THIS November, if all goes to plan, an ambitious new woodland planting project will get underway in the Dorn and Glyme Valley, Oxfordshire. A new 135 ha mixed-species multi-purpose ‘canopy carbon’ woodland will be planted across 150 ha of low-grade arable land.

Almost all has been agreed. The Blenheim Estate owns the land. Construction company Morgan Sindall Group will provide the ‘blended’ financial investment alongside traditional forestry grants. Woodland establisher Nicholsons will plant and manage the woodland under the terms of a 25-year contract. For transparency, Grown in Britain (GiB) has verified the design plan and confirmed Nicholsons is on its ‘expert providers’ register. All that remains is for government regulators to give the green light.

The proposed project is the first under the banner of the Forest Canopy Foundation. Almost a year since the landowner first expressed interest, Forestry Journal met with some of the key players in a log cabin in Nicholsons’ 23-acre Plant Centre in Oxfordshire to find out how it came about.

Forestry Journal: Blenheim Estate.Blenheim Estate.


To recap (as featured in Forestry Journal, March 2021), the Forest Canopy Foundation (FCF) is a not-for-profit umbrella organisation connecting landowners with corporate investment (blended finance), government grants and expert (audited) independent forestry professionals in order to facilitate the planting of new woodlands.

These ‘canopy carbon’ projects not only sequester carbon, they also deliver natural capital with community benefits, measurable against a set of metrics, developed by GiB, which mirror the UK Climate Change Committee’s natural capital asset drivers (including ecosystem services; biodiversity; soil, air and water; and community).  For transparency, each woodland plan is checked against these metrics using a traffic light system. The more a project delivers, the more positive the plan.

The land to be planted and the projected amount of carbon sequestered is registered with the Woodland Carbon Code, offering assurance the offset will be measured accurately. As a project develops, independent organisations (using drone technology) validate the actual amounts of carbon sequestered at 5-, 15- and 25-year intervals. The Dorn and Glyme Valley woodland will, it is estimated, sequester 22,000 tonnes of carbon during the first 25 years.

Forestry Journal: The mix that is planted will be largely broadleaf, with good blocks of conifer.The mix that is planted will be largely broadleaf, with good blocks of conifer.


One of the main barriers to new woodland planting in lowland England has often been cited as taking land out of agricultural production and with it, the income lost, “or the impact on a balance sheet,” said Roy Cox, Blenheim Estate’s estates director, via email. “This has now changed.”

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At the heart of the Blenheim Estate, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, is Queen Pool, an SSSI and what some consider ‘the finest view in England’. Over centuries, the lake has become heavily silted from soil erosion and nutrient run-off and has less than five years before reverting to a wetland, with the loss of its renowned view. Finding its farming operations unsustainable (and its lake disappearing), combined with a carbon footprint of 32,000 tonnes a year – 60 per cent of which come from visitor travel – Blenheim saw its land use had to change.


For a landowner, new woodlands have to be established at zero (or break-even) cost, and the income foregone replaced. For the Dorn and Glyme woodlands, the initial income lost is replaced by carbon finance, with future income derived from the tree species planted.

Nathan Fall, Nicholsons’ woodland manager for this project, explained: “We are looking to create an asset that has value to the landowner. Taking land out of production, something productive needs to go back in. Morgan Sindall understands this from its long-standing relationship with GiB. They are not a conservation body or a National Park; they are active managers, building things. Planting timber trees, you can expect an income, while securing many
wider benefits.”

The FCF does not target planting trees on Grade 1, 2 or even good Grade 3 arable land. Founder member and managing director of Nicholsons, Liz Nicholson, said: “We suggested planting up marginal land, largely Grade 3 (uneconomic to farm without subsidies), sloping down into the Dorn and Glyme Valley. Taking these fields out of production stabilises the soil, slows run-off, reduces the amount of nitrates and phosphates in the river and increases filtration. It has multiple benefits.”

Roy Cox expressed interest in hosting the project last summer.

Forestry Journal: The forest school building will be built where the poppies grow. The forest school building will be built where the poppies grow.


Morgan Sindall Group (MSG) helped establish UK charity Grown in Britain in 2011. Nicholsons met MSG through GiB.

Stephanie Holmes, head of group communications for FTSE 250-listed company MSG, said: “MSG has long had a focus on sustainable building practices as one of the first construction companies to take on science-based targets and to disclose its progress to the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project, an international non-profit organisation that companies use to assess their climate impact). It has made efforts to remove carbon from its design, processes and materials, and to assist its supply chain to do the same. For several years, the group had been seeking a suitable area of land where it could create a series of woodlands for a long-term project that would offset any residual carbon that remains, and do so in a transparent way.”

