Apr 16, 2019 - 5min read
The UK is famously thought of as a ‘green and pleasant land’, but as it stands, only 13% of the UK’s land area1 is forested! This makes us just 18th on a list of the most forest-covered countries in Europe.2
But it’s not all bad news - a charity called the Heart of England Forest is working to bump us up the list!
The Heart of England Forest is actually indicative of a wonderful trend that is reversing the fortunes of the UK’s woodland. Although our 3.17m hectares of forested land may account for a relatively small proportion compared to that of our European neighbours, the UK is actually at its highest level of tree cover for hundreds of years!
The Forestry Commission estimates that around 50 to 60 percent of the UK was covered with woodland in 3,000 BC.3 By 1086 - when William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book survey was carried out - the UK’s forest cover was recorded as being at 15%. The period between saw the growing native population using wood for fuel and construction, while farmers cleared forests to make space for livestock and planting crops. There were even a few Vikings nabbing some of the highest-quality wood to build longships!
By the late 1700s the Industrial Revolution was upon us, where a single furnace required the timber from vast swathes of woodland just to make the charcoal needed to keep running. Along with the shipbuilding that was needed to win the Napoleonic Wars, timber was in such high demand throughout the 18th and 19th centuries that by the time the 1900s rolled around, Britain was down to a mere 5% of forest cover.
Things started looking up in 1919, after the First World War had depleted forests even further and the Forestry Commission was set up to protect what was left. The planting of trees really took off in the 1950s, with landscaping becoming a significant factor in the 1960s, and wildlife, conservation and the environment becoming an increasingly prominent consideration from the 1970s onwards.
Here’s where Felix Dennis - and the Heart of England Forest - comes in. A maverick publisher most famously associated with the 1960s counterculture magazine Oz, Felix was never one to bow down to authority. Having built Dennis Publishing into an empire that included titles as varied as This Week and Viz, Felix Dennis took the reforestation of a corner of the UK into his own hands in 1995 - by planting his first wood in Dorsington, Warwickshire.
This was the seed that grew into the Heart of England Forest - and a passion that would stay with Felix for the rest of his life. Other forests followed; the 7200 trees that make up Ralph’s Wood, planted with the help of the Forestry Commission in 1996; Dorothy’s Wood in 2000, named after Felix’s mother; Roman Field Wood in 2001 and Giddings Field Wood in 2002, bringing the total number of trees planted up to 50,000.
The Forest of Dennis was founded in 2003, as a means of consolidating the existing woods and driving the long-term vision to keep expanding. The planting of new forests - and the buying up of land on which to plant them - continued exponentially, forming part of a nationwide dynamic that saw nearly half of the UK’s forests owned by individuals in 2010.4 The idea was not simply for these newly-planted forests to belong to Felix Dennis, however; the vision was grander - to create a charity that would carry out the vital work long after its founder was gone. In 2011, the Forest of Dennis became the Heart of England Forest registered charity.
The charity planted its one millionth tree in 2013, and Felix Dennis passed away the next year - leaving the majority of his estate to the Heart of England Forest to continue working towards creating England’s largest woodland, and keeping it open and accessible to the public.
Since Felix’s death, more than half a million additional trees have been planted, and the Heart of England Forest is now 12% of the way to its goal of planting a total of 13 million trees. This is no small feat; to ultimately reach their target they are aiming to plant 300 acres of trees every year, and they’ve made an excellent start on 2019 by planting 64,983 trees this season.
The Heart of England Forest will be a mosaic of habitats, where areas of woodland dotted around are joined up to become part of a much larger whole. The new areas of forest weave between meadows and farmland without interfering with existing buildings or impacting on anyone’s livelihood. The forest is for the benefit of the public so it’s important that they work in harmony with the surrounding populations and their environment.
If all goes to plan, the Heart of England Forest will one day connect the Forest of Arden to the Vale of Evesham with 30,000 acres of broadleaf woodland; forests that will not only have a significant positive impact on air pollution and biodiversity, but provide acres upon acres of new, beautiful countryside that absolutely anyone can enjoy. We can’t wait to see how much it has grown the next time we visit! If you’d like to take a walk through the forest, click here to download a variety of waymarked route maps.