ON a bitter Saturday morning in winter 1999, a dozen assorted stakeholders huddled together to plant the memorial circle of oak and yew for a new model 48-hectare woodland on prime arable land in North West Leicestershire: the local Labour & Co-op MP, the parish councillor, four local residents, the forestry agents, myself and offspring.

Behind us loomed a mountainous raw coal tip and, across the valley, an ailing brick works and quarry. Looking back, I could be forgiven for wondering if this was all a pipe dream. Was it? 

Back in 1987, a handful of luminaries at the then Countryside Commission pioneered the vision of creating a new, extended, forested landscape in lowland England which would bring all the benefits of trees and woodlands near to where people live and work. A competition was run to select where the first forest to be established at such a scale in England for centuries should take root. 

The region chosen to create this National Forest was in the Midlands, stretching from the outskirts of the city of Leicester across to Burton-on-Trent, linking the remnant ancient hunting forests of Needwood in Staffordshire with Charnwood to the east in Leicestershire – in total of roughly 200 square miles in old money. 

Forestry Journal: The road through the village of Battram on the way to Battram Wood (credit: Matt Fascione)The road through the village of Battram on the way to Battram Wood (credit: Matt Fascione)

Taking in part of south Derbyshire too, the region bore the scars of past industrial wealth – from coal mining, mineral extraction and heavy industry – with high unemployment and a need for a fresh purpose and facelift.

This ambitious vision was guided and driven from April 1995 by the newly created National Forest Company (NFCo), originally a not-for-profit organisation as a company limited by guarantee that was centrally funded.

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The target – to convert one third of the land within the boundaries of the National Forest (52 sq mi, 33,000 acres) to woodland, by encouraging landowners to alter their land use.

Described as "a forest in the making", it aspired to increase tourism and forestry-related jobs in the area. To date, more than 20 years on, over nine million trees have been planted, more than tripling the woodland cover from six per cent to 20 per cent.

In the late 1990s – when I was its CEO – the Royal Forestry Society (RFS) was on the lookout for a new site where it could demonstrate how to create a model multi-purpose woodland from scratch. The embryonic National Forest seemed an ideal location and a chance to be a supporting pioneer there. 

In May 1999, Ibstock Grange Farm in North West Leicestershire came on the market and the RFS put in a successful bid for part of the property, 48 ha of prime arable farmland in the south east of the infant National Forest. 

The acquisition was aided by generous support from the fledgling NFCo itself, NW Leicestershire District and Leicestershire County Councils, and the Rural Development Commission.

It was purchased on the understanding that it would be sustainably managed through afforestation, with wildlife enhancement, landscape and recreation also central to its management ethos. A model working woodland that would pay its way. 

Now, a brand new woodland must have a name – but how do you choose one?

When I consulted the OS map in the late 1990s in the days before what3words, GPS and the like, there was a small group of houses marked along a long dead-end road leading to the designated woodland site, but no place name actually appeared for the hamlet.

Forestry Journal: Interpretation boards can be found along the new network of ridesInterpretation boards can be found along the new network of rides

It did of course have a name in real life – Battram. Various titles were mooted for the RFS to-be site but I insisted it be called after the adjoining community to foster a sense of local identity and ownership, and so Battram Wood was born.

The RFS ran a national design competition for the new enterprise in 1999. The original winning planting scheme boasted eight main stand types, tweaked and whittled down to six as the challenges faced by UK forestry came along (red band needle blight in the Corsican pine, Ramorum in the larch, rust in the poplars and the latest challenge – ash dieback).

Funding came from the standard palette of grants at the time, including the Forestry Commission Woodland Grant and Farm Woodland Premium Schemes. Lockhart Garratt was engaged as the first forestry agent.

Some subsoiling and drainage were done and a little-known clause invoked to get the electricity company to put the low-voltage overhead powerline crossing the fields underground – free of charge. 

After seeding a grass ley, planting itself got underway in the following winters in three phases to spread the risk of poor take-up, make the workload manageable and ensure the best contractor was used. Almost all the stock was planted unprotected in the days before the current deer population explosion, while the brown hares were kept on their toes by the local greyhound- and whippet-fancying fraternity. 

Forestry Journal: The view from one of the bait stations which form part of a strategy for controlling the local grey squirrel populationThe view from one of the bait stations which form part of a strategy for controlling the local grey squirrel population

80,000 whips were put in by hand in carefully thought out and contoured row layouts, so the emerging woodland would be both practical yet visually appealing both internally and from further away, plus a good habitat for wildlife as well as being a successful commercial enterprise.

Cricket bat willows went in along the brook and a grove of scarce black poplar in a wetter secluded patch. Other nearby first-time owners then quickly followed suite – with sweeteners from grant schemes – establishing substantial compartments of woodland to the north and west. These adjoining blocks of Grange and Workman’s Woods are now visible from space as a large continuum of 150 ha.

And before anyone asks, now the stands are reaching pole stage, grey squirrel numbers are controlled by shooting at bait stations courtesy of the local air rifle club.

These aspects were also built into the Battram Wood multipurpose vision. The full site is open for informal access, with a smallish bunded car park catering to visitors. Besides the new network of 4.3 km rides between the emerging forest compartments, this was linked in to the long-distance footpath and SUSTRANS cycle routes, while picnic sites and interpretation boards are there too. These were vital for the RFS to achieve its aim of people using the woods.

