Join us in ‘The Impossible Dream’
“to plant and preserve a large native forest in the heart of England”
The Heart of England Forest Project is a partnership initiative between Warwickshire landowner, Felix Dennis, and The Heart of England Forest Ltd., a registered charity.
The aim of the partnership is to plant and preserve a large native broadleaf forest in the heart of England.
Who is Felix Dennis?
In 1995 he planted his first small wood near Dorsington, Warwickshire. Subsequently, he conceived the idea of establishing a large native forest and founded The Forest of Dennis Ltd., a registered charity, to fulfill his mission. The charity changed its name to The Heart of England Forest Ltd. in 2011.
What has The Heart of England Forest Project achieved so far?
To date, The Heart of England Forest project has been responsible for acquiring and planting 1,900 acres of land with native broadleaf saplings, much of it close to veteran woodland also purchased by Mr. Dennis.
The project recently established its own tree nursery. Hundreds of acres of land have been gifted to the charity itself and more will follow.
The charity was recently assisted to make its first purchase of existing woodland – 186-acres of mainly conifer trees called Coughton Park Wood. These conifers are being felled in stages and the plantation will be transformed into native broadleaf woodland.
“We want a forest full of light and air.”
How much land does the project and the charity jointly control?
Close to six thousand acres now. A substantial proportion of this, however, will be retained as farmland.
How big is the 1,900 acres planted so far?
About the size of five Hyde Parks in London. Quite big enough to get lost in. It’s getting bigger every year, too.
In addition to the 1,900 acres already planted, existing veteran woodland adds a further 300 acres. This creates a grand total of 2,200 acres of woodland within the project at this time.
How much land does The Heart of England Forest Project plant each year?
Currently, the project plants around 300 acres per year – a little over the size of two traditional family-owned farms in the South Midlands. In 2011, we managed to plant 325 acres with native broadleaf saplings.
Where are these woods situated?
Mainly in South Warwickshire, stretching from the ancient borders of The Forest of Arden, south to the edge of the Vale of Evesham.
How does The Heart of England Forest Project go about its work?
We take advice from The Forestry Commission and similar bodies as well as other experts in arboriculture. We also consult with local councils and residents. We plan each year’s planting carefully and continually monitor and nurture the health of our existing woodlands.
Digitised maps and records are kept of all our planting activities. We also invite school outings to our education centre on the Spernal Estate and support organisations like The Tree Council and The Countryside Trust.
Lastly, we collect tens of thousands of seeds from local trees to grow in our nursery.
What kind of trees does the project plant and when?
Our saplings are usually planted in the late autumn and winter when trees are dormant. We plan only native broadleaf trees like oak, ash, lime and birch. Smaller quantities of other trees are also planted, like wild cherry, field maple, wild pear, willow, hornbeam, black poplar, sweet chestnut, whitebeam and rowan. Lastly, we plant native shrubs, which include hazel (often for coppicing), guelder rose, spindle, holly, wayfaring tree, privet and alder buckthorn.
What’s different about The Heart of England Forest Project’s woodland?
It is built to last. We plan to gift more and more of the project’s land to The Heart of England Forest Charity. We believe such ownership of the land on which our trees are planted is the best way to secure the forest’s long-term future.
While individuals, families, public and private corporations and government departments all eventually expire, experience has shown that a charity can endure for generations.
“Above all, we seek to create a place of tranquil natural beauty – and one which will endure for centuries.”
What else is unique about it?
Four things. Firstly, we are not planting principally for timber production, but to create an environment which both wildlife and humans can enjoy, which means we plant our trees at a lower density than commercial forestry.
Secondly, we incorporate a large amount of woodland pasture, glades, ponds and wetlands, wide rides and winding footpaths within our woods. We do this because we want a forest full of light and air.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we wish to make virtually all of our forest open to the public, reserving only new plantations, sites of special scientific interest and habitats for endangered species.
And fourthly, there is ‘the impossible dream’.
What is the ‘impossible dream’?
Our avowed aim is to create a large forest that is contiguous. One that is joined up, not only for the benefit of those who walk in it, work in it and enjoy it, but to provide corridors for native wildlife of every sort. This was Felix Dennis’s original vision, one that has been described as ‘nigh on impossible’ by some experts.
Why do they call it ‘impossible’? Because it has never been done in England before – or not for thousands of years. (It is surprising how little we know about the rise and fall of forests in Britain since the last ice age.) The idea of being able to create a large, contiguous forest in the West Midlands, one of the most crowded parts of Europe, is certainly a formidable undertaking.
“A donation of just £10 will pay for the planting, nurturing and maintenance of a healthy sapling for generations to come.”
Why plant the forest in such a relatively crowded location?
In a word, access. To plant such a forest in the wilds of Scotland or in North Wales would be a far easier undertaking, but such remote locations would limit visitor access. It is precisely because the Midlands is so densely populated, (nearly 4 million people live in Birmingham and its environs alone), that The Heart of England Forest is so desperately needed as a refuge from the hurly burly of urban life.
Can it really be done?
Yes. With patience, with sufficient will, with the right funding and by taking a long view, (measured in decades, if necessary), we are convinced it can be done, and done right here in the heart of England. Indeed, we believe that it must be done.
Why ‘must’ it be done?
For centuries there has been little but talk of reforesting Britain.
John Evelyn’s seminal book, Sylva, published for The Royal Society in 1664, was the first to take a hard look at our woods and forests. Back then, 350 years ago, Evelyn warned us that Britain was neglecting to plant sufficient trees to replace those lost to agriculture and commerce.
Successive governments have excelled at talking about (and creating committees to discuss) tree planting, but their record of achievement is a truly dismal one as far as native woodland goes.
Today, the British countryside has one of Europe’s lowest percentages of native high tree cover – scarcely a quarter or a third of the percentage of native tree cover in, say, Italy, Germany or France.
How large do you plan the Heart of England Forest to become?
Only time will tell, but 30,000 acres would be a fine beginning! In essence,that is the ‘impossible dream’, to create a connected series of woods so extensive that it will form one of the largest forests in England.
What sort of activities will happen in the forest?
Too many to list here, but we hope to encourage many traditional woodland crafts, coppice and charcoal production, a green burial and memorial site, camping, recreation and equestrian pursuits, bird-watching, arboreal tree-top walkways and a substantial visitor’s hub housing an educational and arts centre.
Above all, we seek to create a place of tranquil natural beauty – and one which will endure for centuries.