The Forest of Mercia

A 'multi-tasker' was the apt description given by Alan Thompson in his vote of thanks to Graham Hunt, Project Director for the Forest of Mercia, who is based at the Chasewater Innovation Centre. It was indeed an illuminating and informative presentation on a project of both environmental and social significance. Graham began with the project's aspirations and ended with current progress - with much more in between.

The Forest plan was devised as a response to the Rio Earth Summit. With, at just 7%, one of the lowest tree covers in Europe the Government realised that reversal of forest destruction was imperative. The Forest of Mercia (92 sq. miles) is one of twelve Community Forests nationwide, operated through a partnership of five Local Authorities including Lichfield District Council, the Countryside and Environmental Agencies, Forestry Commission etc.

The project has received almost unanimous and continuing support from local people, the Ramblers Association and the N.F.U. as demonstrated, since 1990, by its five yearly reviews. When Graham began to build his team - now 13 core members - 15% of the Forest area was derelict, or underused, with rundown urban fringes, the remains of the South Staffs Coalfield, mineral extraction and mechanised farming. But undaunted, Graham saw the future as 'green' and 'vibrant' and no one said it was 'a waste of time'.

Accessing funds appears to be a time consuming activity, procured from Europe, Landfill Tax grants, Aggregate levies, Forestry Commission, Advantage West Midlands and DEFRA to name but a few.

Tree planting and rescue is a major feature; for example a local farmer offered hundreds of oak seedlings to be collected in just two weeks! This task was achieved by local school children and the seedlings were planted in the Forest's tree nursery.

The diverse character of the Forest of Mercia has been reflected in new planting created by the interaction of eastern and western climatic features, such as the winding roads and high hedges of Chorley and the flatter lands of Teddesley Hay.

A problem, solved spectacularly, was that of Grove Colliery's 50 ft. high spoil tip of grey shale; rock hard in summer, slushy in winter. A loose tipping method was used, using dried sewage cakes as a growing medium, with a big bag attached to a digger bucket with holes - "a giant salt cellar" - avoiding compaction. This achieved a 90% success rate with Alders and Robinias, both nitrogen rich species. A shelter belt planted at Cheslyn Hay has grown to head height in five years and Pipe Hall Farm, Abnalls Lane, which was planted in a joint venture with the Woodland Trust, is well worth a visit.

Other projects include dense cover thinned at Coven Outdoor Education Centre and, with a grant, the construction of a wheelchair path. The Environmental Stewardship Scheme has helped farmers to replace lost hedges - again often with the aid of school children. DEFRA has provided for the training of hedge-layers to revive old hedges and reverse the skill shortage.

Public access has been encouraged through the "Forest of Mercia Way", a long distance footpath, with leaflets, way-markers, kissing gates replacing styles and a resurfaced canal towpath.

Tree cover in the Forest is not 'wall to wall' but interspersed with heath-land and grassland. Lowland heath is rare, found specifically at Chasewater where Lichfield District Council has re-introduced grazing. A heath-land link between Cannock Chase and Sutton Park is being investigated.

Unemployment schemes, part of the Government's 'New Deal' have involved timber recycling, with wattles from sycamores at Coven being used at the Chasewater Innovation Centre in addition to green oak - a Tudor reference. Here cow dung was needed for lime putty, which raised a Health and Safety issue as it can explode! A vision of 'New Dealers' being blown across Chasewater was conjured up by Graham!

Other projects have included the Woodland Wildflower initiative with the Woodland Trust and the Relief Project following 'Trees of Time and Place' for the millenium. RESET, which provides work-based training for school phobics and children excluded from mainstream education, is now based at Beaudesert to assist its restoration. A special schools programme, set up with teachers, explores woodland aspects of the National Curriculum.

In addition to this is the Chasewater Innovation Centre, built with the latest technology (partially from France), and featuring a vegetation (sedum) roof. Units based there include a saddle maker, a glass panel maker and a microbrewer providing Chasewater Beer for local public houses. There are meeting rooms and a cafe which is open seven days a week.

Many volunteers have helped Graham and his team to create what is obviously a most successful centre for Staffordshire and the West Midlands. This was a splendid talk, given to an excellent turnout of members.

Lorna Bushell
September 2005