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MSG came on board in Autumn 2020 and contracts for canopy carbon payments, agreed directly between the corporate body and the landowner, were negotiated last winter. When costs attributable to the project begin, payment is drawn down.

We are unable to mention the specific amounts of canopy carbon investment MSG is making, so Liz drew a comparison. “When people buy carbon from the Woodland Carbon Code, they may pay £18 per tonne. That is not what we are doing, so we are not relating the cost to this price. FCF is much more holistic, with community benefits (such as the forest school) and ongoing vital aftercare.”


MSG’s goal is to be net zero by 2030. Stephanie said: “It is not the cheapest way to offset carbon. You can buy an offset for a fraction of the price. Fundamentally, offsetting is not going to solve anything. It is no good creating a forest in one place and belching out carbon in another. Business practices have to change and this is what we are trying to do – clean up the way we design, construct and build projects. We will only offset (or inset, to use the technical term) residual carbon that cannot be removed from our practices.

“Our project with Blenheim represents a long-term solution to this small, residual amount of carbon. This, like many construction projects, is a legacy project, a 25-year involvement, recognising environmental change takes time. It has an immediate impact in terms of reducing soil erosion and the removal of chemicals, and longer-term impacts of carbon sequestration, improved water quality, air quality and community access. It is a brilliant example of people all working together even though they have different goals.”

Forestry Journal: The site of 36.7 ha Castle Wood, a broad curving belt of woodland designed this way partly because of budget restrictions and partly so that cattle or stock can continue grazing in the circle.The site of 36.7 ha Castle Wood, a broad curving belt of woodland designed this way partly because of budget restrictions and partly so that cattle or stock can continue grazing in the circle.


The woodlands, designed by Liz, Nathan and Roy Cox, consist of nine new woods containing 28 species – 84 per cent broadleaf and 16 per cent conifer – to be planted on land at high risk of soil erosion and poor for growing food crops.

Conifer species include Douglas and Nordmann firs, Scots pine, European silver fir and western red cedar. Broadleaf species include small-leaved lime, wild cherry, hornbeam (future-proofing for a warming climate), sycamore, Norway maple, wild service (drought tolerant), oak and beech alongside pioneers such as birch, field maple and alder (nitrogen fixer).

The woods will feature two types of experimental plots. Two hectares of wild cherry, sycamore, hornbeam, beech and oak will be planted at tighter 2-metre spacings and managed to develop veneer timber. Several one-hectare plots will include non-natives such as pawlonia (one of the world’s fastest-growing trees, producing timber in 30 years’ time), robinia and tulip trees, “because,” said Nathan, “we can’t be limited to a shrinking native palette now”.

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Blenheim’s forestry team will contribute some of the 1,000 saplings grown from acorns collected from the parkland’s ancient oaks. The saplings will be planted at woodland entry points, along parkland rides and in veneer plots as landmark trees.

It is a 270,000-plant scheme. To accommodate supply issues (and the weather) and to ensure biosecurity, all have been reserved with certified (or in-process) UK Plant Healthy nurseries.

Nicholsons has its own in-house planting teams and Blenheim its own in-house forestry team. Planting an additional 135 ha of new woodlands is a big ask for anyone. The hope is for a ‘mutual’ apprenticeship scheme: one team learning about establishment and the other learning about management as the woods evolve.


Canopy carbon woodlands are designed and measured against GiB metrics using a traffic-light system and a set of scores from nine natural capital and asset themes. Liz said: “This project is green (good) and excels in its community benefits and outreach.”

Beyond the design stage, and in addition to the Woodland Carbon Code verification, GiB will independently audit the woodland management for a minimum of 25 years. Via email, GiB chief executive Dougal Driver said: “This is a new, crucial and unique feature of canopy woodlands. This assurance will ensure the long-term delivery of the benefits anticipated.”

Forestry Journal: Some of the key players in the Dorn and Glyme Valley Woodland Project (l–r): Liz Nicholson, managing director of Nicholsons; Stephanie Holmes, head of group communications for Morgan Sindall Group; Nathan Fall, one of Nicholsons’ four woodland managers and for this project the lead establishment forester. Some of the key players in the Dorn and Glyme Valley Woodland Project (l–r): Liz Nicholson, managing director of Nicholsons; Stephanie Holmes, head of group communications for Morgan Sindall Group; Nathan Fall, one of Nicholsons’ four woodland managers and for this project the lead establishment forester.


