The New Northern Forest

by frankbeswick

There are much welcome plans to plant a stretch of forested lands from coast to coast in Britain.

Britain is a once-tree-covered land, but over the centuries woodland has dwindled. This is due to the demands of industry, which ravaged the industrialized landscape of Northern England and parts of Scotland, farming and the now defunct need to build wooden warships, the "hearts of oak" with which Britain once dominated the seas. But there are plans, spurred by the need to soak up carbon dioxide, to replant trees and take our small eight percent tree cover to a much greater level. The Northern Forest augments the existing National Forest in the Midlands. For environmentalists it is an exciting time.

Image courtesy nmqseps

The North of England.

There is a deep pleasure in planting a tree, tinged by the knowledge that you are planting for future generations, for should it live to its natural span, the tree will last longer than you will. Occasionally, I still see the tree that I was selected to plant in a local park when I was ten years old and get a feeling of pride knowing that it is still there over half a century later, now transformed from a fragile sapling into a sturdy birch. I don't see it often, but it is still there in my mind, the first among several that I have put into the good Earth. But any planting of a woodland is an act of generosity from the present to the future, and this is what is to happen in the North of England over the next twenty five years. 

England's north consists of five counties, in the North West two and North East three, the two groups being divided by the long Pennine Hills that stretch from the midlands to the Scottish borders. As you can see from the map the towns at the opposite sides are Liverpool and Hull, and between them there is an area marked in green, which indicates a national park, the scenic Peak District, Britain's first national park.  The new Northern Forest will stretch from Liverpool in the West to Hull in the East and going north-eastwards along the M62 corridor towards Leeds. 

But be aware that the term forest is a bit flexible. When the Americans speak of forest they refer to the massive woodlands of North America. Well, ours are inevitably smaller than this. Furthermore, forest is a technical term in English law that did not originally denote only a woodland, but a stretch of land, sometimes moorland,  reserved for royal hunting, which provided the king's court with venison and wild boar meat. The royal hunting bit has ended now. So the new Northern Forest will not consist of unbroken, extended woodland coverage, but of a network of interlinked woods from one side of the country to the other. As Northern England is the narrowest region of the country, you can do this, while it would be far more difficult in the far larger southern parts of the island.   

Northern England needs trees. It is an industrial landscape of large conurbations, small towns and mining villages, which acquired its present structure at the industrial revolution. There are wasted, now derelict industrial lands and abandoned coal mines in places. In the middle is the often bleak Pennine Range, whose centre is the dry, bare limestone sheep farming landscape, with rims of millstone grit, the landscape of the Bronte sisters. Some of the summits are covered with thick boglands, places that are of national importance as I will show further on. This is not to say that there is no natural beauty, for there is much of it, including stretches of farmland, but the beauty is often wild, empty moorland and it is considered that there are not enough woodlands, especially outside the national park. 

The Need for Planting.

It is likely that the hill tops will remain unplanted for two reasons.Firstly,in some areas, such as Tideswell Moor [pronounced Tiddswell] in the Peak District the bedrock is carboniferous limestone and therefore the soil is thin, probably too thin for trees and best kept for sheep.

But secondly there are areas that  are boglands, places where the peat is quite thick. One such bog is atop Kinder Scout  [kin pronounced as kin] , a two thousand foot summit between Greater Manchester and Sheffield. Ecologists have for some years been undoing the drainage work performed there by farmers,[legally] blocking drainage channels to soak the peat as much as possible with the aim of making the peat grow. The reasons for this are firstly that peat is a carbon sink that stores much CO2 and therefore protects against global warming, but secondly because it acts as a giant sponge. This sponge slows down rainwater run off, which would be rapid if the summit were bare of peat, and therefore prevents flooding in Manchester and Sheffield regions. We need bogs there more than we need trees. 

Here therefore is the reason why planting is to be focused in river valleys, particularly on the eastern side, for there have been flooding problems on that side of the Pennine Range. Trees  slow down the flow of flood water in river valleys and they are particularly good at preventing flood water from coming downhill, with their root hairs binding the soil particles together. This prevents not only the downward flow of water, but the washing away of soil from hllsides and river valleys. Well-focused planting will strategically locate woodlands to act as anti-flood barriers. The only way to get flood water to go  away is to let it get to the sea, but the problem is that when too much comes at once we get flooding that affects settlements. Slowing it down rather than blocking it is the best strategy.

Wild life is also being protected. What many endangered species need is corridors along which they  can pass safely. Narrow stretches of trees will link woodland to woodland. This will allow species of insect found in one area to move to another and prevent the inbreeding of small  populations that is so damaging to genetic diversity and the future health of many species.  Habitats for various bird and animal speecies will be  created. One large corridor will run along the sides of the M62 motorway between Manchester and West Yorkshire on the other side of the Pennines. 

Furthermore, tree planting will soak up CO2 and will contribute to Britain's strategy against global warming. There are also trees which absorb toxins and store them in their hardwood. These will be particularly useful near certain cities.Woods will be designed with recreation in mind and there will be paths along which people would have the opportunity to walk and cycle. Hunting will not be permitted, nor will motor vehicles not used for official purposes by foresters and emergency services, or invalid transport.

