National Forest dream moves towards reality

Green and pleasant Britain: Tree-planting bids to be announced today give fresh impetus to regeneration of old mining areas
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The winning bids in Britain's first tree planting auction will be announced today, signalling the creation of a county-sized National Forest in the scarred, unleafy landscapes of the north Midlands.

If all goes according to plan, today will be remembered as the time when the forest ceased to be a work of pure imagination and started the long process towards becoming millions of mature trees.

The winners are the 16 out of 21 bidders who tendered the lowest fees for planting and maintaining trees on farmland. They were chosen by the National Forest Company, the tiny state-owned firm which has the job of getting 66 square miles of new woodland planted on a shoestring budget - hopefully by 2010.

Ambitious plans for a large new forest in England, one of Europe's most treeless nations, were announced in 1989 by Chris Patten, then Secretary of State for the Environment.

The site, sprawling across parts of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire north of Birmingham, was designated in 1990. It covers almost 200 square miles, but the aim is to have trees on just under one- third of it.

The landscape has been ripped open by clay extraction and opencast coal mining and the local economy hit hard by the closure of all its deep mines. Only 3 per cent is tree-covered, well below the English average.

The rate of new planting since 1990 has been painfully slow, with only one-fifth of a square mile of saplings planted. At that rate it would take more than 200 years for the forest to be created.

While the idea of the forest was warmly supported by local councils and the public, its most important potential backers were unimpressed. These were the local farmers, who saw no good reason to plant woods on their land. Their only incentive was the standard tree planting grant, available across most of the country, of up to pounds 1,013 an acre.

''Frankly it was a commercial disaster to plant trees on the kind of mainstream farmland we've got round here,'' said John Stanley, who farms in Charnwood, to the east of the forest.

''Putting trees in immediately halves the value of the land and you've got to wait 20 years or more until you've got a commercial timber crop. We've got to make a living from our land. We like to plant a few here and there to improve the look of our land. But when it came to covering entire fields, forget it.''

The auction scheme made him change his mind. He has submitted one of the winning bids and by the end of March he will be have put down 21 acres of trees on his 1,400 acre farm.

Exactly what each of the 16 winners is being paid is a secret. But the average works out at pounds 1,740 an acre - nearly double what is available under the standard tree planting grants which the winners will also be receiving.

It is the first time there has been such an auction in Britain and pounds 1m is being paid out. The Government chose this approach believing it would be the most cost-effective way of getting trees planted.

''We'll suck it and see,'' said Mr Stanley. ''The bid I put in just about covers what I'll lose from taking the arable land out of production.'' Half of his 15,000 saplings will be fast growing Corsican Pine for softwood production, with the remainder consisting of native hardwoods - oak, cherry, holly and ash.

He will create footpaths in this new deciduous plantation but there will be no public access to the pines. ''We're cautious about public access because of the occasional problem with vandalism, but we also realise it has to be there," said Mr Stanley. "What's the point of a National Forest if people can't walk through it?''

The winning bidders have committed themselves to planting trees on 570 acres. The National Forest Company hopes to get a Government grant to repeat the auction each year and expand the sums available.

If it succeeds, then as the century closes, at least 2,000 acres a year will be planted. Much will come from spoil heaps and old coal and clay workings being afforested, as well as from farmland planting.

By 2005 the goal of 66 square miles of trees will be more than half accomplished and the area will resemble a young, open forest. With it, hopefully, will come new industries and jobs in tourism and timber.