THE FORESTRY Commission is uprooting thousands of acres of its own trees in an extraordinary act of restitution.
The commission, which has been criticised for decades for burying some of the country's finest landscapes and wildlife habitats under a dense blanket of conifers, has now embarked on a programme of trying to turn the clock back.
It is clearing its trees off sites from the Scottish Highlands to Dorset, from the Lake District to East Anglia to recreate the heaths, bogs and traditional woodland that preceded the planting of ranks of spruce and other non-native trees.
Last week, Mike Lofthouse, acting director of forestry operations at the commission, told the Independent on Sunday: "We are meeting the aspirations of the public, which wants forests for other things than growing timber."
This is a remarkable change of direction for the commission, which was brought into existence during the First World War, when Britain found that its mines were short of wood for pit props. It was charged with building up a "strategic reserve of timber", a purpose that continued long into the nuclear age and was only recently formally abandoned.
Vast tracts of bare, uncultivated - and beautiful - land were bought and planted with conifers. Until 10 years ago, the wealthy - including Terry Wogan, Nick Faldo, Cliff Richard, Alex Higgins and Dame Shirley Porter - were given tax breaks to encourage them to plant forests too.
This policy even led to the planting of more than one sixth of the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland in the extreme north of Scotland. This haunting open expanse of peat and pools, moss and rare flowers, is home to a great family of rare birds, and recognised by the international scientific community as one of the world's outstanding ecosystems, alongside the Amazon rain forest and Africa's Serengeti. It was supposed to be protected by no fewer than four international treaties.
Country lovers have objected to the planting ever since Wordsworth inveighed against a plantation in the Lake District as "vegetable manufacturing" and Britain became perhaps the only country in the world in which conservationists campaigned against planting trees, because the forests dramatically altered the character of the landscape and its wildlife.
The Commission is now embarking on a limited attempt to make amends, by removing its trees from sensitive sites even before they are fully grown. Last week it announced that it would clear 200,000 half-grown Corsican pines from 300 acres of Whitbarrow, a fell in the Lake District, to restore one of Britain's rarest habitats, a flower-rich, limestone grassland. The fell, home to more than 50 rare insects, is to become a National Nature Reserve, Britain's highest conservation designation.
But this is only the latest of a series of similar projects.
Commercial conifers are being removed from nearly 4,000 acres of woodland on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in what is thought to be the biggest project of its kind in Europe. The land is being turned back to traditional oak woods with glades and open spaces.
A similar project is removing commercial conifers from Glen Affric, a wild glen thrusting deep into the North-west Scottish Highlands, one of the last refuges of the primeval pine forests that once made up the Great Wood of Caledon.
Nearly 2,000 acres of bogland - called the Border Mitres - are being restored in Kielder Forest in Northumberland. Half the area was planted with trees while the rest was damaged by forestry-related drainage. The trees are now being removed and the drains blocked.
About 450 acres of rare heathland in the Thetford Forest area of East Anglia - as well as heathland in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Dorset - are being restored.
Both conifers and sheep are being removed to try to restore deciduous woodland in the Peak District. The project is also trying to recreate a more natural boundary between the woods and moorland and hopes to encourage black grouse back to the area. Mr Lofthouse says that through these projects the Forestry Commission is "trying to see the woods rather than just the trees".
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