Excited by the idea of a new 'Northern Forest'? STEPHEN LEWIS tries to sort the wood from the trees..

YOU may have heard on the news earlier this week that the government wants to create a new Northern Forest stretching across the width of northern England.

The proposal is to plant 50 million trees over the next 25 years, in a broad swathe from Liverpool to the Yorkshire coast.

Sounds wonderful, yes? A new Sherwood Forest (or Forest of Galtres) for the north, with deep woodland glades, forest paths, wild creatures and towering, majestic oak and beech trees to delight the eye and soul. It has been speculated that a squirrel could begin in a treetop on the west coast, and travel across the country in the forest canopy all the way to Flamborough Head without ever once needing to set foot on the ground.

Never one to underplay a Government announcement, Environment Secretary Michael Gove spoke earlier in the week of a 'vast ribbon of woodland cover in northern England stretching from coast to coast, providing a rich habitat for wildlife to thrive, and a natural environment for millions of people to enjoy.'

York Press:

Woodland glade: Is this the dream of the Northern Forest?

Except that, well, it won't quite be like that. Politicians, eh?

Fifty million trees amounts to about 62,000 acres, or 250 square kilometres, of new woodland. That's a lot of trees, but it will go nowhere near creating an extensive blanket of wild forest in the north.

To give you an idea of how far short it would fall, Yorkshire alone has an area of about 11,900 square kilometres. So the new forest to be planted over the next 25 years would, on government figures, cover slightly less than one fiftieth (or just over two per cent) of Yorkshire's land area.

So we're not talking about a huge forest, here, despite that name.

What the Northern Forest will be is a whole series of small new strips and patches of woodland. The trees will line roads, screen industrial developments from view, and provide 'green corridors' beside rivers. Car parks might be shaded by trees - and there may be more trees planted on patches of urban waste land, or on the borders of farmland. There will even be more trees in town and city streets.

Some of these small new patches of woodland will link up to form longer ribbons of woodland or forest - places where people can walk and play, and corridors where wildlife can thrive. But there certainly won't be a huge new forest where you could go camping in the wild...

There could still be huge benefits, however. The project, which will be kick-started with £5.7 million of government pump-priming, will be coordinated by the Woodland Trust, which will work with five Community Forest trusts - including, here in Yorkshire, the White Rose Forest.

York Press:

Map showing the proposed extent of the Northern Forest

This was set up as a Leeds City Region initiative in 2000 to increase tree cover in parts of Yorkshire. Since then, it has already planted £1.2 million trees in places as diverse as Harrogate and Bradford.

The trees have been planted in exactly the kind of ways that will be the case with the much larger Northern Forest - on small patches of disused land, beside rivers, in town and city streets, and alongside busy roads.

White Rose Forest project manager Guy Thompson says trees planted in this way can have a hugely beneficial effect.

"They're not just sticks put in the ground," he said. "They can provide shelter belts; they can screen views; they're really good wildlife habitats, and they're a source of biomass and timber."

They're also great for walking and recreation, of course. And, planted by rivers which are prone to flooding, they can help reduce flood risks by 'slowing the flow' of water.

York Press:

An area of the White Rose Forest at Scammonden Water. Photo courtesy of Guy Thompson

All of which is great. But the ultimate driver behind the whole Northern Forest initiative is really economic, Mr Thompson says.

There is clear evidence from the 'new' National Forest in the Midlands, which was created more than 20 years ago, that 'greening' an area of the country that struggles to attract investment is good for the economy.

Post-Brexit, Liverpool-Hull transport links along the M62 transport corridor will become hugely important to the northern economy, Mr Thompson says.

And the hope is that a Northern Forest will help to make this part of northern England attractive to investors and businesses in the way the National Forest did the Midlands.

There are good reasons to hope that it might do: some of which are spelled out in the Woodland Trust's 'A new Northern Forest' prospectus.

