The Forestry Commission celebrates its centenary this year thanks to the prescience of a number of determined individuals, says Martyn Baguley

It would seem that in 1919 and at the end of World War I, there would have been more pressing concerns than conserving and developing the country’s woodland resources. And yet, centuries of clearance had made it an urgent matter and the Forestry Commission was born. A centenary later and its work has been remarkable, says Martyn Baguley.

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THE FORESTRY COMMISSION

With the demands of the First World War and noise of the Somme offensive echoing over the English Channel, why, during July 1916, was Sir Francis Acland asked by Prime Minister Asquith’s government to set up a committee to “consider and report upon the best means of conserving and developing the woodland resources of the United Kingdom”? Weren’t there more pressing priorities?

By the beginning of the 20th century, Britain’s woodlands, which once thickly clothed the countryside, had been reduced to about 4% of the land area due to centuries of
clearance by our ancestors, who needed the land to grow food crops and wood for industrial processes. Apart from a small number of ‘Crown forests’, such as the New Forest and Forest of Dean, there were no state woodlands: 97% were privately owned.

Forestry Commission

Veteran beech at Holystone North Wood, Northumberland.

For years this meagre woodland resource managed to supply some 8% of Britain’s annual wood requirements. Concern about the availability of suitable wood for shipbuilding, iron smelting and glass production had begun to be expressed in Elizabethan times. In his book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, published in 1664, the diarist and gardener John Evelyn claimed that the growth of the glass and iron industries would have serious consequences for British timber resources and strongly recommended that there should be an extensive reforestation programme.

But the voices of the prophets of doom went unheeded: there was plenty of timber in other parts of the Empire and plenty of ships to bring it to Britain – why worry? Tree-rich countries worldwide saw Britain as their most important market. Successive governments refused to recognise the fact that there was a problem – until the outbreak of the First World War. By then it was too late.

THE FIRST WORLD WAR

In 1914, it soon became apparent that Britain’s ships were at the mercy of German U-boats. Stringent attempts were made to reduce imports of wood. The heavy timber demands of the Western Front armies were met from French forests; Britain’s privately owned woods were scoured for timber. The situation was later summed up succinctly by Prime Minister David Lloyd George when he said that Britain came nearer to losing the war through lack of timber than want of food. This was what focused minds on forestry in 1916 and led to the appointment of what came to be known as the Acland Committee. It was the first serious attempt to recognise the importance of forestry to the economy.

Forestry Commission

Sawing Sitka spruce in the Kielder Forest.

The committee members worked fast, presenting their report to the Cabinet in May 1917. Their brief had been only to consider the commercial and practical importance of trees, like agricultural products, for the wellbeing and security of the country. Environmental considerations weren’t part of their remit – the word ‘biodiversity’ hadn’t been invented. They didn’t have an easy time; facts and figures on both the country’s existing woodlands and potential tree-planting land were sparse and unreliable. But despite the problems they produced a report that, for the first time, provided the basis for a national forest policy.

There were three main recommendations: maintain an adequate reserve of standing timber in case of emergency; make better use of poorly managed land; and generate employment for rural communities. These objectives underwrote British forest policy for nearly 40 years (the Republic of Ireland and Ulster developed independent forest policies after 1921). To achieve the objectives the committee recommended that the area of woodland should be trebled, from 1.2 to 3.1 million hectares, by the establishment of a state forest service with funds to acquire planting land, establish new woodlands, carry out research and provide advice and grants to existing private landowners. The forestry seeds were sown. Now they had to be nurtured.

Forestry Commission

A working horse at Eggesford Forest, where the first trees were planted.

Progress, by parliamentary standards, was swift and the Act establishing the Forestry Commission came into force on 1 September 1919. The first chairman, the Scottish landowner Lord Lovat, and seven other commissioners were appointed on 29 November and they met in London for the first time on Sunday 7 December. High on the agenda at that meeting must have been the symbolic planting of the first ‘Forestry Commission’ trees, ‘symbolic’ because, with the Act only three months old, there hadn’t been enough time for the newly fledged Forestry Commission to buy or lease any planting land. Two properties, which presumably the owners had previously offered to the Forestry Commission, had been earmarked for the purpose – Eggesford Forest in Devon and Monaughty Forest near Elgin in Scotland.

