The Garden Guide

Book: Landscape Planning and Environmental Impact Design: from EIA to EID
Chapter: Chapter 8 Forest design, forestry and sylviculture

Criticism of plantation forestry

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Plantations have been hated for centuries. Britain's forestry industry has been subject to public criticism for well over a century. While other countries criticise their foresters for the way they fell trees, the British criticise foresters for the way they plant trees. Since Gilpin published his Observations on forest scenery (Gilpin 1791) and Price his Essay on the Picturesque (Price 1794), British people have believed that forests should look natural [Fig 8.6]. Exotic species and geometrical plantations have been disliked in the countryside. In his Guide to the Lakes, first published in 1810, Wordsworth criticises the planting of 'exotic trees among rocks and dashing torrents' and adds that 'this deformity, bad as it is, is not so obtrusive as the small patches and large tracts of larchï¾­plantations that are overrunning the hillï¾­sides. To justify our condemnation of these, let us again recur to Nature' (Wordsworth 1973: 82). When the Forestry Commission began to establish large conifer plantations, after 1919, a torrent of criticism fell upon the Commissioners deserving heads from within and without the forestry profession [Fig 8.7]. The Professor of Forestry at Edinburgh University, published a book on The Forestry Question in Great Britain in 1928. Like many British foresters he had worked in the Indian Forest Service and seen a progressive approach to forestry. Stebbing asserted that if one seeks an explanation for 'the rigid ideas which have swayed the Forestry Commission' then 'one is driven back to the origin of the business, the Acland Report' (Stebbing 1928: 201). He criticised rigid annual targets, and wrote that 'Nor have they [the Forestry Commission], within the writer's knowledge ever shown any serious conviction that a true national forest policy should be based on a careful consideration of all the varying demands and reasons for maintaining areas in different parts of the country under these two main types of forest ï¾­ social, economic, sentimental and aesthetic' (Stebbing 1928: 101). Stebbing was especially opposed to the policy of replanting the Forest of Dean with conifers instead of broadleaves: 'an opportunity does exist to commence regenerating this forest on the lines nature has ordained for it ï¾­ as one centre from which the nation should be able to look in a future, distant it will be, for magnificent oak' (Stebbing 1928: 111). During the Second World War consideration was given to bringing forestry within the scope of town and country planning legislation. In 1944, a famous planning lawyer said: Now, whilst I love the country and realise that the importance of the good earth as the source of life and wealth cannot be overï¾­estimated, I do not like gardening and I know nothing about the art of planting trees. But I do know that the ranks of coniferous trees planted by the Forestry Commission in pursuance of what are supposed to be the best interests of afforestation are a perfect eyesore wherever I have seen them and are definitely prejudicial to the amenities of the countryside.....and so, as I reflect on planning matters, I often think what a pity it is that some better method of afforestation could not be thought of......than the setting up of row upon row of coniferous trees (Heap 1994). British forestry was excluded from planning control in the 1940s but the Countryside Commission, and many others, believe the exemption should be discontinued (Countryside Commission 1984: 41). Public criticism of forestry has not abated. In 1983, Prince Charles, after a visit to Dumfries and Galloway, told the Royal Forestry Society that 'I get the impression that someone... has simply attacked a vast acreage with a plough, ploughed up everything, stream sides, frost hollows and so on, planted huge numbers of exactly the same type of tree, slapped a deer fence round the whole lot and then gone off to wait for it all to mature into a cash crop' (Harris 1983) [Fig 8.8]. In 1996, Simon Jenkins wrote in The Times that ... as a boy I watched the Forestry Commission hurl conifer acid at the face of Snowdonia, its triffid spruces killed heather and peat, poisoned streams and obliterated footpaths and views. They marched on, ignorant of contour and horizon. No refinery or chemical works could have done more ecological damage. The pestilential organisation, renamed "Forest Enterprise", to cleanse its name, marches yet across the landscape. What pollution has been wrought in the name of the Great God Tree! [Jenkins, 1996] The Forestry Commission's response to the above line of criticism was astonishingly wellï¾­developed in the 1930s. Five types of landscape policy were advanced in the 1934 Annual Report: the sympathetic design of forests; a broadleaf policy; the creation of a new and beautiful coniferï¾­landscape; the establishment of forest parks; and the granting of public access to forests (Forestry Commission 1934: 55). In 1939 a sixth policy was added: the establishment of ecological reserves (Forestry Commission 1938: 22). Each of the above policies has merit, but it was much easier to state them in annual reports than put them into practice ï¾­ and the 1919 Forestry Act did not empower the Commissioners to pursue nonï¾­timber objectives. It is the 1919 Act, more than the forestry profession, which should be criticised. Many of the preï¾­1939 annual reports have a section on 'Amenity' but it disappeared during the Second World War, when the use of homeï¾­grown timber increased from 4% to 65% of total consumption (Forestry Commission 1946: 10). The Commission's postï¾­1919 estates were too immature to be felled but after the war there was a renewed planting drive, again to create a strategic reserve. It continued through the 1950s but by 1959 the strategic value of forestry was 'no longer so strongly emphasised', because of nuclear weapons, and 'the social aspects of forestry' therefore 'assumed greater prominence' (Forestry Commission 1959:7). The 1959 Annual Report reiterated the amenity policies which had been announced twentyï¾­five years earlier. Some progress had been made, especially with forest parks, but the chief skill developed by the Commission with regard to 'amenity' issues was that of saying the right thing while doing the wrong thing. As in America, foresters became expert in 'considering' multi-objective forestry without taking any significant action (Robinson 1987: 55). Good plans may be prepared for places in the public eye but the great dank wastes of monoculture remain. Britain's Forestry Commission was not empowered to consider a multiï¾­objective policy until a Ministerial Statement on forest policy was made on the 24th July 1963. Christopher Soames announced that: The Commission, in preparing its future programmes, will bear in mind the need, wherever possible, to provide public access and recreation, and will devote more attention to increasing the beauty of the landscape (Hansard 24th July 1963). 'Bear in mind' was a weak phrase, but the new policy was a little strengthened when, in 1974, after the appearance of a costï¾­benefit study on forestry, the Commission published a list of six objectives for the forestry enterprise: wood production, amenity, recreation, rural employment, 'a harmonious relationship' with agriculture, and a target rate of return of 3% in real terms (Forestry Commission 1974: 10). The landscape aspects of the forestry industry's progress towards a multiï¾­objective policy will be discussed below.