Nasty trees, but let's keep them

Nicholas Schoon reports from a valley where spruces have allies
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It Is time for the whine of chain-saws in a secret and tranquil valley, says the Government's Forestry Commission. But a mass ramble was staged up Alport Dale yesterday to demand that its trees be spared.

Local worthies and environmentalists joined a crowd of walkers to protest against the commission's plans. Kate Ashbrook, the chairwoman of the Ramblers' Association, declared: ''We strongly oppose the rape of the lovely Alport valley.''

Rape? Wait a minute. The Peak District woodlands in question - drab conifer plantations - are of the kind that environmentalists have campaigned against for decades. Standing in great blocks with sharp, unnatural angles, they show no trace of any attempt to blend them into the ravishing natural landscape of steep slopes, grass, bilberry and gritstone.

Considering they are up to 60 years old, the Sitka spruces are unimpressive. Few have trunks much thicker than a foot across, for their growth was stunted by pollution from cities on either side of the Pennines.

They were planted in the 1930s, using taxpayers' money, to provide timber for a nation that had become overdependent on imports. Now the dale's wooden harvest is ripe, why not fell the conifers and return the valley's sides to their former naked beauty?

Foresters and conservationists would both be happy, but answers are never that easy. Forestry Enterprise, the operating arm of the commission, does not want to fell the lot and leave. It has a long lease on the valley and it wants to work it on a 30-year cycle, coming in every five years to fell a block of conifers and plant young trees.

The protesters refuse to accept any timber extraction. They say it is bound to be destructive and they want the valley to be managed purely in the interests of wildlife and scenic beauty.

The Government's wildlife conservation arm, English Nature, also opposed Forestry Enterprise's plans. It argued the plans would damage sites of special scientific interest designated because of their importance to breeding wetland birds and their unusual geology.

The campaign's leading light is an aspiring novelist, Anne Robinson, who lives in an isolated farmhouse in the middle of the valley.

Forestry Enterprise's plans led her to join the Council for the Protection of Rural England a few years ago. Now she sits on the executive of its South Yorkshire branch, and the CPRE, along with the uncompromising Ramblers' Association, have taken up the cudgels.

''This is not a Nimby campaign and I'm not just speaking for myself,'' says Mrs Robinson. ''We've got hundreds of people writing protest letters from all around, and 5,000 have signed our petition.''

It is easy to understand why people find the dale special. It boasts the largest landslip in Britain, Alport Castles, which the ramblers clambered up yesterday. One side of the valley has slumped in, leaving a sheer rock cliff. Other valleys have been drowned in reservoirs or havefallen victim to forestry work. But in Alport the trees were planted along a couple of miles of the upper valley and left to grow. The dale guarantees calm and solitude and it is only half an hour's drive from Manchester or Sheffield.

Forestry Enterprise's latest plans for taking out timber were withdrawn last year because of protests but the organisation intends to present new proposals to the Peak Park Joint Planning Board by the end of the year.

This, however, is for consultation; Forestry Enterprise does not need planning permission to go ahead. It requires approval only from the other arm of the Forestry Commission, the Forestry Authority. If they are unable to agree, the matter can be referred to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Forestry Enterprise withdrew plans to cut down trees during one in every five summers, and plant new conifers along with some native broad- leaved trees. The timber would have been carried down the steep slopes on cable cranes, then carried by large tractors along the narrow flood plain of the River Alport at the valley bottom. The small river would have had four rock fords built across it to take the weight of these tractors. Large trucks would have picked up the timber at a loading area halfway up the valley, then carried it down a narrow farm track.

''I can't see any way in which you can take out timber without doing considerable damage,'' says Mrs Robinson. ''The valley is totally unsuited to that kind of heavy work - it's either very steep slopes or marshy."

John Tewson, district manager for Forestry Enterprise, said: ''It wouldn't have had a huge impact. They're using emotive, biased descriptions of proposals which we've withdrawn.'' But he is adamant that his organisation cannot leave the trees alone. ''That's not an option.We have a duty not to abandon timber without due thought for the public investment which went into planting it.''