The Northern Forest and how we can all play a part in this ambitious project

There can be few other projects that are as audaciously ambitious as the Northern Forest.

Make it Wild founders Chris and Helen Neave have planted trees in Nidderdale to contribute to the Northern Forest which add to the ancient woodlands already on their land. (Bruce Rollinson).

Few that involve so many diverse people and organisations – everyone from schoolchildren and volunteers to local authorities, landowners and corporations such as Yorkshire Water. It is epic in scale. Imagine a territory that has Richmond to the north, Hull to the east, Chesterfield to the south, and Liverpool to the west. In the middle, of course, are major cities like York, Leeds and Sheffield.

This huge tract of the country is where the Northern Forest will be concentrated. It’s already under way with the aim over the next few years to plant at least 50 million trees.

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In fact, when a new report from a team called the United Bank of Carbon (based at Leeds Beckett University) is published later this year, that figure may well be revised, and be appreciably higher.

The Northern Forest will stretch across a huge area. (Bruce Rollinson).

There are several key regional players involved in the scheme. They are Yorkshire’s pair of community forests – HEYwoods, and the White Rose Forest – and the two from across the Pennines, the Mersey Forest and City of Trees. And, as you might expect, the Woodland Trust is also heavily involved.

Around 13 million people call the north of England “home”, but astonishingly there is only 7.6 per cent of woodland cover, noticeably less than the national average, and the planned 50 million young trees will create at least £2.5bn worth of social, economic and environmental benefits.

There are several prongs to the Northern Forest project – chief among them are helping to tackle climate change and enriching the natural landscape, creating jobs, improving the air quality in our towns and cities and reducing the risk of flooding by strategic plantings.

We all have a stake in protecting our environment. Even just planting a couple of new trees in your own garden is a step in the right direction.

Guy Thompson, Partnership Manager at White Rose Forest amongst the trees planted at Dewbury Country Park. (Tony Johnson).

Guy Thompson, of the White Rose Forest, says the kernel of the idea for a new forest goes back to 2000 and the notion of creating an “urban corridor” of new trees, stretching alongside the M62 central belt. “That has grown into a unique joint venture agreement, with a remarkable collaboration between so many diverse bodies – the civic authorities as well as people from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the RSPB,” he says.

One of the best examples of grassroots involvement and woodland development in the county comes from Helen and Chris Neave, who run Make it Wild. He is a businessman with a plastics recycling company, she is a former ENT surgeon. Both have a passion for nature and conservation and a little under eight years ago they invested in their first patch of land near Kirk Hammerton, between Harrogate and York.

“It was about 26 acres and it was just too good to miss. I’ve got farming in my blood, and I used to spend weeks on my uncle’s farm when I was younger, and, well, suddenly everything just fell into place,” says Chris.

That site sits alongside the picturesque River Nidd and as it’s prone to flooding it was no good for farming. But it was precisely right for selective tree planting.

The Neaves now have little pockets of land around the area where their contribution to the Northern Forest is really taking root. And they’re on the lookout for more land. “Though not good arable land, which can be used to grow food, or first-rate pastures for animals,” says Chris. “You also have to consider what your potential neighbours might be doing with their land – you definitely don’t want to flounce in, plant what you like, and upset the balance of the fields around you.”

It’s something the Neaves are glad to be involved in. “Back when we acquired the Kirk Hammerton acres, we’d realised that nature in the North was pretty much on the back seat, and it was a joint decision for us to throw our hats in the ring, and to do something positive,” adds Chris.

So far they’ve planted about 16,000 saplings but they have their sights set on at least 100,000. “We’re not heroes, far from it,” says Helen. “But we are passionate about doing our bit, and we’re hoping that others will do the same, in whatever way they can. Our message is: ‘If you can plant a couple of trees in the corner of your garden, then stand back and watch, and you will see a whole ecosystem emerging’. Wildlife has its own way of connecting.”

Among the tree species that the Neaves have planted are oak, alder, beech, rowan and hornbeam, as well as wild cherry. “Each has its own part to play,” says Chris, whose ambition is to plant a Cedar of Lebanon.

“Apart from the pleasure we get from managing and improving our plots, we also get a buzz from walking in them, having picnics in the open air, and inviting our friends over,” adds Helen. “Getting outside and away from it all, but at the same time knowing that you are improving the environment for all is such a joy.”

Guy Thompson and Simon Mageean, programme director for the Northern Forest, both come from different working backgrounds. Guy used to be a social worker, while Simon had early ambitions to be a footballer. “That didn’t happen so I went into forestry and landscape, and town and country planning,” he says.

Simon believes greenery is just as important in a city centre as it is in the countryside. “Just take a stroll through Sheffield on a hot summer’s day and see how many people are having their lunch in the shade of the trees. I doubt they actually realise that they are enjoying the green canopy – but they’d soon be worried if it wasn’t there.”

He feels we’re seeing a change in attitude towards our natural environment. “The Northern Forest is a very big space and within it are a lot of urban areas. We are moving into a time of transition and change and we have to be two things – persistent and visionary.”

Unsurprisingly, he is not a fan of the proposed HS2 rail link. “No less than 108 ancient woodlands will either be lost, or cut in half. Do we really want that? Green spaces and trees play such a huge part in our lives, which is why the Northern Forest is such a wonderful concept.”

The Woodlands Trust is now taking applications for planting between November this year and March 2021. Applicants must be willing to plant existing non-wooded land at a density of between 1,000 and 1,600 trees per hectare. The trust will provide a wide range of native trees and shrubs, all sourced and grown in the UK to reduce the risk of disease, once current restrictions are lifted, and will visit the site to offer advice on what to plant.

But even on a smaller, individual scale, Simon says we all have a part to play. “It’s up to us. Come and volunteer, alone, as a pair, or a group. We want to hear from you.”

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Thank you

James Mitchinson