Leafy London gets official 'forest' status

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The Independent Online

It's official. The nation's newest, officially recognised forest is – London.

It's official. The nation's newest, officially recognised forest is – London.

Tomorrow the Forestry Commission will get its first chief for the capital, which it describes as "the largest urban forest in the world".

The appointment marks a dramatic shift for the commission – best known for planting vast blankets of conifers over the Scottish Highlands – towards promoting smaller woodlands near where people live.

London is already remarkably heavily wooded. The commission says that there are some 65,000 woodlands and stands of trees in the city, covering over 17,500 acres, just under a fifth of the entire area of Greater London. Over 12,000 acres of this is made up of sizeable woods of at least 22 acres. And two-thirds of it is registered as ancient woodland, suggesting that it is part of the original forest which once covered the country.

Ron Melville, who starts work tomorrow as London's first forestry conservator, will be charged with promoting the planting of new woods on the capital's wastelands and "urban deserts" and encouraging recreation in existing ones.

He said yesterday: "Forestry is now about people and not necessarily about trees. It is about recreation and the environment, education and health.

"There is clear scientific evidence that woods can help reduce stress. Within minutes of stepping into their green spaces, there are measurable improvements in pulse rate and muscle tension. People feel better by being in woodlands."

Mr Melville is to draw up a "London-wide forestry strategy". This will include looking into creating woods on brownfield sites and conserving ancient woodlands, which he describes as "our tropical forests – to be managed as carefully as possible".

His job is part of a drive by the commission's new chairman, Lord Clark – a former Labour Cabinet minister and a longstanding countryside campaigner – to modernise its work.

The former David Clark – who was one of the first MPs to take up environmental issues 30 years ago and became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1997 – has long been pressed for the greening of the commission.

More than 15 years ago he piloted a Private Member's Bill through Parliament which placed a statutory duty on the commission to take environmental considerations into account.

Under his leadership the commission is going to place increasing emphasis on planting neighbourhood woods on brownfield land, particularly in England.

"We are trying to bring the forests down from the hills to towns and cities," he said. "In the past, forestry has been about growing trees and most people think of the commission as planting huge forests for producing timber. But trees and woods should be for people; they can make life so much better in so many ways."

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