Planting is all the rage these days but it isn’t new. Over the last century, ambitious afforestation (planting on new land) expanded UK forest cover from the dismal 4.7 per cent of 1900 to about 13 per cent today. The extent of afforestation has varied across the land: England has moved from about 5 per cent to 10 per cent, Wales from 5 per cent to 15 per cent, Scotland from 5 per cent to 18 per cent and Northern Ireland from 1 per cent to 8 per cent.
All this sounds like good news but there’s much to learn from the mistakes of the last century of planting. We must also remember that these newly planted trees and forests in no way
compensate for the ancient woods that have been lost.
After the First World War, it wasn’t sparse tree cover or climate disruption that prompted tree planting. It was the lack of timber to support the war effort that led to the government
building a ‘strategic reserve’ of timber for the nation. This was state intervention on a huge scale, and led to the Forestry Act of 1919 and the formation of the Forestry Commission (a
governmental department that started to buy land for planting in the 1920s and 1930s). The result was large-scale planting of uplands with exotic conifer species, such as Sitka spruce, larch and lodgepole pine.