Rough road to a sylvan ideal

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The Independent Online
The British love trees and want many more of them, for they would improve the looks and spirit of one of Europe's barest countrysides. We have just 10 per cent woodland cover compared to France's 27 per cent, writes Nicholas Schoon.

It is not just a matter of appearances. Our native hardwoods and conifers provide excellent wildlife habitats and wood for a nation which imports 90 per cent of its timber. But by the end of the First World War tree cover had fallen to 5 per cent. Since then, the Government has offered tree-planting grants to support mainly drab conifer forests on poor soils, or on bleak mountainsides unfit for farming. Alien conifers like the Sitka Spruce grew fast into the most commercial timber crop.

Both the Government and the public now want broad-leaved natives like the oak and ash to be planted on lowlands, near to towns and cities where people can walk among them. More than a dozen community forests are being grown. The aim is to hide old mineral workings and derelict industrial sites scattered around big cities, and to beautify the urban fringe.

Until this year, the grants available barely covered the costs of planting, giving farmers little incentive to devote land to trees rather than to livestock and crop production. But in June this year the European Union's farm ministers agreed to allow saplings to be planted on cropland entered into the Common Agricultural Policy's set-aside scheme. This move, long lobbied for by Britain, boosts the guaranteed income that tree-planting farmers can get from the taxpayer. The Government is also encouraging forestry for fuel, with wood being burnt in pilot power stations as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels.

The road to a sylvan Britain may not be altogether smooth, however; the public will want to visit the new forests, but landowners seek limited access - and uses must be found for the new hardwood. Many lowland woods are neglected because the industries they once supplied have largely vanished. Britain needs to rebuild these markets, or find alternatives, if its new woodlands are to provide more than scenery and wildlife habitats.