A century of the Forestry Commission

The Forestry Commission has always been a strange beast. Formed in response to war-time timber shortages in 1919 it long retained something of a military hierarchy in its structure. It was a Civil Service Department that also became one of the country’s biggest landowners with all the practical responsibilities that go with such an estate. Despite being nearly ‘killed-off’ several times by government cuts and policy swings the Commission managed to survive for a hundred years. Eventually, though, pressures from devolution mean there is no longer a GB-wide forestry department.

During its existence the Forestry Commission contributed to the transformation of many landscapes through its own plantings and its encouragement and regulation of the private forestry sector. In 1900 GB woodland cover was about 5% with a high concentration in south-east England. Broadleaved trees predominated. By 2019 the balance had shifted to conifers, mainly in the north and west, particularly in Scotland.

The primary purpose of the Commission when it was formed was the production of timber, a strategic wartime reserve. Over much of its early existence this economic objective was dominant and led to what are now seen as highly undesirable practices. Yet other objectives were usually somewhere in the mix, even if carried forward under the radar: rural job creation, landscape and wildlife, public recreation.

When I started my degree in Agricultural and Forest Sciences in Oxford in 1970 I was clear that I wanted to be a forester, with the Forestry Commission as the most obvious employer. However I soon decided I did not fancy being a Sitka farmer and went down an ecological route that ended up with me joining the Nature Conservancy Council. Relationships between the Forestry Commission and Nature Conservancy Council at that stage were frequently strained to say the least. Opposition to largely unconstrained planting of thousands of areas of upland plantations and the conversion of semi-natural stands to plantations had built-up during the 1970s, but things were about to change.

Broadleaved woodland in Salcey Forest felled and planted with Corsican pine in 1977; conifer removal to restore broadleaved woodland in Salcey Forest in 2008.

Lord Sherfield’s report (1980) into ‘The scientific aspects of forestry’ and the ICF Broadleaves in Britain conference of 1982 set the scene for the 1985 Broadleaves Policy. Clearance of broadleaved woodland for agriculture or its replanting with conifers were strongly discouraged. Changes to the tax arrangements for forestry in 1988 took away much of the incentive behind afforestation in the north of Scotland. Some of my NCC colleagues were concerned that this was just window-dressing; the Forestry Commission would never change its spots. However they did. Over the next five years Dick Steele’s wildlife guidance, first published in the 1970s, was dusted off, re-written and greatly expanded; a major programme of conservation training was put in place for Commission staff. Economic forestry was replaced by sustainable forestry as the overall aim.

More and more the Forestry Commission and English Nature (NCC did not even reach its half-century before being split-up) came to be sitting on the same side of the table in meetings. Over subsequent years various staff moved across from English Nature to the Commission.  There has been less of a flow in the opposite direction although there have always been field staff in the conservation agencies with a forestry background. Efforts have been made to align the various grant schemes and regulatory processes.The Commission came to be seen as the trusted guardian of rich wildlife areas such as Glen Affric or the New Forest.

 

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Where to now for the successors to Forestry Commission (GB)? Much may depend on how the BREXIT process develops. Assuming we do leave the EU, agri-environment payments, which include some forestry support as well, will need to be re-worked; regulatory processes may be looked at at the same time; and perhaps further institutional change. Whatever emerges I hope it will lead to a more nuanced discussion of the future balance of land-use.

Too often past forestry debate has been polarised – conservation versus production; native versus exotic tree species – as exemplified by the Flow Country arguments. In the long run, this helps neither side. There does need to be special treatment of semi-natural woods and important open landscapes, but many other areas can accommodate a wide range of tree and woodland management practices. There are good reasons to expand Britain’s tree and woodland cover, but does this detract from efforts to improve the trees and woods we have already? Given the problems caused by overgrazing perhaps we should dust off earlier definitions of what foresters were about, namely managing deer?

medieval forester huntsman

‘I am a forester of this land as you may plainly see..’

Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them and this is certainly true for forestry. The people responsible for what we now regard as bad forestry practices usually felt they were doing the right thing in the circumstances of the time. We may find that what we are now doing (or not doing) as good conservation practice may look equally odd 100 years hence.

 

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