Our history

Pre 1990

The beginning of the National Forest

In 1987, visionaries at the Countryside Commission pioneered the concept of a National Forest, a forested landscape that would bring all the benefits of trees and woodlands near to where people live and work.

They held a competition to select the location for what would be the first forest to be created at scale in England for one thousand years.

The area chosen to be the National Forest had suffered massively from the closure of the coal and clay industries in the mid-80s, and the landscape of the central area was crying out for regeneration and renewal. Local daily newspaper, the 'Leicester Mercury', backed a passionate local authority and pubic campaign to bring the National Forest to what was called the Needwood-Charnwood bid. This would link the remnant ancient forests of Charnwood (part of Leicestershire in the east) and Needwood (in Staffordshire in the west), through substantial new woodland planting, trees in towns and villages and tree planting throughout the Forest communities, to create a new heavily wooded landscape covering 200 square miles of the Midlands.

1990 to 1995

525,000 total trees planted

7.2 % woodland cover

The first celebratory trees were planted and the work to create the National Forest began in earnest. Having progressed the initial vision for the Forest, the Countryside Commission established the National Forest Development Team to draw up the Strategy that would guide the planning and creation of the Forest.

By the end of 1991, firm roots began to be set down with the establishment of the Forest boundary. The National Forest had become a place.

There were many firsts: Michael Heseltine, the then Secretary of State, planted a ceremonial tree at the Woodland Trust’s Willesley Wood.

The development of Rosliston Forestry Centre began, the first visitor centre in the Forest. This has gone on to be a beacon of environmental education, health walks, and activities for all abilities. It’s also a great place for a day out!

The first National Forest Strategy and Business Plan was endorsed by Government and published in 1994, forming the basis for the first ten years of the Forest. The preface declared: “The National Forest is a symbol of hope for the nation.”

1995 to 2000

3,225,000 total trees planted

11.2 % woodland cover

In 1995, the National Forest Company (NFC) was formed to lead the Forest’s creation, working in partnership with landowners, local authorities, local communities, local and national organisations, schools, businesses and individuals. Susan Bell, the first CEO of the Forest, would later say: “The National Forest was created by passion and persuasion, and a bit of money.” It started here.

The NFC launched the National Forest Tender Scheme, the grant funding mechanism that was instrumental in achieving the early years of transformation of the Forest, encouraging landowners to plant trees and be part of the National Forest. Work also began on both the National Memorial Arboretum, the national centre for remembrance created on a former gravel pit, and Conkers Discovery Centre, built where former deep mine Rawdon pit used to operate. The centre is heated by a ground source heat pump constructed using the old mine shaft. Former England rugby star, Dean Richards, planted the first millionth tree at the then Bass Museum in Burton upon Trent.

2000 to 2005

6,495,000 total trees planted

16.0 % woodland cover

The first new lock to be created in England for years was opened in the Heart of the Forest when the derelict Ashby Canal was reopened in 2001. The road bridge had been levelled out since the original canal was closed in 1944, so the water in the new canal had to be lowered in order to allow boats to pass under the road.

HRH Princess Anne opened Conkers in the snow in 2001 : the centre now attracts some 200,000 visitors a year.

Ashby Woulds Forum, an organisation that brings together many of the communities and interests in the Heart of the Forest, was recognised by the Royal Town Planning Institute for Planning Achievement, for their ground-breaking work in the regeneration of the Heart of the Forest.

The NFC planted the five millionth tree just outside Burton upon Trent, and launched the National Forest Wood Fair at Beacon Hill in partnership with Leicestershire County Council. The Wood Fair went on to run successfully for 11 years until 2015.

2005 to 2010

7,775,000 total trees planted

18.4 % woodland cover

As part of the Heritage Lottery funded Landshapes project, the NFC commissioned internationally-renowned artist, David Nash, to create a series of Noon Columns to mark the Forest’s six landscape zones.

The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) opened a new environmentally-friendly YHA National Forest in the heart of the Forest, a welcome recognition of the transformed landscape and the increased variety of things to see and do in the area.

Ashby Woulds Forum continued to reap rewards for its work, winning the inaugural national Sustainable Development Award for landscape regeneration. Independent research valued the eventual net economic benefit of the Forest at £909m.

2010 to 2015

8,530,000 total trees planted

20.0 % woodland cover

The Forest started to really come of age during this period. As part of the nationwide celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Woodland Trust planted the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Wood in the National Forest, the single largest area of woodland we have – it’s big enough to get lost in!

And Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge planted the eight millionth tree at St. George’s Park, home of the FA’s National Football Centre.

The NFC led on the design of the Forestry Commission’s National Forest Cycle Centre at Hicks Lodge, which opened in 2011. With nine miles of off-road cycling, it is also home to a thriving volunteer group, dog walking groups and photographic club. Horse riders, cyclists and walkers regularly stop by for tea and cake at the eco-friendly café.

Addressing the important balance between planting the trees and looking after them, the NFC started its ambitious woodland management programme. This makes funds available to woodland owners to start strategic thinning of their woods, taking out weaker trees to encourage the remainder to grow tall and strong, and letting the light in for the benefit of wildflowers and wildlife.

As a destination, the National Forest is on the map with the opening of the 75-mile long distance walking trail, the National Forest Way.

2015 to 2020

8,695,000 total trees planted so far...

20.7 % woodland cover so far...

Celebrating 25 years of the National Forest in 2016, we’re now looking forward to the next quarter century and beyond. The NFC became a charity in 2016, opening up new ways for the Forest to become truly sustainable over the coming decades; we launched a ten year Tourism Growth Plan, looking to increase jobs and visitors by 15% over the next ten years.

To date, the Forest has cost £60m of public money, the equivalent of just two miles of three-lane motorway.

By 2018, we have planted 8,700,000 trees, and increased our woodlands in management from 41% (in 2013) to 70%, exceeding national targets.

This summer we launched Timber, a major new festival exploring the transformative impact of forests. A fitting expression of the country’s biggest, boldest environmentally-led regeneration project, the National Forest.

Transforming Landscapes

See some of the landscapes that we have been involved in restoring and transforming. From canals and coal mines, to farms and forests, we've helped to make a lot of landscapes a little bit greener.

Find out more