Marie-Claire Kidd reports on a community woodland initiative which is transforming the landscape of the Colne Valley.
A famous tale by Jean Giono, called The Man Who Planted Trees, tells of a shepherd who plants acorns in a treeless valley in the French Alps. After 10 years, the valley is covered in saplings. After 40 years, it is lush with trees and has been colonised by birds and animals.
The forest receives official protection and thousands of people move there. Oblivious to the shepherd’s efforts, they assume the forest’s growth is a freak of nature.
There are many real life ‘people who planted trees’, from Marthinus Daneel, who works with churches in Zimbabwe, to the Million Tree Project, launched in Inner Mongolia to stop desertification and alleviate global warming.
In Yorkshire we have our own version of the story. The Colne Valley Tree Society, which will celebrate its 50th birthday next April, has planted over 300,000 trees, and its mark on the landscape is already there to behold.
The Colne Valley, which stretches west from Huddersfield into the South Pennines, was described as a sooty, barren and industrial by society founder Dr Derek Phillips, when he arrived in area in the 1960s.
He set about greening the valley and spreading understanding of how trees are important, not only ecologically but also for physical and mental health. The GP gathered like minds for planting days at weekends, usually on wasteland like quarries and tips.
These early plantings are now mature and being enjoyed by the community. Scar Wood Tip in Golcar was the first to get the treatment.
It is now part of a chain of CVTS sites between Thornton Lodge and Slaithwaite, including Appleyards, Dunnock, Spout Quarry, High Wood and Fieldhouse. Together they create a wildlife corridor in the valley bottom, along the Huddersfield Line railway, Huddersfield Narrow Canal and River Colne.
The society has been active on the tops too. At the western end of the valley, around the village of Marsden, it has been working with Kirklees Council to establish and restore native oak and birch woodland through the Colne Valley Wildwood Project.
In 1995 the council identified the need to redress low tree cover in the area, then estimated at just 2.3 per cent. As well as creating habitats for wildlife and green spaces for people, the aim was to increase land values and protect the valley from soil erosion and flooding.
Since 1998, CVTS has run 200 planting sessions, totalling about 1,000 volunteer days, as part of the wildwood project. It has put up 15,000m of stock fencing, created 3.5 km of new walking routes and won awards. The result is 120,000 new trees in 70 hectares of new woodland, 14 of which are now sheep-free moorland. This particular project cost £400,000, primarily for trees, stakes, guards and fencing. All CVTS members work for free.
In all, the society has planted over 300 sites, large and small, in its 50 years. And it is still going strong.
Chairman Philip Baxter says: “We’ve managed to keep going when some of the groups that got going in the 1980s haven’t really lasted. We’re currently in the second generation, many of us are middle aged, but we’ve got new blood coming in.”
Jess Lockwood, one of the society’s newer members, was introduced to CVTS by her mum Diane, a longstanding member: “I started volunteering for my Duke of Edinburgh gold award,” she says. “I finished my specified hours and kept coming. What else do you do on a Saturday morning?”
The society’s calling cards are the deer guards that dot the valley sides. Jess says: “My mum keeps pointing to woodland and saying, ‘I planted those trees’. I always wanted to do that. Now I can point to the deer guards and say, ‘I planted those trees over there’.”
Members can be seen on the valley’s steep slopes every Saturday throughout winter, knocking in stakes and scratching holes in the frozen earth to plant native species like oak, hawthorn, rowan, willow, hazel and birch.
“We’re out in weather you wouldn’t put animals out in.” says Mr Baxter. “If it’s raining first thing in the morning when I’m getting saplings from the nursery, I know I won’t be on my own.”
In summer they tend their nursery in Linthwaite, an old allotment site provided by Kirklees Council, or visit their plantings to weed, check for saplings that have failed to grow and retrieve and re-use deer guards. These biodegradable plastic sheathes have become particularly important as deer populations have swollen. At around £2.50 each they are one the society’s biggest expenses, and much more costly than the saplings, which are about 40p each.
Neil Allen, an architect, of Marsden said: “When I first came to Huddersfield as a student in 1984 I thought there weren’t many trees. You’re casting this down the generations. It gives you a good feeling to know that you’re doing something positive.”
Stephen Kennedy from Almondbury, Huddersfield said: “It’s good to work a few hours every week with a nice bunch of people who come at it from different personal perspectives.”
Film premiere at birthday party
Over the years the society has received funding from dozens of organisations and support from many landowners, including local farmers, Yorkshire Water and Kirklees Council.
Its 50th birthday is an opportunity to bring everyone who has had a hand in greening the Colne Valley together.
Members and supporters past and present will gather for a birthday party next April, which will feature the premiere of a 40-minute film about the society by sound recordist and CVTS member Geoff Cox of Huddersfield University.