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Storm Arwen showed the value of gas stoves and diesel, and the folly of our national forestry policy

My article for the Telegraph:

The one thing that cheered us Northumbrians up as we waited for power to come back on after Storm Arwen (some wit points out that naming these daughters of Boreas only seems to encourage them) was to grumble: “if this was in the Home Counties we would never hear the end of it”. But it is not funny that thousands of homes are still waiting for reconnection, some with elderly occupants.

I can vouch that five days of living in the cold and dark when the nights are more than twice as long as the days does not half remind you of the value of reliable electricity, diesel cars (how else do you charge a phone?) and gas stoves to cook on – all three of which are about to be banned by the eco-commissars.

The longer term devastation in Northumberland is to trees. Where I live the damage is patchy: some whole woods are flattened, some veteran oaks uprooted and huge pines snapped off. But mostly the wind knocked down patches of woods and when the mess is cleared, that will leave woodland clearings that saplings will slowly fill.

Further north in the county, however, there are large areas of forest flattened altogether. As a boy I remember seeing similar scenes in central Scotland after the even fiercer storm of January 1968, which destroyed 8,000 hectares of forest and 300 homes, so don’t blame climate change.

But do let’s plant back better. The tree planting policy in Britain of the past 50 years has been a man-made disaster. Alarmed at the shortage of pit props during the First World War, the government set up the Forestry Commission with a remit to buy land and plant it with “commercial” trees while issuing grants and permits to landowners to do the same (a curious conflict of interest, incidentally).

This resulted in moorland and hill disappearing under square, hard-edged carpets of alien sitka spruce, creating dark, closed forest monocultures that acidified streams, accelerated flooding, collapsed biodiversity (except midges) and took away jobs. Where once the curlew called and the shepherd gathered, now there was empty silence.

To add insult to environmental injury, it was a commercial failure, too. The Forestry Commission never made a profit. Yet, bent on empire building, it set about converting even ancient semi-natural woodlands into sitka plantations: it is a little known fact that a higher proportion of ancient woodland was lost under Forestry Commission ownership than under private ownership. The ostensible purpose of these pulp farms was to feed paper mills that never came, supplying a demand for paper that was about to shrink, in thrall to an import-substitution policy that had been rubbished by Adam Smith.

But we import a lot of timber, wrote an angry duke to me when I made this point once before. Yes and bananas too, I replied, but we don’t subsidise greenhouses. In the 1980s the Forestry Commission even began telling us to grow lodgepole pines from the Rockies. Disaster: in British winds they grew sideways and collapsed into unmanageable thickets.

But alder, birch and rowan – oh no, you were not encouraged to plant those, at least until recently. It took me years to persuade the Forestry Commission to allow abundant natural regeneration of birch to grow where I had felled a spruce wood. Spray them off and replant with spruce was the “advice” from the commissars. It’s now a mature birch wood in which I found a woodcock’s nest last year.

That at least had changed a bit. The Forestry Commission is now encouraging the planting of native species and the growing of “woodland” instead of forestry plantations. Under its excellent new chairman, Sir William Worsley, it might even approach efficiency in answering letters in less than three months.

There is hope that in responding to the Government’s ambition to plant millions of trees to soak up carbon, both private and public landowners will be putting in mixtures of well-spaced native hardwood trees (and Scots pines) that follow the contours, include clearings and are managed for wildlife.

But the scale of the ambition fills me with dread. The sphagnum mosses on moorland blanket bogs where many new trees will be planted are actually better at capturing carbon than trees, we now know; the one thing people trying to save the curlew agree on is that nearby woodland is bad news: it houses crows, foxes, stoats and buzzards that take the eggs and chicks.

Yet the “commercial” foresters are already dusting off their business plans, with talk of planting “mostly” sitka spruce. The price of timber is up, almost entirely because the EU bizarrely decided that burning trees in Drax power station, and others like it, is carbon neutral, even though it produces more carbon dioxide than coal (trees take decades to regrow and are then cut down again).

As we replant, please let’s not keep making these environmental mistakes in the uplands of northern Britain (wind farms, ditches in peat?) simply to reward lobbyists on hobby horses.

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Matt Ridley’s latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, is now availablein the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  energy  environment  telegraph  uk-politics