AN HONOURABLE RACE?

There is no record of whose idea it was, but after the meeting Lord Lovat and Commissioner Lord Clinton, a Devon landowner, decided to have a ‘friendly’ competition to see who would plant the first Forestry Commission trees, Clinton in Eggesford or Lovat in Monaughty. The odds were heavily weighted in favour of the English Lord: Eggesford is 200 miles west of London and Monaughty 600 miles north. Was money staked on the outcome? Was national honour at stake?

Forestry Commission

Autumn in the Forest of Dean.

We don’t know exactly what the worthy Lords did but Bradshaw’s railway timetables for 1919 provide some clues. Lord Lovat would probably have taken the North British Railway Sleeper, which left King’s Cross Station at 7.30pm on the Sunday. That would have arrived at Aberdeen early on Monday 8 December, just in time for him to catch the first train to Elgin, which arrived at 10.35am – only one hour later than his rival would arrive at Eggesford if he had travelled to Exeter after the meeting and caught the first train to Eggesford the next day.

Lord Clinton won. The official record says that he planted some European larch and beech trees at Eggesford Forest early on Monday 8 December then sent a telegram announcing his achievement to Lovat c/o Elgin Station. It was handed to Lord Lovat as he stepped off the train.

Forestry Commission

Ancient trees have cultural and heritage value.

But, with the help of a Forestry Commission archivist, my research has revealed a different story – one that has not been made public for a century. Lord Clinton was so determined to plant the first Forestry Commission trees that immediately after the meeting he rushed by train to Eggesford to be met by enthusiastic local foresters who drove him to Eggesford Forest where, during the evening of Sunday 7 December, he planted the larch and beech trees – probably in the dark and before Lord Lovat’s sleeper train had even left London.

The occasion is marked by a monolith in Eggesford Forest identifying the site as being where, in 1919, ‘on 8th December’ the first trees were planted by the Forestry Commission in the United Kingdom.

A GROWING CONCERN

The Forestry Commission was up and running, but its future was far from certain. As early as 1922, with the national debt spiralling upwards, a government committee under Sir Eric Geddes recommended that it should be abolished. It survived that threat, probably because there was seen to be a real need for a state forest service. All over the country privately owned woodlands, which had been heavily exploited for timber during the war, needed to be replanted and there were huge neglected or under utilised areas of land potentially suitable for growing trees. Without intervention by the state little if anything was likely to be achieved.

Forestry Commission

Land Girls at work in Rendlesham Forest.

Over the years changes in finance and fashion saw changes in national forest policy but, notwithstanding, generations of dedicated foresters adapted and Britain’s area of woodland slowly increased. Many mistakes were made, mainly due to the fact that there had been little research done on British silviculture until 1946 when the Forestry Commission established a centre for research in Hampshire. Today, the Forestry Commission’s legacy can be seen the length and breadth of Britain. Grants administered by the Commission to private woodland owners have resulted in previously neglected woodlands becoming competently managed, and state-owned, Forestry Commission-managed forests are accessible to most of the population.

There have been some remarkable achievements: East Anglia’s 19,000 hectare, predominantly pine, Thetford Forest and Northumberland’s 65,000 hectare Kielder Forest are the biggest man-made forests in England; Scotland’s 116,000 hectare Galloway Forest, producing 650,000 tonnes of timber every year, as well as the once-Royal New Forest National Park with 1,000 ancient trees and the 11,000 hectare Forest of Dean, which attracts 2.5 million day visitors a year.

Forestry Commission

Sowing acorns in giant seed beds at Kennington in Oxfordshire.

Sadly, for old-time foresters, today the name Forestry Commission only remains in England, the erstwhile responsibilities of the Commission in Wales and Scotland having been devolved in recent years to government agencies in the two countries. But the legacy of the original Forestry Commission persists in the present total area of woodland in Britain – 3.06 million hectares; very nearly the exact area that the Acland Committee recommended in 1919 should be the long-term forestry objective. England now has 10% of its land in woodland; Scotland 19% and Wales 15% – an average threefold increase in the area of woodland in 100 years.

The Forestry Act of 1919 laid the foundations for change in Britain’s countryside. A century later let’s raise a glass to the Act’s founding fathers – Sir Francis Acland and his fellow committee members. They did a good job. Better still, let’s plant a tree.