The Forestry Commission is a non-ministerial government department responsible for forestry in England and Scotland; it formerly covered all of Great Britain but in April 2013 Forestry Commission Wales became part of Natural Resources Wales). It was set up in 1919 to expand Britain's forests and woodland after depletion during the First World War. To do this the commission bought large amounts of former agricultural land, eventually becoming the largest land owner in Britain.
Over time the purpose of the Commission has broadened to include many other activities beyond timber production. One major activity is scientific research, some of which is carried out in research forests across Britain. Recreation is also important, with several outdoor activities being actively promoted. Protecting and improving biodiversity across Britain's forests are both part of the Forestry Commission's remit.
The Commission received criticism for its reliance on conifers, particularly the uniform appearance of conifer forests and concerns over a lack of biodiversity. Protests from the general public and conservation groups accompanied attempts to privatise the organisation in 1993 and in 2010.
The Forestry Commission manages almost 700,000 hectares of land, making it the country's biggest land manager:=. The majority of the land (70%) is in Scotland. Activities carried out on the forest estate include maintenance and improvement of the natural environment and the provision of recreation, timber harvesting to supply domestic industry, regenerating brownfield and replanting of harvested areas.
Afforestation was the main reason for the creation of the commission in 1919. Britain had only 5% of its original forest cover left and the government at that time wanted to create a strategic resource of timber. Since then forest coverage has doubled and the commission's remit expanded to include greater focus on sustainable forest management and maximising public benefits. Woodland creation continues to be an important role of the commission, however, and works closely with government to achieve its goal of 12% forest coverage by 2060, championing iniatives such as The Big Tree Plant and Woodland Carbon Code.
The Forestry Commission is also the government body responsible for the regulation of private forestry; felling is generally illegal without first obtaining a licence from the Commission. The Commission is also responsible for encouraging new private forest growth and development. Part of this role is carried out by providing grants in support of private forests and woodlands.
The Forestry Commission was established as part of the Forestry Act 1919. The board was initially made up of eight forestry commissioners and was chaired by Simon Fraser, 14th Lord Lovat from 1919 to 1927. The commission was set up to increase the amount of woodland in Britain by buying land for afforestation and reforestation. The commission was also tasked with promoting forestry and the production of timber for trade. During the 1920s the Commission focused on acquiring land to begin planting out new forests; much of the land was previously used for agricultural purposes. During the Great Depression the Forestry Commission's estate continued to grow so that it was just over 890,000 acres (360,000 ha) of land by 1934. The low cost of land, and the need to increase timber production meant that by 1939 the Forestry Commission was the largest landowner in Britain.
At the outbreak of the Second World War the Forestry Commission was split into the Forest Management Department, to continue with the Commission's duties, and the Timber Supply Department to produce enough timber for the war effort, a division which lasted until 1941, when the Timber Supply Department was absorbed by the Ministry of Supply. Much of the timber supplied for the war came from the New Forest and the Forest of Dean. The war also saw the Commission introduce the licensing system for tree felling. By the end of the war approximately a third of available timber had been cut down and used.
The advisory committee on Forest Research was formed in 1929 to guide the research efforts of the Forestry Commission. After the war, the Commission began to increase its research output significantly. This included the establishment of three research stations beginning with Alice Holt Lodge in 1946. The expansion in research accompanied a significant increase in timber sales, exceeding £2 million per year during the 1950s.
The Countryside Act 1968 required public bodies, including the Forestry Commission, to "have regard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside." This forced the Commission to focus on conservation and recreation as well as the production and sale of timber. The conservation effort was partly driven by Peter Garthwaite and Sylvia Crowe. Crowe also helped the Commission landscape their forests to make them more appropriate for recreational use.
Having begun to develop campsites within their forests during the early 1960s, the Commission set up a Forest Cabins Branch during the 1970s to expand the number of cabins available for the public to stay in during their holidays. In 1970 the Commission opened its Northern research station in Roslin. The 1970s also saw the publication of a Treasury report which stated "afforestation ... and replanting fell far short of achieving the official 10% return on investment" with concerns over the long term profitability of timber production. This was coupled with a major outbreak of Dutch elm disease throughout the decade.
