The Guardian, Wednesday July 30 2008
Can open fields be turned into forest?
Despite its reputation as a green and pleasant land, much of Britain's ancient woodland has been lost. Now the Woodland Trust plans to transform 850 acres of Hertfordshire countryside into England's biggest new continuous forest. Patrick Barkham explains how.
A patchwork of wheat and barley unfolds over gently undulating fields just north of St Albans. This pretty - and pretty unremarkable - 850 acres of Hertfordshire countryside looks just like the kind of peaceful greenbelt that is always the flick of a planner's pen away from being bricked over by developers or divided by a motorway. Instead, it is now the target of a much more beautiful project: to create from scratch the biggest continuous native forest in England.
The £8.5m scheme close to the village of Sandridge will be undertaken by the charity the Woodland Trust. It is, however, far more complicated than simply grubbing 600,000 native trees, including oak, ash, hornbeam and field maple, into the ground. It may even be controversial.
The importance of conserving our unique landscape has been a dominant theme of England's development for more than 100 years, but we have still managed to destroy half the ancient woodland - areas defined as continuously wooded since 1600 - that we had 70 years ago. There are bigger old woodlands in the country than the new, as yet unnamed, forest but most are fragmented, tiny remnants of past glories in what is now one of the least wooded countries in Europe.
What we have lost is irreplaceable. "You can't recreate ancient woodland," says Toby Bancroft, project manager for the Sandridge project. "The blend of trees, soil and climate over hundreds of years is what makes it distinct." However, the new area includes almost 50 acres that will be made up of small pockets of existing ancient woodland. "Our focus will be to protect and buffer those fragments of ancient woodland," says Bancroft. These unique areas, which include a local beauty spot famed for its bluebells and wood anemones, will be encouraged to extend beyond their boundaries through natural regeneration.
Plants are, by nature, slower-moving than animals. Many species are unique to ancient woodland and do not expand their range quickly. The new wood will never take on all the richness of an ancient woodland but even creating a new broadleaf forest is a complex challenge.
It is also expensive: with soaring land prices, the Trust still needs to raise almost half its £6.6m start-up costs by the end of September to complete the purchase of the land. If all goes to plan, the first trees will be planted later this year, with large-scale planting underway by autumn 2009. The Trust plans to plant 600,000 trees, most of which will be 45cm-high, two-year-old seedlings. People love to plant trees and the Trust hopes schoolchildren and donors will join in and get digging. The uniqueness of a natural woodland cannot be mimicked and trees will have to be planted in rows so that they can be protected and maintained in the early years. However, the forest-builders will "wiggle" the rows so it won't become a visible grid of trees.
The Trust will also try to minimise the less environmentally friendly aspects of tree planting and use straw mulch instead of chemical weedkillers to protect the trees from being swamped by weeds as well as minimising the use of protective plastic sheaths for the small trees. Trees can instead be shielded from rabbits and deer with fencing, which may have to remain in place for 10 years as the trees grow.
Within months of the first trees going in, new species will colonise this fertile ground. Bancroft expects the wood's early years of small trees, shrubs and wild grassland to provide rich habitat for small mammals such as voles, pygmy shrews and mice. These should enable barn owls and other predators to establish themselves. Badger setts have already been found in the area. Dozens of other creatures found within 10km of the site are predicted to flourish in a new protected woodland. These include Daubenton's bats, hares, dormice, great crested newts, slow worms, nightingales, hobbies, lesser spotted woodpeckers and white-letter hairstreak butterflies.
"If we are successful and are able to create England's largest continuous native forest, we hope to attract species that have not been previously recorded in the area," says Bancroft. Red kites, for instance, could find a large area of native woodland extremely attractive.
The irresistible natural flowering of a growing forest must first clear a man-made hurdle: an environmental-impact assessment. If it sounds like bureaucratic madness to have to assess the benefit of a beautiful woodland, it must be remembered that a large new forest would drastically change a landscape of rolling fields. New trees could have an impact on the water table and local archaeological sites. Some may argue that it is taking farmland out of production while others may worry that their homes will be overshadowed (they won't).
Bancroft admits that it is vital to involve local residents and allow them to help decide the shape of the forest. The Trust will also plant native shrubs, such as hawthorn and blackthorn, and sow wild and woodland flower seeds. But is this fake nature? The truth is that even ancient woodland is a man-made environment and many unique species, including butterflies, birds and plants depend on historic forms of woodland management such as coppicing.
In this case, the new forest may mimic certain features of established woods, such as fallen, trees - a haven for insects such as the increasingly rare stag beetle. Bancroft has already found a stag beetle on the site and says that the Trust would consider placing dead wood in the forest as a habitat. The Woodland Trust's guiding principle is not, however, direct management for particular species but the creation of a diverse habitat, which will be allowed to change and grow naturally in ways that may not be easily predictable.
Of all the species the woodland will attract, the most important is probably homo sapiens. The Trust has deliberately chosen a site less than 30 miles from the centre of London that can be reached by train and bus. The wood will be crisscrossed by public footpaths and new routes for walkers and cyclists, a green lung of living calm in our increasingly urban lives.
"We want people to come out and experience woodland," says Bancroft. "We feel that people are losing touch with nature and we want them to watch the woodland as it grows up".
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