The National Forest - This century's most exciting project

On 17th November the society was treated to a stimulating presentation by Susan Bell, Chief Executive of the National Forest. Perhaps few of us realised that one of the most exciting environmental projects is happening right here, in the Midlands, on our doorstep.

Over 200 square miles in extent, Susan explained that the national Forest area extended from Charnwood Forest, near Leicester, in the east to Needwood Forest, here in Staffordshire, in the west. There are many misconceptions about the National Forest, not the least of which is the one that this is to be, in her words, "wall to wall trees". This is certainly not the case and the audience learned than only about 30% of the area would be afforested. The forest is to be, in effect, a mosaic of woodland, towns and agricultural land. The aim is indeed to plant 30 million trees over 10 years; but that is not the end of the story.

The forest is meant to be a "living forest"; providing employment, access for leisure and a new environmental asset for the nation. The core of the forest embraces the old declining coalfields of South Derbyshire and North Leicestershire and a key element of the forest strategy is regeneration. Regeneration in partnership with local authorities and other partners in the wider community. Much progress has already been made. Over 2 million trees have been planted towards the target of 30 million and they cover an area, Susan told us, of 4,000 Wembley pitches! There is already full public access to over 60% of the area planted.

Susan explained the innovative way in which tree planting was being promoted. The National Forest Company, which was brought into being by the Government to promote the development of the forest, does not acquire land but provides aid to landowners to plant trees for both recreation and for commercial purposes.

Susan's presentation was ably backed up by an interesting slide show that covered the wide range of facilities which had been promoted by the National Forest Company. We saw slides of the arboretum, near Lichfield, as well as new planting schemes, fishing lakes, recreation areas for disabled children, nature conservation projects, industrial heritage schemes and farm tourism. The jewel in the crown will be the opening at a site near Moira, on the Leicestershire / Staffordshire border, of the new National Forest Visitor Centre in March; followed shortly by the Discovery Centre which has been backed by a 1.5 million award from the National Lottery fund.

Susan truly dispelled the old theory that planting trees are of no benefit to the present generation. The National Forest is starting to happen around us now.

Roger Hockney
November 1998