I feel buoyed up by my visit to the Forest of Dean this past Sunday and Monday, as part of the Independent Panel on Forests.
We met in the region of 200 people involved in the forest – and other forests in the south west – in one way or another (it was nice to meet Sheila Constable, amongst them, who is the Forest of Dean Ramblers Footpath Officer). The panel went primarily to listen about what the forest meant to them, their views on the management of their forest, and how they would like to see things improve in the future. Some of these discussions took place in workshops, but there is nothing like getting out and seeing things first-hand – so we also toured parts of the forest to learn about tourism and leisure, life for people living in the forest, the timber industry, and the free miners who have worked the forest for hundreds of years.
One of the best presentations was from students from local schools, who had campaigned against the government’s previous forest proposals (700 young people were inspired to write letters and express their views). They explained how they use the forest – for art, science and geography classes, for cycling and hiking, and simply ‘getting away from it all’. They had a strong appreciation of how lucky they were to grow up surrounded by the forest. They thought it was the best place to grow up – and they wanted their children to have the same opportunity to grow up surrounded by the forest, as they had.
There’s a lot of food for thought from the visit, but these are the messages which came through very strongly for me personally:
- The forest is ‘in the blood’ of the people in the Forest of Dean. It has shaped the history of their families and communities for thousands of years.
- People loved the ‘freedom to roam’ which they enjoyed with the forest – it was for everyone, for free.
- It’s not just a matter of local history, but national history too. Whether it be the mass planting of trees after the Napoleonic wars, or the production of timber for trench and pit props in the early twentieth century, the Forest of Dean (indeed, perhaps, many forests) have continually been shaped by human needs and political forces. This continues today – with forests meeting new needs for leisure and well-being, biodiversity protection, and reduction of carbon dioxide.
- People generally liked the way their forest was run – there was room for improvement, of course, but they felt there was respect between the needs of different users of the forest, and a good balance between leisure and well-being, tourism and timber.
- There was a realism, too, that the forest must continually adapt. It is a living forest, and new livelihoods and businesses based on the forest must be continually nurtured, as well as support for existing businesses, and sources of income to help pay for forest upkeep were important.
- More widely, the fact that so many other forests in the south west are unmanaged and uncared for was a serious concern for some – a wasted resource. People wanted to see more forests brought back into active use.
This was the Panel’s first visit. Our next visit is to a very different type of forest – Kielder Forest, on 26th July.
Anyone can, of course, submit views to the Panel online: http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/forestry/panel/
In the meantime, thank you to the people involved in hosting the Forest of Dean visit. I found it inspiring.
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