The prospectus tells the story of a major employer which wanted to relocate thousands of jobs out of London. The firm's MD was shown some key sites in an unidentified 'great northern city'. At the same time, the MD's partner was taken on a tour of National Trust sites around the city. It was the partner's enthusiast account of those visits that made all the difference in sealing the deal, the prospectus says.

Trees and pleasing environments make us feel good, in short. And for that reason, they can have a 'dramatic and positive effect on our economy', the Woodland Trust prospectus says.

"Trees create attractive environments for business investment and development, they bolster our urban and rural identities, they have a direct influence on property values and of course, they create the spaces and places that we all want to visit, relocate to or work in."

Which all makes perfect sense. If an employer had a choice of relocating to a city where he knew employees would be happier and more productive because they could drive to work along tree-lined roads rather than through an urban jungle, why wouldn't he go there?

None of this is new, of course. Organisations like the White Rose Forest have been planting trees across the north of England for years.

In York we have Treemendous, a volunteer-led organisation supported by the city council which, since 2010, has planted 15,000 trees in York alone.

York Press:

Volunteers planting trees in Hull Road Park, York, in 2016

Most of these have been in small clusters, planted on roadsides, in parks and Strays, on private land and in gardens.

But Treemendous is now working on a bigger project to plant 6,000 trees at Whitby Wood near Skelton - a project with definite flood-reduction potential.

There has also been planting beside Tang Hall and Osbaldwick becks, and there is talk of planting along the Acomb to Rufforth bridleway, providing a green walking route out of York.

All of this is ongoing anyway, however. So will the Northern Forest make any difference?

Yes it will, says Derek Utley of Treemendous. "Fifty million trees in 25 years is a lot of trees. So this will increase the rate of tree planting. We're thrilled."

York - which is well-known for its lack of trees - is right in the heart of the area designated for the Northern Forest. And the White Rose Forest initiative is keen to work with the city on identifying suitable sites for planting.

While welcoming the initiative, however, Andrew Waller, City of York Council's executive member with responsibility for the environment, sounds a slight note of caution.

It has to be created for the right reason, he says.

When William the Conqueror designated a huge swathe of southern England the 'New Forest' in 1079, it effectively meant the land was reserved for the king and his cronies to go hunting.

The new Northern Forest must be truly accessible, he says. "And it must benefit the broader community."

Hopefully, with the input of legions of tree-planting volunteers with local knowledge working in their local communities - volunteers like those with Treemendous - it will do.


  • 50 million new trees in 25 years
  • Initial investment of £5.7 million from the government (though this is not new money - it is thought to be money already set aside for tree-planting which was not allocated)
  • Eventual cost expected to be £500 million over 25 years, with funds coming from a range of sources, including charitable grants, local authorities, Post-Brexit agricultural funding and others
  • Landowners will be encouraged to set aside small plots of land for planting on the understand that trees will improve the value of their land - eg by driving up property values, or by providing clear routes for walkers to cross farmland
  • The schemes backers estimate the forest could generate an extra £2 billion for the economy of northern England through tourism, boosting rural businesses, generating jobs, increasing property values and reducing the impact of flooding
  • Friends of the Earth has welcomed the Northern Forest initiative - but with reservations. “It’s a supreme irony that the current routing of HS2 threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham," said the organisation's Senior Nature Campaigner, Paul de Zylva. "We need new forests and ancient woodlands - not one or the other."


Britain has one of the lowest levels of woodland cover of any country in Europe. Just 10 per cent of England is covered by woodland, compared to 31 per cent of France and 37 per cent of Spain.

But trees are know to bring huge benefits, including:

  • Absorb carbon so reduce the impact of climate change
  • Filter and catch air pollutants
  • Valuable wildlife habitats - especially where woodlands are linked to provide 'green corridors'
  • Good for human health - both from the effect of outdoor exercise (walking and hiking) and also from their effect on our state of mind
  • Improve the appearance of the environment
  • Push up property prices
  • Help to attract inward investment, businesses and jobs
  • Can help to mitigate flooding
  • Properly managed woodland can be a valuable source of sustainable timber