Clash of the conservationists over new forest

Into the woods: Paolo Uccello’s 15th century masterpiece depicts the mystery of the forest.

Should we plant more forests? The UK government has backed a project to create a vast green band across England. Reforestation is popular with environmentalists, but it has its critics…

It is said that in the Middle Ages, a squirrel could cross Britain without ever touching the ground. Today, it would be lucky to find a few miles of continuous canopy.

The government hopes to change that. Last week, it unveiled plans to plant a forest stretching from coast to coast across Northern England — one of the country’s least wooded regions.

Covering existing woodland as well as private land, the Northern Forest will feature 50m new trees, to be planted over 25 years. The green ribbon will surround major cities like Manchester and Leeds. This will cost an estimated £500m, of which the government has only promised to pay £5.7m; the rest will have to come from charities.

Supporters of reforestation list various benefits. Some are environmental: trees foster biodiversity, defend against floods and combat global warming by absorbing carbon. Some are economic: visitors come, jobs are created. A similar project in the Midlands, the National Forest, has converted old mines and quarries into a tapestry of green.

Britain was once far leafier than it is now. Over the centuries, trees were cleared for farming. Printing, wars and the Industrial Revolution all required masses of timber, and woodland cover hit a low a century ago. It has since climbed to around 13% — still lower than all EU countries bar Ireland. Finland is almost three-quarters forest.

Notwithstanding the National Forest, reforestation in the UK is slowing. Last year saw the lowest level of planting in England for years, according to the Woodland Trust. Meanwhile, ancient forests are being threatened by developments like the HS2 rail line and fracking.

But while deforestation is generally met with fierce opposition from campaigners, not everybody agrees that reforestation is the answer. Research has challenged some of its supposed advantages — such as its usefulness in fighting global warming (see Q&A).

Should we have more projects like the Northern Forest, or fewer?

If you go down to the woods today

Fewer, say some. We need forests, but the government should focus on saving the ones we have already, with their rich wildlife and beautiful old trees. Meanwhile, with the right approach, we can let new woodland grow by itself. Reforestation programmes are expensive and intrusive. Their benefits aren’t even proven beyond doubt. Let’s ditch them.

More, reply others. Projects like these can revitalise an area: the National Forest, for example, is very popular with locals. The benefits of woodland outweigh the drawbacks, whatever the naysayers say. Fighting deforestation is crucial too, but that is not an argument against reforestation. If Britain is to catch up with its neighbours, we need both.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in a city or a forest?
  2. Is reforestation a good use of public funds?


  1. Find a tree near your school (or home) and work out what species it is (you may want to ask others). Create a fact file for that species.
  2. The government is offering you £5.7m, on the condition that you spend it on a project that helps society. Write a proposal detailing what you would do with the money.

Some People Say...

“A culture is no better than its woods.”

W.H. Auden

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Trees draw carbon out of the atmosphere as part of photosynthesis. They take water from the soil and let it evaporate, forming clouds that reflect hot rays from the sun. Their leaves absorb light from the sun, heating Earth’s surface. The extent to which they do all this varies hugely according to the climate.
What do we not know?
How trees affect global temperatures on the whole. Experts have long focused on their absorption of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that would otherwise heat the planet. However, in recent years scientists have taken a broader look at trees’ complex interactions with their environment. One major study showed that, while forests have a cooling effect in the tropics, they actually contribute to warming in colder regions.

Word Watch

This is probably a myth. The 11th-century Domesday Book recorded forest cover in England as 15% — little more than today.
The planting of trees on recently forested land. When the land has not seen forest for ages, the term is “afforestation”.
Defend against floods
Trees are surrounded by deep soil that can absorb a lot of water. But reforestation’s effect on flooding has not been conclusively proven. See The Conversation’s article in Become An Expert.
Vast areas of land were replanted from the 1950s. The emergence of landscaping and conservation helped.
The Woodland Trust
The UK’s largest woodland conservation charity, and the leader of the Northern Forest project.
HS2 rail line
The most expensive rail network in UK history will link London, the Midlands and the North. According to the Woodland Trust, the project threatens 98 ancient woods.
A method of extracting of gas and oil from underground rocks. Fracking firms have been given permission to conduct surveys in protected woodland, despite fears about the technology’s environmental impact.

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