The forest school building (and natural amphitheatre) will be available for use by children throughout Oxfordshire (and beyond). 15 kilometres of new permissive paths with signage will link up with existing public rights of way, providing a circular route from the World Heritage site up and down the Dorn and Glyme Valley.

“Getting people through these woodlands is as important as creating new multi-purpose mixed woodlands in which we are unashamedly growing timber,” said Nathan.

For the young growing up in urban surroundings witnessing woods developing on their doorstep, it is hoped that some might consider working there. It is also hoped that local charity HELP Hub, set up in response to the COVID crisis, and the increasing numbers of people struggling with mental health problems (latterly receiving the Queen’s recognition) will also benefit from the NHS provided by these woodlands.

“It is a showcase, the first project of its kind, and invariably there will be lessons to learn from it,” said Nathan.


For Blenheim, the reduced amount of nitrates and phosphates leaching into the River Dorn and feeding into Queen Pool will be measured, as will the woodland’s impact on improved air quality.

Liz said: “The woods are also designed to help ground-truth carbon forecasts as calculated by the Woodland Carbon Code. Ground-truthing allows us to build an accurate data set of how trees actually behave and then layer on the soil science. The intellectual and academic data generated will create far more detailed and accurate models.”

Nicholsons is working with Rothamsted Research to measure soil carbon before planting and as the project progresses. Liz said: “It could mean extra carbon to bank.”

For Blenheim and Morgan Sindall, creating a woodland environment free of plastics is paramount. Through the FCF, MSG is funding a job to coordinate tree guard trials using experimental combinations of naturally derived substances like wool and cashew oil. Biodegradable spirals (PLA) will be used in broadleaf establishment and similar non-plastic shrub shelters for the conifers.

Under the 25-year management plan, 30 per cent of the woodlands are to be left as non-intervention ‘controls’ (conifer, broadleaf and shrub elements in all woods), from which to compare and contrast differing management regimes on local sites. Squirrel management will continue in all. Nathan expects that in the longer term, the areas of non-intervention will be less biodiverse than those that are thinned and managed. He said: “Disturbance from forestry operations is exactly what the woodland ecologies that have evolved in the UK have relied on for the last four thousand years.”


Erecting 25 km of fencing and planting is almost the easy part. The plan is that, following harvest and sub-soiling (to break up any plough pan), a rolling programme of deer fence building will be followed by planting bare-root stock (with some cell-grown stock to extend the planting season into November) in sinuous rows.

Nathan said: “The timber trees need formative pruning and the grey squirrels kept off. We will brash-up the conifers when necessary and maintain the deer fencing to allow an element of natural regeneration to create a primarily continuous-cover shelter wood system (to avoid a clearfell/restock scenario), thinning the managed woods from (approximately) year 25 onwards.”

The experimental non-native plots will be monitored and mown. The veneer plots will receive formative pruning and high pruning to facilitate future veneer-quality timber for use by MSG or others. Around 35–40 per cent of the total management costs will be swallowed by aftercare, or as Liz said: “Squirrel control!”

Between years 25 and 100, it is estimated that (through thinning) the woods will yield at least 16,500 m³ of UK-grown timber, firewood and biomass.


Although the arable sites currently support limited biodiversity, EIA determinations have been made by the Forestry Commission. Grant funding applications were filed under Countryside Stewardship. The FC has since announced the new England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO). Nicholsons expects the project can transfer into the new grant structure but this is reliant on the Rural Payments Agency and the FC working together to resolve ‘teething problems’. Nothing can happen until the grant is live.


When it gets the go-ahead, the Dorn and Glyme Valley Woodland will provide a ‘proof of concept’.

Nathan said: “The FCF and this project has the potential to revolutionise woodland creation in lowland England. If we can get this right and it works for the participants, we have a template to show to other large landowners: create a good-quality woodland, managed for the first 25 years, after which the woodland begins to pay for itself. Policymakers lost sight that they had to persuade businesses to take a hit to their bottom line in order to implement what government wants. Creating an asset with value for the landowner, taking land out of production, something productive needs to go back in. With high land prices and self-supporting agricultural yields, convincing landowners to surrender land to trees rather than housing or high-intensity farming boils down to money. If it’s not there, then it is not going to happen.”

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