Forests set to reclaim countryside of France

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IN THE Middle Ages, England was so covered in trees that an athletic squirrel could have jumped from branch to branch from the Severn to the Wash. Those great English forests have long gone; but not those in France. According to a recent survey, France now has more acreage of forest than at any time in the past 1,000 years. In other words, as the 20th century closes, France is more densely covered in woodland than it was in the Middle Ages.

The de-population of rural France, the retreat of agriculture from poorer, hillier land and a deliberate policy of afforestation in mountainous areas have made France the fourth most forested country in Western Europe, after Sweden and Finland and just behind Germany.

On present trends, the proportion of France under forest - 28 per cent - should overtake Germany's 30 per cent early in the new century. By contrast, the United Kingdom has one of the lowest areas of woodland in Europe, with only 10 per cent covered by trees.

It would be a clever and athletic French squirrel, however, which managed to jump from branch to branch from the Rhine to the Bay of Biscay. The growth of the French woodlands in the past 40 years has been paralleled by the decline of a much-loved feature of France - the linear forest or tree-lined road.

The widening of roads and the expansion of farms, in some areas, into huge cereal and dairy ranches have massacred the long stands of trees that used to be so typical of the French landscape.

Jacques Trouvilliez, forestry director at the Office National des Forets (ONF), said: "At the rate of disappearance of this kind of forest, we are in danger of ending up with a series of huge woodlands, totally cut off, one from the other. That would be very dangerous for our flora and fauna."

The national forest office also points to an environmental paradox. In the Seventies it was feared that atmospheric pollution in the form of acid rain would kill the great forests of Europe. Three decades later, atmospheric pollution is one of the factors causing the French forests to flourish.

Roland Roman-Amat, the director of research at the ONF, said: "Not only are forests spreading in France, they are also growing more quickly than in the past... the trees are getting bigger and the foliage much richer."

This can be attributed only to carbon monoxide pollution and global warming, he said.

The resurgence of the French forests began in the 1820s, by which time the woodland areas had fallen to less than 10 million hectares, or 15 per cent, of the French land area. The process accelerated after the Second World War with the retreat of agriculture - which has lost five million hectares of cultivated land in the past four decades - and European Union and national grants for afforestation of hilly regions.

The ONF now estimates total French woodland at 16 million hectares - about the level it had reached at the start of this millennium.

Almost two-thirds of French woodland consists of the native, broad-leafed trees of the ancient western European forests - oak, beech, elm and ash.

Oaks alone account for 37 per cent of all woodland in France. About 36 per cent of the total - mostly in the mountains and in the south - is covered by evergreen trees, such as pines and firs.