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Napoleon, explorers and the great war

1815 AD

napoleonicwar_bigThis year saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain’s forest cover was at an all time low. Charcoal production had remained a high priority to feed the vast number of gunpowder factories throughout Britain and oak woods had been used extensively in leather tanning to feed the military’s demand for saddles, boots and other goods. The Government called on landowners to plant trees, particularly oaks, to help restore our forests.

It was around this time that "plant explorers" such as David Douglas brought back specimens from as far afield as NW America and China, and these have become established in gardens and forests throughout Britain. As far as trees are concerned the most noticeable specimens introduced are the Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce, both of which thrive in our climate and produce the softwood needed by today’s timber industry.

Also, it was only in the mid-19th century that iron ships were finally proved to be stronger than wooden ships (Brunel’s SS Great Britain was launched in 1843) and quality hardwoods such as oak were no longer needed for shipbuilding.


At the start of the 20th century, Britain had around five per cent tree cover. This was a slight increase on the lowest figures after the Napoleonic Wars, but events were to make things worse.

ww1_bigThe First World War (1914-19) stretched our timber resource to breaking point. Wood was used for the war effort in coal pits and steel works as well as at the battlefront for trench building. Britain could no longer rely on timber imports and then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith appointed a committee to look at the best ways of developing the country’s woodland resource.

The committee recommended a state organisation as the best way of co-ordinating such an effort and, on September 1 1919 the Forestry Act came into force and a new state body was set up – The Forestry Commission.

20th Century

Much has happened since 1919. The original remit of the Commission was to build up a strategic reserve of timber so that Britain would no longer have to rely on imports in times of war.

The Second World War (1939 – 45) put further pressure on our woodlands. Despite all the planting in the previous years, the Census in 1947 showed that we still had only slightly more than six per cent tree cover.

The 50s saw the start of the "boom" time for forestry as vast areas of land too poor for agricultural use were planted. Because of the poor soil in this land, mainly conifers would have been planted. It was not until the 1960s that landscaping became an important factor in forest Design and the 70s and 80s when wildlife, conservation and the environment issues were fully taken on board.

Last updated: 21st October 2015