The early 1980s recession forced the Forestry Commission to expand its sales beyond Britain, exports quickly reached 500,000 tons of timber per year. The Forestry Act 1981 allowed the sale of Commission land that was used for forestry. By 1986 there were calls for the full privatisation of the Forestry Commission and its estate. The Great Storm of 1987 caused significant damage to Commission owned forests, though most of the fallen trees were recovered and eventually sold.
The early 1990s saw the Department of Forestry absorb the Forest Authority from the Commission, which had previously acted as a separate government department. The management of the forest estate became the responsibility of Forest Enterprise, making up a major part of the reduced Forestry Commission. In 1993 it was again suggested that the Forestry Commission could be privatised, sparking protest from many conservation groups. After the Forestry Review Group produced their report in 1994, it was announced by the government that "Forestry Commission woodlands will remain in the public sector".
The decline in timber sales since the mid-1990s forced the Commission to focus on research and recreation more than ever before, something that was encouraged by the Government. As a result the Forestry Commission began to expand woodland around urban areas for the first time.
Devolution from 1999 meant the Forestry Commission had to report to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly as well as the national Government, which was achieved by splitting responsibility for forests by national borders, resulting in the creation of Forestry Commission England, Scotland and Wales as sub-departments of the Forestry Commission of Great Britain. On 1 April 2013 Forestry Commission Wales was merged into Natural Resources Wales, and since that date the Forestry Commission has only been responsible for forests in England and Scotland.
The Forestry Commission had for half a century a most interesting social policy which has had a large impact on upland Britain. Integral to the Acland Report of 1916, which led to the setting up of the Forestry Commission immediately after the war, was the wider social concern. Large areas of upland Britain, it pointed out, were ‘waste’ and depopulated, and trees would not only increase their productiveness but ‘demanded a higher rural population’ than sheep rearing. They envisaged that ‘the small holdings will be grouped together on the best land within or near the forests so as to economise labour in the working of the holdings, ... and to provide an ample supply of ... labour for [forestry] work. Families settled on new holdings in forest areas will be a net addition to the resident rural population’.
This remained the philosophy of the Commission for nearly fifty years. In 1946 the incoming Director General wrote of the employment created and the help of the Commission towards a solution of ‘one of the baffling social problems of our time… to draw men and their families “back to the land” and to make the attraction permanent’, especially through the smallholdings policy.
In 1930 when St Kilda was evacuated, the St Kildan men were given work by the Forestry Commission; these men coming from an island which has no trees.
Lord Lovat, the ‘Father’ of the Forestry Commission, had extensive landholdings in the Highlands, and it was in the Highlands that he and other landowners such as Sir John Stirling-Maxwell conceived the scheme of land settlement allied to forestry. As first chairman of the Commission he was able to put into practice all over Britain this ‘long cherished dream’ of repopulating the hill country, thanks to his good contacts in government. Money for the scheme was promised first by Philip Snowden, Chancellor in the first Labour government, and then by his successor in Baldwin’s Conservative administration, Winston Churchill.
The scheme accordingly went ahead, and created smallholdings in the new forests, of approximately ten acres, let for £15 a year. Originally 150 days work was provided in the forests, but “In practice, of course, these smallholdings attracted the cream of our men whom we were glad to employ on fulltime…” Existing and often derelict agricultural dwellings were adapted and new ones built to a small number of basic designs. The scheme “was never a directly economic proposition, but in the pre-war days when motor traffic was lacking and it was much more important than today to have a solid caucus of skilled woodmen living in the forests, the indirect benefits were inestimable. The holdings were a great success, and filled a genuine need in the countryside…”
The number of smallholdings built up until 1931, slowed down after the Great Depression, was revived by the Special Areas programme of 1934 onwards, but the creation of new holdings was virtually ended by the Second World War. The total number of smallholdings was 1511. After 1945 policy shifted to the building of houses without holdings. This was more economic for the Commission, and numbers of these peaked in 1955, with 2688 cottages built by then. The smallholdings policy had been ‘adequate during the early years of State forest development, when only a small nucleus of men was needed to plant and tend each forest. But expanding programmes of afforestation, new methods of fire protection, and above all the greatly increased volume of utilisation work that results as soon as the young woods reach the thinning stage, have made it essential, in most of the larger forests, to concentrate the building of new houses in villages or small community groups.’ With houses designed for head foresters, the peak year for all forest tenancies was 1958, with the Commission owning a total of 4627 properties.
