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Northern Forest to improve health and wellbeing through better air quality and accessible local green spaces

15 January 2018
More trees, woods and forests will deliver a better environment for all by improving air quality, mitigating flood risk, supporting the rural economy and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through accessible green spaces
More trees, woods and forests will deliver a better environment for all by improving air quality, mitigating flood risk, supporting the rural economy and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through accessible green spaces


The Woodland Trust and Community Forests in the north of England have been working together on developing the concept of a new Northern Forest, which will accelerate the creation of new woodland and support sustainable management of existing woods right across the area. Many more trees, woods and forests will deliver a better environment for all by: improving air quality in our towns and cities; mitigating flood risk in key catchments; supporting the rural economy through tourism, recreation and timber production; connecting people with nature; and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through welcoming and accessible local green spaces.

England is losing tree cover, says Steve Marsh, PR Manager  We need to make sure we are protecting our most important habitats such as ancient woodland as well as investing in new major woodland creation schemes. Existing approaches to increasing woodland cover are stalling and existing delivery mechanisms, such as Community Forests are under threat. A new Northern Forest could accelerate the benefits of community forestry, support landscape scale working for nature, deliver a wide range of benefits, including helping to reduce flood risk, and adapt some of the UK’s major towns and cities to projected climate change. But this must be a joined-up approach. We’ll need to continue to work with Government, and other organisations to harness new funding mechanisms such as those promised in the Clean Growth Strategy to plant extensive areas of woodland to lock up carbon. This will ensure we can make a difference long term.

Paul Nolan, director of the Mersey Forest said: “The Northern Forest will complement the planned £75bn of hard infrastructure investment across the M62 corridor. We have shown that we can lock up over 7 million tonnes of carbon as well as potentially reduce flood risk for 190,000 homes. The Northern Forest can also help to deliver improved health and wellbeing, through programmes such as the Natural Health Service. Community Forests have a long track record of developing partnerships and, most importantly, working with local communities to create new woodlands and manage existing woods in and around our towns and cities. We welcome the government support for the idea and we are looking forward to accelerating the work of the Community Forests across the Northern Forest.”

The Northern Forest is not a government initiative, says Austin Brady, Director of Conservation & External Affairs, Woodland Trust. ’It’s an idea that’s grown out of the experience and enthusiasm of organisations that have been working with communities and the environment in the area for some years. It is ambitious. This will be a huge project – much bigger than the Woodland Trust and Community Forests can deliver on our own.

This should be no ‘flash in the pan’, says Brady. 'We will clearly need a variety of new woodland types, with those focused on biodiversity complemented by others that are designed to lock up carbon efficiently or produce timber to support rural business. We are not chasing success ‘at any price’. There will be little point investing so much energy and resources in new woodland if our existing woods are disappearing. There is much to do to recognise the value of existing woods and trees, to protect them, to manage them and to nurture them.'

The Trust remains a staunch defender of our irreplaceable ancient woodland and ancient trees – we will continue to challenge their damage or loss in all circumstances from major projects like HS2 to individual planning applications – that’s our position, and it remains non-negotiable. I think it’s fair to say that no one does more than us in this arena, as our dogged fight to protect ancient woodland throughout the HS2 process to date has demonstrated.

Rural landscapes

Transforming urban spaces and rural landscapes on this scale requires action and investment – and this will, not surprisingly, involve planting millions of trees. But that in itself can be misread as an oversimplification of what the Forest should be about. Planting may be the first choice, particularly in the more challenging parts of the urban fringe environments or in highly modified landscapes where few natural seed sources remain. But there will also be space to work with nature and to harness natural processes, to use natural regeneration and colonisation to participate alongside each other in providing something that will benefit everyone.

One thing this cannot afford to become is a ‘one size fits all’ concept. The big prize we are pursuing here is to set out to achieve something that is genuinely ground breaking, that will test our appetite for landscape scale conservation, that will offer a ‘test bed’ for natural capital and ecosystem services thinking and will offer scope for all parts of the trees, woods and forestry spectrum – whether driven by conservation, productivity, green infrastructure or carbon storage - to participate alongside each other.

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