I am writing this from a small copse of stunningly tall redwood trees. But I’m not in California; I’m in Gloucestershire. The redwoods, a type of sequoia, were planted fifty years ago in the Forest of Dean in an arboretum, the curious initiative of an eccentric Victorian flora collector. However, I’m not here to ruminate on the past; I’m here to see the future, because expanses of the forest around me are to be planted with these exotic trees.
In fact, not far from where I sit, the first coast redwood saplings are already in the ground. The reason for this bold new planting strategy? Climate change, natch. Redwoods like warmth and soon the ancient Forest of Dean will be bathing in temperatures normally found on the Western Seaboard of the USA, according to environmental types.
The story begins, as everything woodland-related in Britain does, with the Forestry Commission. Set up after the First World War to replenish timber supplies, it is now by some margin the biggest landowner in the country, with over two and a half million acres in its hands.
For many people living within the land it manages, the Forestry Commission is beyond critique. When the Government mooted privatising it in 2010, the usually mild-mannered residents of the Forest of Dean rose up with a fury not seen since the notorious Dean Forest Riots of 1831, a nasty, protracted incident that was precipitated by the erection of a small fence.
Newly elected MP Mark Harper was almost lynched when he tried to hold a town hall meeting. The locals, or Foresters as they like to be called, simply wouldn’t buy the government’s line that privatisation would mean the forest could belong to local people.
As far as Foresters were concerned, the forest already belonged to them: the Forestry Commission was, and continues to be, their chosen caretaker. In this part of the world, no other government department is afforded such loyalty – not even the NHS.
This unwavering faith may seem odd to those who hold the Forestry Commission responsible for the tedious expanses of Sitka spruce, which were blanketed across the country during the 1950s and 1960s, as they chased a booming timber market. But things have changed. The Countryside Act 1968 forced a socially conscientious agenda on the Commission; conservation and public recreation became part of its remit.
Sizeable resources, which were once leveraged towards heavily cultivating a single species, were used instead for the planting of native trees in an aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sensitive way.
This new role made them guardians of vast amounts of our natural heritage. The job of protecting our woodland from the very real threat of disease became even more important. As we will see, protecting our trees from potential danger is something the Commission has really taken to heart.
For many people, the romantic idea of a native British forest populated by indigenous trees is very appealing. It’s an ideal that isn’t too far removed from reality. When the last ice age carved out the English Channel and cut us off from the continent, there were only about thirty-five species of trees on these isles.
And, while various human invaders have added to that number, our forests have remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. This is particularly true of our so-called ancient woodland, such as the Forest of Dean. For millennia, the iconic oaks and beeches of this forest have been planted and harvested in a never-ending cycle.
The Forestry Commission is a quango and as such is largely free from political oversight. The bureaucrats who run it exist in an echo chamber, allowing confirmation bias to go unchecked. It’s an environment that has facilitated a hysterical ratcheting up of rhetoric over climate change.
The credentials of the Forestry Commission’s in-house scientists, Forest Research, are not in question. The best practice guidance they provide is backed up by extensive field research and their publications are revered among silviculturists. One such document, titled Climate Change and British Woodland, was published in 2005.
At first glance the paper seems pretty reasonable. It dismisses the idea that beech, a species sensitive to drought, will disappear from southern England as “alarmist“, though it does warn that their future distribution might change. And despite indicating that climate change will have an impact on the appropriate site location of several other species, it makes clear that all the commercially grown trees that are currently planted, will continue to be viable across the country.
Nonetheless, buried a little deeper is a caveat.“The impacts of storms and severe pest and disease outbreaks could, potentially, be more serious than the effects of a gradual change to our climate. However, these predictions are very uncertain because of their complexity and rarity, so only very general guidance can be given.”
And there we have it: a tentative warning that has gone on to shape the landscape of Britain. Not only are redwoods being planted, but the large-scale planting of other foreign species such as Japanese red cedar is being considered, and the planting strategy for the whole country is under review.
Government publications pondering the future of our trees in light of projected temperature rises are now commonplace. The Forestry Commission’s UK Forestry Standard Guidelines from 2011 and the Government’s policy paper Adapting to Climate Change: National Adaptation Programme both note that increasing temperatures make site locations tricky to find for some species and a warmer climate might mean more diseases.
Every oddball scheme needs a charismatic champion and these warnings about disease gave the redwood tree agenda a cheerleader. John Weir has had a long and distinguished career with the Forestry Commission, working his way up to manage the National Arboretum at Westonbirt.
A climate change true believer, in 2011 he was appointed the Forestry Commission’s “Adviser for Woodland Creation and Resilience”. Making woodlands resistant to pests and disease is obviously a very important job, but Mr Weir seems to have broader ambitions. On his LinkedIn profile he proudly describes his remit as follows, “To facilitate ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to climate change within England’s woodlands”.
In his new role he has embarked on a bit of a one-man roadshow, touring the land to advise Forestry Commission workers on “anticipatory adaptation”. His latest presentation exhorts them to “Plan for the expected, increased pests and diseases, more fires, more extreme events such as droughts floods and gales”.
In contrast to the stoic approach of the academics at Forest Research, Mr Weir’s warnings have ranged from the chilling claim that by the the 2080s, 65 per cent of the Forest Estate will be “unsuitable” for purpose, to the rather bizarre speculation that forests are likely to be increasingly seen as “a cool shady refuge for healthy exercise”. A future pursuit that, ostensibly, may be interrupted by climate change induced storms washing away roads.
Like other government departments before it, the Forestry Commission appears to have mistaken environmentalism for conservationism. In an effort to prevent waste and increase biodiversity in the 2000s, the Environment Agency stopped dredging our rivers. This policy has turned out to be disastrous, directly leading to the flooding that devastated parts of southern England last winter.
The Agency made the mistake of allowing a zealot, Baroness Young of Old Scone, the former Chief Executive of the RSPB, to shift the focus of agency from preservation and protection, to activism and intervention.
If the Forestry Commission’s own radical, John Weir, is allowed to continue playing God with our landscape, the results could be disastrous. In recent months he has gleefully been informing the press that the Forestry Commission’s latest research indicates that climate change will reduce our forests by 42 per cent over the next seventy years unless action is taken.
In the words of John Weir: “Don’t be risk averse; take considered risks, rather than doing nothing, or only acting on: proven facts which may come too late.”
That’s the thing with the slow-moving world of forestry; the actions you take today have irreversible consequences in the distant future. By getting their knickers in a twist over an unknown danger in an unknowable future, the Forestry Commission have taken it upon themselves to drastically alter the British landscape. They cannot possibly know what will happen.