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Woodland Edge

25th anniversary blog: #1

25th anniversary blog: #1

I had the good fortune to sit down with Susan Bell OBE recently and talk about the early days of The National Forest, for the first of a series of films we will be making to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The National Forest.

Susan arrived in the Forest in May 1991, before there was indeed any forest, appointed by the Countryside Commission to lead the development of The National Forest. She headed up the development team from 1991 to 1995, and was then the first CEO of the National Forest Company until 2006.

She spoke with passion and insight about the early days of The National Forest and the challenges the team faced.

“There was scepticism. Some of the locals wondered what on earth it was all about, why on earth we were thinking of planting millions of trees and what good would it do. Many of the landowners were suspicious: would there be compulsory purchase? Why should they tie their land up in trees? But there was also enormous support and excitement. After all, it was due to massive support from the local communities and the local media that this area had been chosen as the home of this new National Forest, and we were soon able to tap into that. Once one or two landowners took the plunge and entered into one of our planting schemes, many others saw that it could work for them and started to talk to us.

“The greatest impact has undoubtedly been in the central coalfield area. We began to plant thousands of trees on sites which had been left shattered and derelict from the impact of the extraction industries, and now when I visit I can see the incredible difference this has made to the landscape.

“Once the boundary was established (it hadn’t been decided exactly where the Forest was when I arrived) one of the first things we did was to get signs erected on the M1 motorway and the other major roads through the Forest. It was a bold statement of intent, and we did get some stick for it, but no one says now that there are more signs than trees.  Eight and a half million trees, and you can certainly see them growing above the hedgerows, you can see woodlands on the hills and woodlands to the horizon. It moves me greatly to see what has been achieved.

Susan spoke of the courage people had shown in supporting this visionary idea; to effect social, environmental and economic improvement through planting trees. “It is truly an example for the nation and I’d love to see it replicated elsewhere. It needs commitment and determination to make it happen, and it does need a certain amount of money.

“It is wonderful to see the change the Forest has made to local people, particularly after the devastation of the pit closures and loss of 10,000 jobs. The Forest was always intended to bring economic and social benefits as well as environmental and this is now apparent in the appreciative support shown by many long-standing local residents who have witnessed the change. Having feared they had been 'forgotten' there is a new spirit of optimism and renewed pride in their settlements and countryside.”

As we finished our conversation and prepared to go out into the woods for more filming, Susan added: “It really was the best job in the world. I’m proud of what we achieved and delighted to see the work continuing: still more trees being planted and a major emphasis on woodland management – it is vital to look after those already in the ground. It’s not often you get the opportunity to create something so significant from scratch, and it’s wonderful to see how the landscape has changed and adapted, and welcomed the Forest into this special and unsung part of the Midlands.”