The National Forest after Two Decades: A Progress Report

"The National Forest after two decades" was the title of our speaker's presentation in September, but it soon became clear that the idea for a National Forest in the Midlands first saw the light of day more than 25 years ago. John Everitt, The National Forest's Chief Executive, gave an enthralling illustrated talk on the Forest's birth, development and future direction. Cast your mind back to the late 1980s, when our industrial landscape was in transition. Many mining areas in particular were in decline and dereliction was commonplace. Whilst many commentators focussed on the plight of urban areas, the then Countryside Commission realised that rural dereliction was just as much a problem and woodlands were often in a sorry state. Hence the idea for a "New National Forest in the Midlands" was born. Bids were invited from consortia of local authorities and that led by Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire won. In 1991 its boundary was fixed. It extends from Charnwood Forest in the east, through the industrial mining areas of South Derbyshire and the sand and gravel workings of the Trent Valley, to its western edge at Needwood Forest here in Staffordshire. Thus, parts of our District, notably around the National Memorial Arboretum, lie within its boundaries. It is 200 square miles in extent and in 1991, only a paltry 6% of the area was covered in woodland.

The mission of the newly created National Forest Company was to promote woodland-led environmental regeneration schemes to transform the landscape. That regeneration came in the form of the reclamation of derelict mining land and grant-aid support for new tree planting on agricultural land. In addition, the local authorities, all the County and District Councils, ensured that their plans for new housing and commercial development included enhanced requirements for additional tree planting. The aim was, and still is, to provide woodland for commercial crops, tourism and habitat creation. The involvement of local communities in "their" forest was crucial from the outset. This led to community-led tree planting schemes and the creation and adoption of a range of local leisure schemes. Major attractions have sprung up, including the major visitor centre of Conkers, a youth hostel, a Forestry Recreation Centre at Rosliston and a café and cycle hire centre near Ashby-de-la-Zouch at Hicks Lodge. All these facilities are linked by an extensive network of new public footpaths (including the 75 mile National Forest Way) and 102km of cycleways. The woodland cover has now grown to 21% (the Forest target was set at 30% in the 1990s); 80% of the woodland has public access and 8.5m trees have been planted so far. Those planted in the early days of the Forest are now subject to a comprehensive woodland management programme, thinning the woodlands, with most of the surplus timber destined for use as fuel.

The success of the Forest has transformed communities. There are now over 4,500 Forest-related jobs. 7.8m people visit the Forest annually, using its paths and cycleways and visitor facilities. New housing is springing up as demand to settle in the Forest's pleasant setting increases. It is all a far cry from the image of decay that pervaded parts of the area in the 1980s. So where does the Forest go from here? John explained that the National Forest Company hoped to continue in its role as a stimulator of activity, whilst often not directly involved itself. Besides new projects, it was important to ensure that what had been achieved would survive, through good management. Woodlands in particular face a number of threats from wildlife pests as well as disease. Ash dieback affects most of the Forest, for example, but multi-species planting schemes have minimised the impact of the loss of trees. The Forest is also increasingly becoming a mechanism to encourage people to take exercise (and hence keep fit) as they enjoy its facilities.

Although Lichfield City lies just outside the Forest, parts of our District are included. Yet many citizens of Lichfield appear ignorant of the excellent facilities for recreation and relaxation just a short drive away. We have a major success story on our doorstep, which ranks with the National Memorial Arboretum, and its many attractions are well worth a visit. Incidentally, those with a long memory may recall that Sophie Churchill, the previous National Forest Chief Executive gave us an update on progress at our meeting in April 2008!

Roger Hockney
September 2016