What the Wood will be Like

The character of the wood will vary with the location. The bulk of it will be a  traditional English forest, with native oak and beech at its heart with other trees such as birch, hawthorn and elder on the periphery at the very least, though there may be other species such as lime,which is an ancient native of Britain. Yew may have a place at times, for it is also native to the British Isles. There are two species of oak, the English oak, the commonest, and the rare sessile oak which grows mainly in a small location in the hills of Cumbria.This will be an opportunity to bring it back. At wetter sites the planting will be of alder and willow to soak up water, but the willow will need harvesting.Moorland sites will see abundant self-seeded birch, as birch self-seeds very easily, and this too will need harvesting, a reminder that woods need management. 

But what will it be like as a human experience. We must wait to see, but let's go on an imaginary walk through a stretch of new northern English woodland. It is June twenty forty two and a middle aged man and woman go walking through a wood on the Rossendale Fells north of Manchester. They amble initially along a broad well maintained path through the edges and see elder with its berries swelling to maturity, there are some blackberries on the briar canes  and a hedge of hawthorn shows its red fruits. But none are ripe. In the dappled shade of the woodland edge they espy a range of woodland flowers, anemone, the purple of wood sorrel, the yellow of celandine.  As they delve into the heart of the wood the shade thickens and they see beech trees struggling upwards to compete for light with the powerful, but slower growing oaks. They note a tree that has fallen in the winds and been left to serve as a haven for fungi and insects. It is slowly returning to the earth, for even in a human-planted wood the cycle of nature goes on. 

They are alert for wildlife, and a movement in the undergrowth reveals the fleeting passing of a muntjac, a small barking deer imported from China and gone feral. In the foliage they espy a nuthatch, with its deep-blue coloured back, in its unique motion, for it is the only bird able to run on foot down a tree. In a clearing they see a brightly coloured jay with its swooping flight as it seeks insects. But most animals are still shy of humans, and the night creatures are still  a-slumber.

Near the path they see a ruined stone building of the kind common in Northern England. It is slowly being covered with moss and ivy, as nature reclaims her own. They muse on the passage of years and think of how their nature-loving parents who used to take them woodland walks would have loved the wood and how they welcomed its planting. But the route takes them full circle and they return to the car park refreshed and taking with them experiences and memories.


A nuthatch

A nuthatch
A nuthatch
Updated: 01/09/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/26/2020

Derdriu,the grey squirrel was deliberately imported into Britain without any consideration of its ecological impact. But red squirrels were not exported, as far as I know.

I think that red squirrels eat hazelnuts, but as, unlike grey squirrels, they cope with conifers, they can also eat pine nuts, so they did not pose such a demand on hazelnut supplies.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/26/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photo, practicalities and products (particularly the quirky chest of drawers).
Did people deliberately import grey squirrels into, and export red squirrels from, England? It's my understanding that the former lived in the proto-United States and the latter across the pond and that during European settlement they switched ranges. Was the red squirrel not interested in hazel tree edibles?

dustytoes on 01/09/2018

Thanks for the explanation about the willow. I do hope you are still around in your nineties and spry enough to enjoy seeing this forest in person. Even so, it's nice to realize it will be there to enjoy with or without you around.

frankbeswick on 01/09/2018

I am glad to read a comment from you, Dustytoes, as I always enjoy what you say.

Willow soaks up water, especially when it is at its greatest growth rate [when young] so to keep up its absorption capacity it is a good idea to harvest willow at some stage for biomass and let strong young shoots grow again. The best to do this is the ancient technique of coppicing, which creates coppiced vigour in a tree. We are having flooding problems in the North of England, so I am keen to take measures that soak up some flood water.

You have read my article insightfully, for I imagined that the couple might be my relatives. I chose 2042 because it is twenty five years hence when the forest will have reached maturity. I would like to see it, but by then I would be ninety two, possibly still around, but unlikely.

dustytoes on 01/09/2018

This sounds like an excellent plan. When planting trees one must be thinking of the future where both people and animals can enjoy these life-giving plantings. I have a question about your remark about the willow that "will need harvesting"... and what you mean by that?
You are obviously picturing in your mind a day far in the future when your grandchildren and great-grandchildren can enjoy this forest. I loved reading about it.

frankbeswick on 01/09/2018

We are unlikely to grow much field maple as in Britain it tends to prefer the chalky soils of the South East, and its relative Sycamore is non-native. We have enough fir, spruce and pine, so they will not be planted.

Hazel is a tree valued for its nuts that once the British working classes used to collect in woodlands, until the grey squirrel, which was imported from North America, ate them. We could plant hazel if planting goes with strategies to manage the grey squirrel, though recently it has been learned that the most effective anti-grey squirrel strategy is to re-introduce the predatory pine marten, which [with the exception of stolen picknickers' jam sandwiches] likes nothing more than lunching on grey squirrel.

You are right about soil erosion on hill tops.I know of no hill top trees, for not only is the soil shallow, the winds in Winter can be brutal

blackspanielgallery on 01/08/2018

It is necessary to choose the trees well, for not every tree will grow well in any climate. Here, we have pine, oak, and willows. Maple trees and sycamore trees also do grow, but can be subject to disease. as for fruit trees, citrus do well as long as a hard freeze does not come, and hardy varieties can resist some hard freezes. Then, there are palms, which prefer warm weather. Pecans are another popular tree. But, fit and spruce will not survive, and many nut bearing trees are not seen, other than pecan trees,

As for hill tops, which we do not have in this flat land, erosion often removes soil, and bedrock is more shallow than other places. This might also hinder planting on hill tops.

In America, forest is used for large areas, and woods for smaller areas, at least in this location. Some terms change by region.

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