The dendrophiles of northern England have something new to be excited about. The Northern Forest is a green megaproject which will see the planting of 50m trees over the next 25 years, creating a forest stretching from Liverpool to Hull along the M62 corridor.
Projects of this kind are long overdue. Forest cover in the UK is one of the worst in Europe at an estimated 12 per cent, compared to an average of 36 per cent across the rest of the EU. In the last few years, what’s more, levels of planting have been abysmal: the Woodland Trust claims that 2017 saw the lowest levels of new trees planted in England for years.
So the need is clear – and the benefits many. First up, deforestation is the world's second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. A new forest will thus help combat climate change.
The forest will also open up space for the reintroduction of wildlife long since absent from the north of England, like beavers and even lynxes, an indigenous British wildcat. (Perhaps we could have a lynx on the Royal Crest rather than the wildcat we pinched from the colonies?)
Trees also do wonders for soil protection and mitigating of flood risk: with all this green infrastructure, the Woodland Trust hope to reduce flood risk for 190,000 homes. That’s especially good news for the residents of beleaguered towns such as York, which have been hit repeatedly by flooding.
For those living in the great cities of the north, the trees would improve the quality of the air. At present, thousands in the region die every year from pollution (630 per year in Manchester; 1,000 across Yorkshire and Humberside).
In the US, where they have the money to test this sort of thing, it was found that trees deflected $6.8bn in healthcare costs. For the cities that will be enveloped by the Northern Forest, lives will literally be saved by these trees – and it will certainly alleviate pressure on the ever embattled NHS.
On top of all that, the new forest would provide an estimated £2bn boost to the local economy through tourism, recreation and timber production. Oh, and it’d provide a lovely space for the 15m inhabitants of northern England, too.
Hold on though northerners, don’t start putting your walking boots on quite yet.
Despite very keen to throw their names behind the project Theresa May and environment secretary Michael Gove have so far committed only £5.7m of government funds to the £500m project. This is going to pay for little more than a thin line of trees on either side of the M62 – more of a ‘Northern Hedgerow’ than the great forest imagined.
The rest of the money is to be raised through charitable contributions. That means raising a little under £20m a year, every year for the next quarter century: if it’s to succeed, the Northern Forest project will have to step up into the top 1.3 per cent of charities in terms of income, which sounds pretty challenging.
As Austin Brady, Director of Conservation at the Woodland Trust, wrote: “It’s not a government led initiative – it’s a bottom-up initiative.” The bottom will have to really step up to make this woody pipe dream a reality.
Planting 50m trees, though, is plausible. In 2016,the residents of Uttar Pradesh in India planted that same number in a day – we’ve got 25 years.