Country & Garden: The forest: a never-ending story

Country Matters
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Every year some 500,000 people visit Kielder Forest, in Northumberland. They go there to walk, to ride horses or mountain bikes, to camp, picnic, watch birds, boat on the reservoir - the largest man-made expanse of water in northern Europe - and generally enjoy the open air. Yet probably not one in a hundred realises that the huge tract of woodland, extending to 150,000 acres, embodies a complete history of upland forestry in Britain, and in particular illustrates the evolution of that much-maligned body, the Forestry Commission.

In ancient times the rolling hills around Kielder were covered with trees, but around 4,000BC conditions for growth deteriorated as the climate became wetter and colder. Later, human beings began to make their mark, felling some areas for agriculture, and setting fire to stands of timber to flush out enemies. Over the centuries the agents of destruction - Nature, man, grazing animals - continued to whittle the woods away; experts believe that by the start of the Christian era forests covered only 20 per cent of the land.

By 1900 that figure had fallen to 5 per cent - but nobody worried much, because Britain had a huge empire, and could import all the timber the country needed. Then came the First World War and the German naval blockade. Imports were abruptly cut off - and suddenly we had to rely on the small stocks still growing at home.

In 1919 the Government was determined never to be caught in such a position again, and set up the Forestry Commission with the sole objective of creating a strategic reserve of timber for use in time of war. One way of doing that was to encourage private owners to plant new woods and replant old ones.

The other strategy was for the state organisation to create forests of its own. So it was that Kielder came into being. The first land was bought in 1925, and the first plantings were made a year later. In agricultural terms the ground was poor; and because most of the grassland had borne no trees for several thousand years, nobody was sure that the new forest would grow. But it turned out that the main species - sitka spruce, from the west coast of America - did well from the start, and in 1935 the managers were sufficiently encouraged to buy another large area of land, this time from the Duke of Northumberland. During and after the Second World War the Commission's young forests were still not producing timber; however, the need to create a strategic reserve seemed to be even greater, and the Fifties and Sixties were Kielder's years of most rapid expansion. Not only did the Commission buy and plant more land; it also started to build five villages to house its quickly increasing workforce, one at Kielder itself.

Alas for the best-laid plans! The development of modern machinery - first the chain-saw, then the voracious Harvester and the Forwarder - meant that the number of men needed to harvest the timber turned out to be far lower than expected. At the outset the aim in Kielder village was to build 300 houses, but after only 100 had gone up construction ceased. A three-storey school designed for 150 children never had more than 50 pupils.

Today it has only three, and most of the semi- detached houses have been sold off; fancy front doors and double-glazed windows betray the fact that they have well-to-do new private owners.

It was the original directive - to produce as much timber as possible - that gave the Commission its bad name. By the mid-Sixties not only Kielder, but also much of upland Britain, was smothered in serried ranks of conifers that took no heed of contours or natural landscapes. Then, as international political priorities changed, the need for a strategic reserve of timber dwindled. Government still saw forestry as important, because it provided employment in rural areas, but emphasis shifted from production alone to landscape design, the encouragement of wildlife, and the provision of recreation.

Kielder is now in full production. Every day of the year 1,000 tons of timber leave the forest - and there is no reason why that rate should not be maintained indefinitely. Harvester machines - which can fell a tree, strip off its branches and cut the trunk into lengths, all in a few seconds - have become so sophisticated that a single skilled operator can process up to 25,000 tons of timber in a year.

Yet at the same time the woodland is being continuously restructured to make it more attractive to wildlife and to human beings. Felling is carried out in relatively small coupes to increase the diversity both of scenery and of habitat; after each clear-fell, more ground is left unplanted, especially along the sides of watercourses, in order to enhance the appearance and improve the habitat for fish.

Old rights of way are being opened up and linked together to provide better walking and riding; former outlying farmsteads have been handed over to the Mountain Bothy Association for use as refuges for hikers.

On the wildlife front, every effort is being made to encourage red squirrels - for which the forest is one of the last strongholds in England - and to keep the destructive grey squirrels at bay. The most effective means is thought to be a careful balance of tree species. Research has shown that red squirrels would prefer a mixture of 20 per cent sitka and 80 per cent Norway spruce; but this would be too attractive to greys, so the proportions have to be the other way round.

The ancient mires, or bogs, are now recognised as sites of international scientific importance. In the bad old days foresters would try to drain them so that they could plant them; today the bogs are being re-flooded to benefit plants such as bog asphodel and sundews and insects such as the rare large heath butterfly. As drains and ditches are blocked and the water level rises, heather dies off and sphagnum moss starts growing again.

Graham Gill, the local district manager, reckons that the Commission is forgoing about 10 per cent of potential revenue in making the forest more diverse and agreeable - and luckily the Government agrees that the sacrifice is well worth it. Kielder may not look much as it did in its primeval state, but at least it is a great deal more attractive than it was a generation ago.