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A new Northern Forest – beyond the headlines…

The Woodland Trust and the Community Forests in the north of England have been working together for some time on developing the concept of a new Northern Forest. It’s not a government initiative – it’s an idea that’s grown out of the experience and enthusiasm of organisations that have been working with communities and the environment in the area for some years. It is ambitious. This will be a huge project – much bigger than the Woodland Trust and Community Forests can deliver on our own.

The concept brings together a set of shared ambitions and ideas on the role that trees and woods can play in enhancing the environment and improving the lives of communities in and around the towns, cities and rural areas of the north of England along the M62 corridor. Much time, energy and resources have already been invested by the partners in analysing where opportunities may lie and what benefits could be delivered. These ideas are gradually taking on a firmer shape; but we know that our chances of success will rely on convincing others to join us to help make these ideas a reality. In many cases we hope to create the conditions for others to participate.

So, with that in mind, I am delighted that the government has endorsed our ideas at this early stage, with a ‘vote of confidence’ to the tune of £5.7m to ‘kick start’ the project and help us to build momentum. You can read the government statement announcing their support here.

Theresa May interview

I have also been bowled over by the number of media reports and level of public interest in the project since it was mentioned by Prime Minister Theresa May during her recent interview on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show. I am struggling to keep up with the number of people getting in touch asking questions, engaging via Twitter and generally being supportive. My colleagues at the Trust on our social media and public relations teams are working flat out! Our Community Forest partners at Mersey Forest, City of Trees, White Rose Forest and HEYwoods have now swung fully into action too, working with their communities and local partners to help tell the story of what we hope to achieve.

The Northern Forest really does feels like an idea whose time has come – an idea with so much to offer if we can get enough people on board to help us make it happen. If we can get the right partner organisations to join us, and if we can start to identify and harness the new and innovative funding streams that will be needed to carry the idea forward.

Above: The Northern Forest will both accelerate the creation of new woodland and support sustainable management of existing woods right across the area. Many more trees, woods and forests will deliver a better environment for all by: improving air quality in our towns and cities; mitigating flood risk in key catchments; supporting the rural economy through tourism, recreation and timber production; connecting people with nature; and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through welcoming and accessible local green spaces.

This should be no ‘flash in the pan’. We will clearly need a variety of new woodland types, with those focused on biodiversity complemented by others that are designed to lock up carbon efficiently or produce timber to support rural business. We are not chasing success ‘at any price’. There will be little point investing so much energy and resources in new woodland if our existing woods are disappearing. There is much to do to recognise the value of existing woods and trees, to protect them, to manage them and to nurture them.

The Trust remains a staunch defender of our irreplaceable ancient woodland and ancient trees – we will continue to challenge their damage or loss in all circumstances from major projects like HS2 to individual planning applications – that’s our position, and it remains non-negotiable. I think it’s fair to say that no one does more than us in this arena, as our dogged fight to protect ancient woodland throughout the HS2 process to date has demonstrated.

Rural landscapes

Transforming urban spaces and rural landscapes on this scale requires action and investment – and this will, not surprisingly, involve planting millions of trees. But that in itself can be misread as an oversimplification of what the Forest should be about. Planting may be the first choice, particularly in the more challenging parts of the urban fringe environments or in highly modified landscapes where few natural seed sources remain. But there will also be space to work with nature and to harness natural processes, to use natural regeneration and colonisation to participate alongside each other in providing something that will benefit everyone.

One thing this cannot afford to become is a ‘one size fits all’ concept. The big prize we are pursuing here is to set out to achieve something that is genuinely ground breaking, that will test our appetite for landscape scale conservation, that will offer a ‘test bed’ for natural capital and ecosystem services thinking and will offer scope for all parts of the trees, woods and forestry spectrum – whether driven by conservation, productivity, green infrastructure or carbon storage - to participate alongside each other.

It’s not a government led initiative – it’s a bottom-up initiative. We and the Community Forests are in it for the long haul.

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