It is rare to see Northumberland mentioned on the front page of a national newspaper but this was indeed the case last week when it was reported that permission has been granted to establish a new forest at Doddington North Moor near Wooler.
With 600,000 trees it will be the largest forest of its kind planted in England for more than 30 years, that’s almost two trees for everyone who lives in Northumberland. It will extend over an area which is, the equivalent of 650 football pitches.
The UK is second only to China in the amount of wood we import and our forest cover is amongst the lowest in Europe, which is partly why the government have promised to plant 11 million trees by 2020. Doddington will deliver 5% of this target but more planting needs to happen and fast.
Andy Howard, the Doddington project manager, has described a tortuous application process, where he commented “You have to prove that planting trees is not a bad thing”. The new forest has had the support of the local community which has surely helped to get the plans through.
It is somewhat odd to have to prove that planting trees is a good thing. Trees can help deliver a whole range of public benefits including absorbing climate-warming CO2, helping to combat air pollution, contributing to flood prevention by trapping more water on hilltops and slowing run-offs, and creating habitats for wildlife. The trees at Doddington will provide a haven for the red squirrel.
Doddington will store 120,000 tons of carbon (the equivalent of taking 25,000 cars off the road for a year). It will boost the local timber industry, ultimately putting twice as much money into the local economy as farming on an equivalent acreage. The planting will be a mixture of conifers (the vast majority Sitka spruce), native broadleaved species and Scots pine mixed with native broadleaf. 25% of the land will be open ground and priority habitat. Gone are the days of the regimented non-native conifers as per the 1960s, when planting was dominated by a monotonous and somewhat dark and unwelcoming monoculture, although it should be noted Sitka spruce is the most effective tree at absorbing C02.
As we head towards Brexit and the end of the Common Agricultural Policy in the UK, a question mark hangs over the level of future payments to UK farmers, especially to hill sheep farmers who currently can receive up to 80% of their income in subsidies. A reduction in such payments post 2020 could be used to encourage a shift into forestry. However the trick may be to combine them both, an approach that is increasingly common in Scotland where sheep and trees can exist in beneficial symbiosis, one of the many manifestations of agroforestry.
Last week in the European Parliament in Brussels I chaired a meeting on the Agfoward project that marked the end of four years of research into the many and varied forms that agroforestry currently takes across the European Union. Surprisingly 9% of EU agricultural land is already given to agroforestry, meaning it is not a fringe activity. The UK’s largest agroforestry holding is near Peterborough where farmer Steve Briggs grows organic oats interspersed with strips of apple trees beneath which meadow flowers provide nectar for bees, giving him a third ‘crop’ – honey.
Nearer to home Simon and Claire Bainbridge, who farm near Wallington, Northumberland, have recently planted trees scattered over several fields to provide cover from birds of prey to encourage their 12,000 chickens to wander further from their hen house as they produce organic free range eggs for a major supermarket.
Whether on farms or in forests, the region needs more trees not least because wood is a raw material that can be used by the emerging bioeconomy. The bioeconomy seeks to replace fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change, with renewable and sustainably sourced products. We can now make from timber most of the items we have traditionally made from oil. It is a huge opportunity for the region. The North East could lead the way on the bioeconomy and in so doing create the well-paid jobs we need if we are to thrive in the 21st century.