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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Business Development Manager / Sales

£30 - 40k (£65k Y1 OTE Uncapped): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Business Deve...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before