More forests mean more timber, more wildlife and more carbon locked up...
It is to the magical tree-cover of Exmoor that I turn if I want to see the most superior sylvan sights of them all. Even in cold winter rain Horner Woods somehow looks like, and probably is, the nearest thing England has to natural, unspoilt, primary rainforest.
The woodland is of national and international importance with particular nature conservation interest in its lichen (330 species), fungi, bryophyte and bats (15 species) and lowland heath.
That a single wood – here in over-busy, over-developed, Southern England – could boast 330 different types of anything is amazing – but those teeming lichens make Horner Woods one of the richest such places in all of Europe. We can thank the clear, unpolluted Atlantic air that washes through the complex of coombes for this particular treasure trove.
Horner Woods are billed as "one of the largest single areas of unenclosed ancient semi-natural woodland in England". They have been worked by mankind for centuries, right up until the early 1920s. People lived and laboured in the woods producing tan bark for the leather industry and, of course, charcoal and timber. In order for them to be productive the woods were coppiced and pollarded – cut back in various ways and allowed to grow new shoots – a type of management that opened up the forest and prevented it from becoming dark and choked with thicket.
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This work of yesteryear still has echoes in the way the woods look today. A recent survey to assess the number and condition of Horner's ancient trees showed that the wood contains 1039 veterans of which 478 are pollards. Now the National Trust is working to maintain this "semi-natural" status of the forest.
It's an illustration which shows us that managing our trees and woodlands has always been a balancing act. Cut and burn too much and you tip the scales – plant vast acreages with mono-crops of pines and you upset the equilibrium another way.
The biggest upset of all occurred in the early 1900s when the trend was for coniferous planting on an industrial scale. At first this was done without protest, but eventually the nation was to turn against the concept of block-planting vast areas with fast growing pines. An area of Devon just a few miles south of Exmoor happens to be the very first place where the newly formed Forestry Commission swung into conifer-planting action. It was 94 years ago, on December 8 1919, that Lord Clinton, a newly appointed Forestry Commission commissioner, planted some Douglas Firs on his Eggesford estate.
We'd have inherited far more of these vast plantations if people hadn't started ringing alarm bells in the 1960s and 70s. The first of those protestors were to be found here on Exmoor. Half a century ago the Forestry Commission had plans for a truly massive planting on The Chains area – and the Exmoor Society was originally inaugurated to fight that one battle.
But we still need timber and for decades we seem to have been happy to import vast amounts of it. We each consume the equivalent of a tonne of timber a year but domestically we only produce about eight or nine million tonnes.
A forestry expert told me: "The amount of timber we import could plummet and the amount of domestic timber could increase significantly. We have to discuss more openly the politics of taking dubiously controlled amounts of timber from rainforests, not to mention the price of hauling such a bulk commodity halfway around the planet."
There could be another future benefit if the subject of climate change moves up a gear… "The 16,000 hectares of forest which I'm responsible for in the South West lock up around 33,000 tonnes of carbon a year," I was told by one Forestry Commission manager.
"To my mind, the forest is one of the habitats of the future – it is robust, it is capable of delivering huge benefits – and here in the South West we've hardly scratched the surface."
It is difficult to argue with that kind of enthusiasm. Perhaps the woodlands of Exmoor – both and ancient and modern – do have a future.