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History of the Forestry Commission

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The Forestry Commission's origins are in the First World War, and difficulties Britain had meeting wartime demands on timber.

Britain's woodland resources had been declining since the middle ages, but reached an all time low - just 5% of land area - by the beginning of the 20th Century With the outbreak of war the country was no longer able to rely on timber imports, and in July 1916 Minister Herbert Asquith appointed the Acland Committee to look at the best ways of developing woodland resources. The Committee reported to Asquith's successor, David Lloyd George, in 1918. They recommended a state organisation as being the most effective way of co-ordinating a reafforestation plan to meet timber needs for the foreseeable future.

On 1 September 1919 the Forestry Act came into force. This set up the Forestry Commission and gave it responsibility for woods in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Eight Forestry Commissioners were charged with promoting forestry, developing afforestation, the production of timber, and making grants to private landowners. They met for the first time in November under Chairman Lord Lovat.

The first Commission trees were planted on 8 December 1919 at Eggesford Forest, Devon.

The bedrock of forestry policy in the 1920s was the need to rebuild and maintain a strategic timber reserve. Stocks were so depleted by the demands of the First World War - especially trench warfare - that the new commission was given a good deal of freedom to acquire and plant land.

The country was split into ten Divisions with 29 Divisional and District Officers and 110 Foresters and Foremen. Finance and administration were concentrated in London and Edinburgh, with 59 staff.

Financial stringency was imposed from the beginning because of high post-war inflation, but agriculture was depressed and the Commission was able to buy land cheaply. By September 1929 around 600,000 acres were managed in 152 forests, and more than 138,000 acres had been planted. In the private sector 54,000 acres had been planted with Commission grants.

Public concern regarding blanket conifers led to the first amenity planting: it became standard practice to plant hardwoods alongside roads, and where possible straight edges were avoided.

The early thirties were dominated by a recession that bit worldwide: the later years by a slow but steady build-up to war.

Agriculture was still deep in depression, and with few private landowners having money to invest in forestry there was comparatively little planting. But the Commission's estates continued to increase, reaching 909,000 acres by 1934. Of these 316,000 were under plantation. The main market for timber was as pit props, with fast-developing heavy industries almost completely dependent on coal. This emphasis was to be maintained throughout the war years.

In 1937 the Commission began working with the Board of Trade to draw up detailed plans for felling in the event of war. To maintain a home timber supply, three categories were identified: woods which could be felled immediately (mature stands); woods which could be felled if necessary (slightly younger or slightly older trees); and woods to be felled only in extreme need. The Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee was established in 1939 as part of these preparations. On the day war broke out, the Commission was divided in two: the Forest Management Department, to carry on its normal activities, and the Timber Supply Department to deal with war demands. The Commission remained in charge of the home timber supply until 1941, when the responsibility was given to the Timber Production Department of the Ministry of Supply.

Research was confined almost exclusively to species selection, establishment and nursery work, with experiments in peatland research in northern Scotland.

As for so many things, the Second World War and its aftermath had a major impact on forestry in Britain.

During the War, Commission forests produced more than 51 million cubic feet of wood. Even so, 90 per cent of timber used in the war effort came from private estates, supplying pit props for mines producing the coal on which so many of the armaments and other industries depended.

Because they were the most mature the Forest of Dean and the New Forest bore the brunt of wartime felling, with almost all conifers aged 20-35 in the new Forest cut. In all, 29,530 acres of Commission forest were clearfelled between 1940 and 1946, with 53,000 acres heavily thinned. The number of people employed rose from 14,000 in August 1939 to 44,300 in February 1941 - including several thousand members of the Woman’s Timber Corps, affectionately christened ‘the Lumberjills’. But it wasn’t all felling. Over 100,000 acres were planted during the war years, and 133,000 acres acquired for forestry. Licences for timber felling were introduced during the war and retained afterwards as a conservation measure.

Once the War was over restoring the forest estate became a priority for the Commission, and there was a marked increase in the acquisition of felled or derelict woodlands. Many of these were planted with broadleaves, especially in south east England. But forestry was repeatedly to clash with agriculture interests as the need to produce home grown food increased, and planting was gradually moved out to land which was unsuitable for other crops.