The site is popular with walkers and their canine companions, joggers and riders. The regulars act as the woodland's eyes and ears and quickly report anything amiss.

Maximising conservation and biodiversity were part and parcel of the design and evolution of the site – not added on as after-thoughts. An old farm pond was dug out to make a shallow permanent wildlife lagoon and wetland area, dipping into external funding. That now serves as an important focus for educational activities.

Battram Wood is one of the RFS Teaching Trees sites – a scheme to bring school children out of the classroom into close contact with woodlands and to learn to cherish them. For over 20 years, Teaching Trees has been connecting more and more schools with local woodlands across England and Wales. In 2020 it worked with over 300 schools and trained 70 staff to deliver outdoor learning.

Battram does not have a school of its own, but links between the local RFS teacher and those in larger nearby towns are thriving. A forestry consultant now manages the wood.

Battram was once a small Midlands Coalfield mining community. Half of the original houses were demolished due to subsidence. 

The modest village is strung out on either side of a dead-end lane. When our cars passed along it to reach the new RFS site at the far end, dogs barked and net curtains twitched like a Mexican wave along the ribbon of houses. 

Nailstone Open Cast Colliery was on the doorstep of Battram village. The mine was established in 1895, but extraction ceased at in 1968. That colliery and the nearby Bagworth one were linked underground and spoil from the later was transported in tunnels to the tip next to Battram allotments until 1991 when all work finally ground to a halt. The tip was eventually remodelled and greened over. 

In common with most of the National Forest, the local community has grown to regard Battram Wood as theirs and to understand it is a working wood that requires active management to generate its full potential and benefits to man and beast.

Forestry Journal: Map of the National ForestMap of the National Forest

Residents are invited along to special occasions such as planting the Trafalgar oaks and the Marie Currie daffodils. The BBQ was especially well attended, although now the woods are at a thicket or early pole stage, opportunities for high profile fun activities get shaded out. 

Anti-social behaviour happens and is nipped in the bud. One major incident was when the nearby travelling community moved in – and moved out a month after notice was served, leaving behind an industrial-size mountain of rubbish. 

The village itself has benefitted too and is now firmly back on the map. Shared facilities have mushroomed – a brand new local community centre, a children’s playground, a sprinkling of new dwellings and even a road sign– not forgetting a multipurpose woodland on the doorstep for enjoying informal recreation. 

Will the figures for Battram as a working woodland ever stack up to show a net gain on paper?

Full advantage has been taken all along of all and any financial assistance on offer to both pump-prime the venture and to provide the multiple non-timber spin-offs offered by woodland creation. As with any afforestation, the costs up front are substantial and the returns notable by their absence for many years. 

Funding regimes and income streams have changed and evolved since the turn of the millennium – carbon trading is one exciting example. And if novel concepts such as providing ecosystem services might ever be factored in and owners remunerated are a matter of conjecture. 

The arrival of Dothistroma in the Corsican pine meant that what was hoped to be a major early money spinner through thinnings took a severe knock.

Of course, the National Forest is only one of a raft of past, present and future pushes to expand woodland cover in England. 

The successful Community Forests programme was established at the turn of this century too under the Countryside Commission umbrella as a trial project to demonstrate the potential contribution of environmental improvement to economic and social regeneration. 

Forestry Journal: Battram plantingBattram planting

Things move on and evolve. The drivers and incentives change too. More local, regional and national woodland establishment schemes arose across England and continue to do so, nearly always with some official pump-priming financial or fiscal attraction, lately under the banners of locking up carbon and boosting biodiversity. 

Wales in now proposing its own National Forest and in Scotland, afforestation forges ahead. 

Forestry is about far more than just growing trees – it is about people. Going back to the National Forest and Battram Wood recently, after years away, was an enlightening and heartening experience for me. 

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In the formative days around the turn of the Millenium, the National Forest vision with its ambitious project to radically renovate the area through trees was met with scepticism and ridicule – but how things have changed for the better two decades on! The whole aspect of the region has altered and there is a tangible buzz about the place. A credit to all concerned. 

Woodland cover has grown from around six or seven per cent when the NFCo germinated to some 20 per cent nowadays and is still expanding, with around nine million whips planted. 

Even with the challenges of COVID-19, the National Forest is a hive of activity. There are visitor centres, honey pots, lots of informal recreation, long-distance and circular footpaths and cycleways, an annual Tree Fest and many start-ups, ingenious enterprises as spin-offs of managed woodland. 

Forestry Journal: Wetland restoration has been an important focus for Battram Wood, aiming to improve biodiversity among other benefitsWetland restoration has been an important focus for Battram Wood, aiming to improve biodiversity among other benefits

And the new breed of woodland owners is supported by a core team of professionals based at the Moira HQ offering advice, training and marketing expertise. 

My only qualm was that few if any of the examples of the past industrial backdrop of say heaps, open casts, brick kilns or other derelict sites have been left as they were – as silent witnesses of what the past landscape looked like to compare and contrast with the modern one in a then-and-now scenario.

The forestry ball game changes quickly compared to the lifespan of tall trees. When first germinated, locking up carbon was scarcely mentioned. On top of growing timber, modern, multi-purpose forestry caters to all of these benefits, although maybe not on the official agenda at the time the NFCo first took root. 

Under the RFS wing, Battram Wood has been a success story to date and a model for others to learn from of the resilience, adaptability and diversity of multi-purpose, sustainable lowland forestry. It bodes well for the long term.