured ancient woodland. Thanks to the changing needs of the timber industry, silviculture experiments through the 18th and 19th centuries, and the more recent activity of the Forestry Commission, managed British woodland has changed considerably in composition. I also learnt about measuring trees to calculate their annual yield, that forest composition is a choice between pure or mixed-species and forest structure a choice between uniform or irregular. There are pluses and minuses to each choice, different choices create different habitats for other flora and fauna, and contribute to landscape and protection against soil erosion. It gave me a different way to think about forests, as being more than a relaxing place to take a walk.

The chapter on pests and diseases was interesting, but at times a little too technically detailed. I would have preferred more space to be given over to the examples of art in the forest. The case studies are much too brief, and only one has an illustration – 100 pages away. I was delighted, though, to learn about a sculpture I have passed many times on the M62 near to St Helen’s. I knew the area was called Sutton Manor and had found the sculpture’s title, Dream, online. The book told me more about its creation as part of Channel 4’s The Big Art Project and the meaning of the sculpture to its local setting, as well as explaining that it sits within Forestry Commission woodland. In the chapter about the Forestry Commission’s work in cities and urban areas, I learnt that many of the woodlands near me, along the Mersey River, are part of the Red Rose Forest. The Red Rose Forest was established in the 1990s under the Commission’s Community Forest programme. Much of the forest is near Wigan, with greened urban areas of reclaimed brownfield sites also stretching into Salford, North Manchester and the borough I live in south of Manchester. There was more detail about some of these local woodlands in the final section of the book, too. This section, as well as introducing some of the larger and more environmentally important public forests, is full of information gems. I spent some time thinking about Britain’s tallest Douglas fir, which has been growing at Nutcombe Bottom in Devon since 1876. Its diameter is wider than I am tall, and its height is around 6.5 times the height of the house I live in. I discovered that each letter of the Gaelic alphabet is associated with a different tree native to Britain, making the replanting of native trees important in Scotland. I learnt that my nearest Forestry Commission woodland is on the site of two Norman hunting forests. I discovered places in these pages that I now want to visit.

British Forests is very informative about a range of things, some of which I didn’t know I was interested in. I can think of a couple of people I’d recommend it to. If you’re interested in trees and why Britain’s woodland landscape looks the way it does, I’d recommend it to you, too.

4 thoughts on “British Forests: The Forestry Commission 1919-2019

    1. Indeed! I was going to go for a woodland wander on my day off on Monday but it lashed it down up here. Hopefully the weather will be better next time I have a day off.

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