Many of the more ambitious forest villages were never completed, partly because of their isolation, partly through financial restrictions, and partly because mechanisation, transport improvements, and more use of contract labour, all meant there was less need for staff houses. The social desirability of “company villages” in remote locations was questioned.
Some houses had been sold on the open market by 1972, when government policy encouraged the disposal of ‘surplus’ land and buildings because of the cost of the traditional social objectives. The gradual sale of housing to incomers became a flood in 1978-9 (under Labour), and the Thatcher administration then encouraged surviving tenants to buy with generous discounts.
Although the social policy of the Forestry Commission is a thing of the past, its social impact on upland areas remains large, with many hamlets and small villages in what would otherwise be deserted or near deserted valleys.
Forest Research is the research agency of the Forestry Commission that undertakes scientific research and surveys. Its core roles are to provide the evidence base for British forestry policies and to identify methods for sustainable forestry management. It also carries out research with, or on behalf of, academic and commercial organisations.
There are three forest research stations run by Forest Research:
- Alice Holt in Hampshire;
- The Northern Research Station in Midlothian
- The Aberystwyth Research Unit in Cardiganshire.
The Alice Holt research station was the Commission's first research station, established in 1946; it is the main research station of Forest Research. The Northern research station in Midlothian was opened in 1970. In 2009, a smaller research unit was established in Aberystwyth.
Forest Research's Technical Services Unit is run from the Northern Research Station and maintains a network of five field stations to conduct research for the Forestry Commission and other organisations. The Technical Services Unit is also responsible for six satellite stations and the research station nurseries.
In 2006, Forest Research made Alice Holt Forest the first research forest in Britain. It was followed by the Dyfi Catchment and Woodland Research Platform in Merionethshire, in 2012. Alice Holt was chosen as a research forest because it has been the base for research by the Forestry Commission since 1946 and over that time the Commission maintained detailed records of the forest and experiments carried out within it.
Until the introduction of the Countryside Bill in 1968, the main purpose of the Forestry Commission was to maximise timber sales. The bill gave the public the right to use much of the forest estate for recreation, this led to the Commission providing additional facilities for the public. Sylvia Crowe was hired as a consultant to identify how to improve the landscape of Commission forests for recreation. The focus on recreation allowed the Forestry Commission to become the largest provider of outdoor recreation in Britain.
The Commission works with many user groups to promote the use of its land for recreation such as hillwalking, cycling, mountain biking and horseback riding. A notable example is the 7stanes project where seven purpose built areas of man-made mountain bike trails have been laid; the accessible extensions provide recreational facilities for disabled cyclists. During the summer months, it hosts a series of live music concerts across seven forests.
Early plantations were criticised for their lack of diversity, however the Forestry Commission has been steadily improving the value of its woodlands for wildlife. The large blocks of conifer associated with the earlier plantings were beneficial to some species such as siskin, goldcrest, crossbill, most members of the tit family, long-eared owls, nightjars, roe deer, pine martens and polecats, but the greater emphasis on diversity now favours a much wider range of species, including broadleaved and open ground specialist species.
The Forestry Commission manages approximately 700,000 acres of land, 70% of which is in Scotland. The largest forest managed by the Commission is Galloway Forest Park in @; at 300 square miles it is also the largest forest in Britain. The Commission also owns Kielder Forest, the largest forest in England.
When the Forestry Commission was founded in 1919 it inherited several forests, some of which were former royal forests and contained ancient woodland. Much of the land bought by the Commission in its early years was intensively planted with conifers. Kielder was one of these "new" forests, having been planted in 1926.
The early reliance on conifers, which usually grow to the same height and have a very dark colour, led to criticism that the forests appeared too artificial. The Commission was originally given land with low soil quality, usually in highland areas; conifers were used because they can grow in these difficult conditions. By the 1960s these trees were almost fully grown and the Forestry Commission received a large number of complaints that they were an eyesore.
Since then, landscape improvement has been a key feature of the Forestry Commission's work. All forests are covered by a Forest Design Plan, which aims to balance the different objectives of timber production, landscape amelioration, ecological restoration, recreation provision and other relevant objectives. Forest management is a long term business, with plans frequently extending for a minimum of twenty-five or thirty years into the future.
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- History of the Forestry Commission
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