Just as Xmas trees were being sent for recycling, Theresa May announced £5 million of government funding to ‘kick-start’ the Northern Forest. Building on decades of community-led work to transform the post-industrial landscape of northern England, the UK government has given its imprimatur to a grand vision of unbroken forested landscape from Liverpool to Hull. Realising the vision will take sustained and concerted investment from government, the private sector and third-sector actors such as the Woodland Trust.

The new Northern Forest will not be a dense ‘jungle’ – in places it will have widely spaced trees like the beautiful wood-pasture of Windsor Great Park or thickets amongst heathland like the wonderful Thames Chase community forest with its striking views of the City of London. Nor will the forest snake around the North’s urban areas; instead ‘urban forests’ will permeate the urban fabric, connecting the daily lives of the majority of northern Englanders to nature in a way not experienced for centuries.

But building a forest is not just, or even mostly, about planting trees. The Northern Forest will be as carefully constructed a landscape as the Lake District, and will need just as much tender loving care to maintain and preserve it until it becomes equally precious to us.

The Northern Forest is not the only afforestation happening in the UK. In the Midlands alone there is the 12,000-hectare (ha) ambition of the Heart of England Forest; the existing 52,000 ha of the National Forest; and a 25-year plan to reinvent the 2,500-ha Wyre Forest. The University of Birmingham’s own research on woodland in the Midlands, is a Mill Haft, an old-growth oak woodland on an estate that also contains a third of a million newly planted trees.

By 2050, the UK landscape will be transformed by these and other initiatives prompted not only by bucolic dreams but by the urgent need to provide biomass for fuel, timber to replace concrete, reserves for biodiversity, and regulation of air and water quality.

It is tempting to think of all this change as a return to Eden but, to be successful, this landscape change must look forward and take account of the massive changes that are taking place in our climate, cities and in our energy economy. There’s no ‘getting back to nature’ in the face of these environmental pressures, but we can learn to work better ‘with the grain’ of natural processes.

By 2050, the atmosphere will contain 40 per cent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than it does currently, and this is already 40 per cent more than the atmosphere contained at the start of the 19th century. CO2 is converted into sugar by plants and is the base of every terrestrial food-web. But plants need a balanced diet exactly as we do and, as we have discussed previously, doubling the intake of sugar has consequences for forests that are difficult to predict.

The huge Free-Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) facilities at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment are designed to investigate the impacts of just such a change in trees’ diet over decades and across whole forest ecosystems. Early results show the CO2 going into the trees, but where the carbon comes to rest in the ecosystem remains mysterious.

Even if climate resilience can be fostered, the forest will only prosper if people recognise their place in it. To a utilitarian, this means understanding the value of forests to provide goods (eg, timber and biomass for a decarbonised energy economy) and services (such as prevention of soil erosion, flood mitigation, biodiversity and a modest contribution to cleaning our polluted air).

More profoundly, we must re-engage hearts and minds with landscapes in which we humans, even humans sitting in mechanical diggers, are not the biggest organism in the field. Understanding the cultural, social, economic, psychological and ecological links that allow forested landscapes to thrive is at the heart of the 20-PhD Forest Edge programme of the University of Birmingham, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and beginning this year. 

It is a long time since the dark satanic mills blighted England’s industrial heartlands; it is high time we gave Blake back his – resilient, productive, inspiring – green and pleasant land.

Professor Rob MacKenzie
Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of Birmingham Institute of Forest Research, University of Birmingham