The Forties saw the beginning of the expansion of the Commissions research work, which in the next few years was to grow out of all recognition. The Engineering Branch was founded virtually from scratch, under Chief Engineer Major-General H P W Hutson, with the twin function of building forest roads and maintaining machinery.

The 50s, 60s and 70s saw dramatic surges in output and income, with the forest estate nearly doubling to 1.6 million hectares as mechanisation increased and investment in forestry soared. Timber found a ready market in Britain's new and established wood using industries.

In 1950 the Commission employed 13,220 people in total. Annual removals had reached 325,000 cubic metres and income from produce exceeded £1 million. During the decade planting averaged 24,500 acres per year and nearly 40,000 acres of broadleaves were established, particularly in south east England. These were mainly oak and beech. Sales of timber rose from less than £500,000 to well over £2 million a year. Harvesting and marketing became an important part of the Commission's work. By the end of the decade private landowners were finally warming to the Dedication Scheme, and nearly 600,000 acres had been dedicated.

Forestry gradually moved to the uplands and marginal land, with good agricultural land no longer available in any quantity.

In 1950 powered ropeway extraction tests took place at Thornthwaite in north west England. The cable of three quarter inch diameter, transported three tons an hour at heights of up to 20 feet over any gradient. It could be dismantled and re-erected in two days, and was able to extract wood uphill as well as down. In 1952 the Swiss-made ‘Lasso’ cableway was tested in Scotland. Timber could be hooked on and unloaded at any point without stopping the operation, and it moved up to1500 hoppus feet of timber per day.

Timber was extracted by helicopter for the first time in 1956 at Glenduror, near Fort William, in a trial arranged by Machinery Research Officer Col R G Shaw. The time taken for loading, flying, delivering and flying back was reduced to 5 minutes 37 seconds, and in his report Col Shaw points out how effective this was. But he adds ‘it is certain that while helicopters are convenient they will not be an economic proposition until their operating costs are reduced far below the present figure’.

In 1954 aerial spraying was tried for the first time at Cannock Chase, near Stafford, and Culbin, on the Moray Firth, in a battle against the Pine looper moth. The operation was described as ‘remarkably effective’ and in 1959 the first aerial applications of fertiliser were made at Wilsey Down Forest in South West England.

The 1960s were years of consolidation and confident expansion.

A mechanical revolution took place. Technical progress allowed planting on previously unplantable land, as at Culbin. The axe and cross-cut saw disappeared, replaced by the lightweight chainsaw. Stables became workshops as the use of horses declined. Timber production rose from 20.1 million hoppus feet in 1960 to 36.5 million hoppus feet (equivalent to 1.8 million tonnes) per year by the end of the decade and increasingly forestry was regarded as a business. The private forestry sector was buoyant too: by 1969 it was carrying out 40 per cent of total planting, and close to one million acres had been dedicated. With a guaranteed timber supply massive investments took place in the timber using industries and new markets opened up. Coal mining now used only a third of the Commission's output, but growth in forestry and its related industries still created thousands of new jobs.

An awareness of public access and recreation needs grew, along with landscape and conservation considerations. Dame Sylvia Crowe was appointed as the Commission's first Landscape Consultant, and the public were given a ‘right to roam’ in Commission forests. A seventh National Forest Park had been established by the end of the decade.

From the 1970s, conservation and amenity issues became more central in the Commission's planning and forestry policy.

Emphasis was increasingly given to maintaining woodland character, recognising the importance of broadleaves. Following the advice of Dame Sylvia Crowe, landscaping began to be considered on a far wider scale, resulting in woods which were aesthetically pleasing as well as productive. Forests were identified as important wildlife reserves, and conservation became a special responsibility of Commission staff.

Facilities for recreation developed steadily, especially after a consultants’ report highlighted the suitability of many sites for holiday accommodation. A Forest Cabins Branch was formed and new cabins built.

Changes were also taking place in training, with Faskally and Parkend schools closing. Northerwood House ceased to be used as a Training Centre in 1971. A 2 year New Entrant Training Scheme was launched in 1970 and a new Management Training Centre opened in the Forest of Dean in 1973.

In 1970 a severe outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease hit the south of England, and the disease, believed to have arrived on Rock Elm logs from Canada, ran out of control for much of the decade. Despite orders restricting wood movement some 30 per cent of the elm population in central and southern England had been affected by 1975. Much research was carried out but no cure found, and in the end the disease had to be left to run its course.

