The Future of the Forestry Commission in England
The Government’s controversial plans to dispose of some 258,000 hectares of woodland and forest presently managed by the Forestry Commission poses an interesting dilemma for the Society. The proposal to hand areas of ‘heritage woodland’ such as the Forest of Dean or the New Forest to new or existing trusts seems positive and should, with appropriate safeguards built into any agreements, ensure sympathetic management and access of these ancient landscape features which have an important aesthetic role, both in themselves and as an inspiration to artists, writers and even composers over the centuries.
On the other hand there are places where forestry activities, particularly where commercial timber production has predominated, have had a major and not always sympathetic impact on pre-existing designed landscapes. As I write, I look across the Taw valley in Devon, where in 1919 the Forestry Commission undertook its first plantation, now known as Eggesford Forest, within the eighteenth and nineteenth century designed landscape associated with Eggesford House. The original mixed ornamental and semi-ornamental plantations (discernable from a few remnant trees) have gradually been replaced by a predominantly coniferous crop, leading to a significant change in the character of the landscape and a loss of its designed intent; at the same time it could be argued that the Commission’s activities have, over time, assumed a relative historic significance of their own.
This is not to say that the Commission’s woodland is not well-managed, with good public access and benefits for wildlife; but there are places where the present forestry regime has a detrimental impact on the historic significance of the landscape, and where a change in ownership may allow a different management regime to be pursued. There may even be instances where inappropriately located plantations can be removed for the long-term benefit of the designed landscape. This is a particularly important consideration in a climate where new tree planting for fuel and biomass is being encouraged, often at the expense of historic parkland. Trees are of course good, but only when planted in the right place: the wrong tree in the wrong place has a very enduring detrimental impact.
The Conservation Committee has been considering this dilemma, and in preparation for this huge change in land ownership, is looking to prepare a list of designed landscapes which have been affected by forestry plantations, and where we might seek to influence a change in direction.
First published in GHS news 87 Spring 2011