A magnificent forest. But the Government may wield the axe

Michael McCarthy goes down to the woods, the latest target for the Coalition's cuts

The first of the oak leaves were turning golden in Alice Holt forest yesterday. Walking amongst them, on the most beautiful day of the autumn, it was not hard to see the problem with the Government's plan for a massive forest sell-off: a forest is much more than trees.

In Alice Holt, on the borders of Surrey and Hampshire 50 miles from London, it was stillness and peace. It was an eye-popping light show as the sun sparkled through the foliage, making the oaks and the hazel beneath them seem lit from within – making the very shadows tremble. If you stopped and breathed in, it was an exotic collection of scents, scents of earth and grass and moss and fungi and leaves, being exhaled even from an ecosystem hunkering down for the winter.

For that's what a forest is: a huge ecosystem, a kingdom apart whose teeming life can provide some of the richest human experiences, and the problem with the Government's leaked intention to sell off enormous amounts of the land holdings of the Forestry Commission is that it views forests merely as a commodity.

If the Government had decided to sell off Government bricks, say, or Government six-inch nails, or Government sprockets or Government widgets, fair enough. Get that deficit down. But if you sell off Government timber, you're also selling off an untold number of those ecosystems, of those kingdoms apart, and you may very well be consigning some of them to perdition.

The official response is this: that the Government should not be in the business of growing trees. Well, that's a pretty respectable argument, as far as it goes. After all, the Government does not catch fish, or grow grain. But to advance it now, in an entirely narrow way, is to ignore the history of forestry in Britain.

We have not been good custodians of our woodlands. We love the medieval myth of the greenwood covering the country, but once we got properly started on it, the greenwood did not last very long.

Much of our ancient forest cover was cut down in Elizabethan times, cleared for agriculture as well as having been exploited for charcoal burning and for shipbuilding, and by the end of the 19th century, Britain – with Ireland – had the lowest forest cover of any European country, barely 5 per cent. Compare that to nearly 30 per cent in France, over 30 per cent in Germany and more as you go eastwards, until you get to Russia, where over half the land surface is forested.

Take a Brazilian environmentalist to task about how much of the Amazon rainforest his country has cut down and he is likely to hit back that we in Britain have destroyed a far greater proportion of our ancient woodland, the equivalent ecosystem – and he will be right.

This absence of forests has been a great impoverishment of our experience of the natural world in Britain – the forest itself, dark and mysterious, does not remotely play the role in the British imagination as it does, say, in the German one. But 90 years ago this began to change.

The shift came out of the First World War, and the critical need for wooden pit props to keep the coal mines going, at a time when Britain ran on coal; we could not produce enough of our own, and the German submarine blockade of 1917 very nearly choked off imports.

Never again, vowed the Government when hostilities finished: we will create a strategic reserve of timber for pit props and other essential uses; and in 1919 the Forestry Commission was born.

The Commission's original job was simply to grow trees, and to grow them quickly and cheaply, and for decades it did this using conifers from the northern Pacific coast of the USA – the Douglas fir, the lodgepole pine and above all, the Sitka spruce. They were never popular. But in the past 20 years, its mission has broadened beyond all recognition and now the Commission is as much a conservation body as a tree farmer, having moved beyond conifers to recognise the value of our native forest of oak and ash and all the other shady, whispering broad-leaved trees that have been familiar and beloved for centuries. The Forestry Commission does not just grow trees any more. It looks after ecosystems, those kingdoms apart.

And now half of them are to be sold to the highest bidder. Walking through Alice Holt yesterday I found it hard to believe that anyone could contemplate taking away protection from what was all around me.

I was in the Straits Inclosure, a particular piece of woodland I know well because I visit it in July looking for the splendid woodland butterflies of high summer – the white admiral, the silver-washed fritillary and the purple emperor.

All can be found there because of the magnificent richness of the ecosystem, which holds the honeysuckle which supports the white admirals, the violets which support the silver-washed fritillaries and the sallows which support the purple emperors.

Yesterday, it was merely a spectacularly lovely landscape. In July it is the loveliest of landscapes exploding with exquisite life. And this, the Government would have us believe, is a commodity, the same as bricks, the same as six-inch nails.

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