In the private sector the Dedication, Approved Woodlands and Small Woods schemes were closed and a new Dedication Scheme (Basis III) introduced which included provisions on public access.

The 1980s were years of change and challenge.

In the early 80s recession hit timber users, pulp mills at Fort William, Ellesmere Port and Bristol closed. The Commission began to develop export markets, and soon 500,000 tonnes of timber a year were being shipped - much to Scandinavia.

In Scotland, the search for new investment began with the formation of the Scottish Forest Products Development Group in 1983. This had spin-off benefits elsewhere, and within five years forest resources had attracted new investments worth over £600 million. New ventures started and in 1987 the Finnish Kymmene Corporation decided to build an integrated pulp and paper mill at Irvine with Commission forests in west Scotland meeting half its requirements. Commercial forestry strengthened: in 1979-80 the Commission sold 1.4 million cubic metres of timber earning £34 million, which rose by 1989-90 to 3.5 million cubic metres, valued at more than £77 million.

Environmental issues came to the fore, with the Commission's management policies, and particularly forestry's apparent lack of environmental awareness, receiving heavy criticism. As problems were addressed, and the Commission became adept at putting across its message, a number of critics became more supportive.

The other main feature of the decade was the steady increase in Government cutbacks, with fewer public funds available. New planting was cut and investment in recreation ceased. Gradually the Commission began to acquire a higher political profile. By the end of the decade messages from the Government were mixed: on one hand expressing support and encouragement, on the other restricting forestry operations.

The October 1987 gales led to a mammoth clean-up operation in the south of England. Some 50 million trees blew down, with more timber destroyed than in any other single storm in the 20th century. Weald and Suffolk Forest Districts both lost the equivalent of a ten years’ felling programme; Bedgebury lost three times its annual cut. The vast majority of blown timber was salvaged and marketed.

The House of Commons commended the Commission for its clearance work and provided special supplements to assist restocking. An advisory Windblow Task Force answered more than 1000 queries before winding up in 1988.

By the 1990s the Commission was committed to multi-purpose forestry. The demands of commercial production, recreation and conservation were carefully balanced, and not only in Enterprise woods: Centre of Excellence awards for private owners encouraged multi-purpose management, and the Woodland Grant Scheme offered bigger grants if public access were a key objective.

Because we see the forest as an environmental resource and manage it as a whole, post-War forests are being carefully restructured as they reach maturity - particularly through the development of the Forest Design Plans. Broadleaf planting and long-term management are encouraged by grant aiding. Restoring native woodland in areas like Glen Affric and Sherwood Forest has been widely welcomed, and these initiatives will have a major impact on the countryside.

Environmental concerns are well to the fore and forest officers work closely with conservation groups. Wildlife projects underway include help for threatened species such as the red squirrel and nightjar. Now more than ever, we consult widely before decisions affecting woodlands are taken. Formally and informally specialist bodies, local groups and general public offer advice and opinions on our work, and private owners are encouraged to obtain advice and approval before making key decisions. Ventures such as the Valleys Forest Initiative in Wales have brought local people a new sense of ownership of their woods.

Our experience is in demand worldwide, and visits from forestry organisations overseas continue to increase. Our Research Division offers its services on a contract basis, and Education and Recreation Rangers meet visitors’ particular needs. We manage a wide range of recreation and tourist facilities, from deer stalking to rallying, and oversee historic sites including barrows, forts and medieval villages.

In May 2011 the provisional results of analysis of high-tech aerial photography, satellite imagery and other sources were published today as part of the Nationa Forest Inventory. They showed that there were 2,982,000 hectares of woodland across England, Scotland and Wales, representing 13 per cent of Britain’s land area - a massive increase on the 5% tree cover we had when the Commission was formed some 90 years ealier.

In 2013 the Forestry Commissioners' responsibilities in Wales transferred to a new body - Natural Resources Wales, marking the end of the Commission's 94 years as a GB organisation.

If the early Commissioners saw these forests today, what would they think? They could probably still suggest plenty of improvements. But there’s no doubt about our achievements. The Commission has arrested the wholesale decline of Britain’s woodland, and begun to reverse it. Against a shifting social and political backgroud, we have shown ourselves a flexible and adaptable organisation. The woods being planted and managed today will show the evidence well into the 21st century.

 Find out more - what shaped Britain's forests?