A Culture is no Better than its Woods

A colleague, Rannoch Daly, has sent me this: it might have been written as a charter for woodlanders.

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

In fact, it comes from WH Auden’s collection Bucolics, published in the 1950s.  Poets and Shakespeare fans will immediately spot the iambic pentameter rhythm of the lines.  Environmentalists will see a fierce and eloquent defence of woods and tree planters.

I suppose, then, that I must count myself among those who are laying bets on the human race; so much so, in fact, that my wife Sarah and I are just about to take a punt on 15 acres of sheep pasture called South Field, which lies about seven miles away from Thistle Wood, further up the Derwent valley and at a height of nearly 800ft.  From the woodsman’s point of view, it is a blank canvas: just short clipped grass and fat rabbits.  There are two smallish native woodlands within a mile or so along the same small peaty burn; and the small village of Edmundbyers, close-by.  Otherwise all is sheep, the scars of long-abandoned lead mines, heather, lapwings and curlews.

We aim to create a productive native woodland here; and to do that we’ll need help from the Woodland Creation Grant Scheme.  I’ve already indicated in another blog that because the plot (actually three contiguous fields) lies within the bounds of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB), our plan has a few hurdles to overcome. 

For anyone thinking of planting trees on a large-ish scale (i.e. over 3ha or 8 acres: roughly 300 paces by 100 paces) the Woodland Creation Grant is designed to cover your immediate capital costs – that is, the trees, shelters, stakes and possibly fencing.  It does not cover labour.  Furthermore, the grant, open all year round, is competitive: an applicant needs to score a minimum number of points to qualify; and it needs to score as many points as possible to have a chance of making through the WCG’s budget allowance for any one year.

The scoring system is not entirely straightforward – but you can read and download all the criteria from the Government website: WCG Annexe 2.  Points are scored for size (the bigger the scheme the better); for areas where there is a high priority for woodland coverage; where biodiversity for certain bird and mammal species is a priority; for woods close to rivers etc.  Planters will, understandably, hope to find out without too much hassle and cost what designations their prospective plot has or does not have with regard to these priorities.  Well, there is a web-based map that displays all those designations and many more.  It is maintained by DEFRA (Dept for Food and Rural Affairs) and is called MAGIC.  Beware, it takes a bit of getting used to.  Each layer can obscure others beneath, so you have to switch off all layers before you start, and turn them on one by one, through a series of bewildering sub-menus, to check what applies to your patch.  You can, then, roughly work out a score for your scheme.  Any less than 12 points and you won’t qualify for a grant.  So far as I can tell, our new project will get us about 40-50 points.  Even so, there is a long process of negotiation to go through with our local woodland officer from the Forestry Commission.

If you are successful – and the application is, effectively, subject to all normal planning regulations – you have to pay for the capital costs up front before you can claim them back.  You have two years to complete the planting and must prove that you have done it as per your agreement with the relevant body – i.e. The Forestry Commission.  You also have to register with the Rural Payments Agency – and that is another matter.  If you are awarded a grant you will then be eligible for a maintenance payment, roughly £150 per hectare per year for ten years, to ensure that you look after your new trees.

At Thistle Wood, despite all the hassles, it has been worth it.  And if you ever begin to doubt your sanity for undertaking such a challenge or your energy for carrying it through, remember Auden: A culture is no better than its woods.

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