Enchanting forest

In the smallest room of my house, there's a poster identifying native British trees. I can stare at it for hours on end, lost in dreams about planting.

The burden of my dreams has fallen on my daughter, aged four, who cheerfully plants the pips from her apples in pots. This year we've grown 14 trees, some already a foot high. We've also started a kind of “tree ambulance service” – whenever we find seedlings springing up on roadsides we save them from the tree-hating council.

The Flintoff household, however, has just a handkerchief-sized garden. So where are we to put our tiny apple trees, and rescued oaks and ash?

The Sunday Times, in partnership with The Woodland Trust, has provided the solution: an opportunity to take part in creating the largest new continuous native forest in England. The trust has identified 850 acres at Sandridge, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, which already contains three small remnants of ancient woodland totalling 44 acres.

The charity wants to plant 600,000 new trees to buffer those precious zones, creating a showcase for woodland in one of the most densely populated parts of the country. More than 2m people live within 15 miles and there are good transport links to millions more in the capital. Sunday Times readers can play a key part in the project. A £15 contribution will cover the cost of land for one tree, planting it and caring for it for five years. The paper is donating 100 trees. In total, the trust needs to raise £8.5m for the wood.

The trust hopes that as well as contributing on their own behalf, many readers will buy trees for others – for instance, to mark births, deaths and special occasions. Toby Bancroft, project manager at the trust, describes trees as “our greatest antiques, perfect for handing on to the next generation”.

Yet we have not looked after them well. Many people are surprised to learn that Britain is one of the least wooded places in Europe. Less than 12% of the country is covered in trees, compared with a European average of 44%. Only a fifth of the forest that is left is ancient broad-leaved woodland.

To be called ancient, woodland needs to have been around for at least 400 years. Before this, planting of new woods was rare, so one that was present in 1600 was likely to have developed naturally. In some cases they form the last link with the original wildwood that covered Britain after the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago.

Reforesting the country has been an objective since 1919, when the Forestry Commission was set up to reestablish the national timber reserve; but that did not protect ancient woodland. More than half of ancient woodland has been lost since the 1930s.

Right up to the 1980s, thousands of acres of ancient woodland were replanted with imported commercial conifer species – fast-growing for an easy harvest. As a result, communities of plants and animals were devastated. Today, ancient woodland covers only 2% of the country.

Much of it is fragmented; eight out of 10 sites are smaller than 50 acres and almost half are under 12 acres. The site at Sandridge is large enough to improve significantly the viability of endangered species in the pockets of ancient woodland already there.

Take the dormouse. This amiable creature tends not to travel well over land but to use tree-tops. If there are not enough trees connected to each other, the dormouse population is limited and isolated – which can lead to problems associated with inbreeding or can kill off the mice.

As well as dormice, the enlarged wood will quickly provide a rich habitat for small mammals such as voles and pygmy shrews. Barn owls and other predators are likely to follow. Badger setts have already been found in the area.

One of the fragments of ancient woodland on the site, Langley Wood, largely comprises oak and hornbeam pollards. There is also wild cherry and field maple.

In spring, the wood attracts wildlife enthusiasts looking for wood anemones and bluebells. Until now, it has not been possible to reach Langley Wood from the ancient footpath that passes nearby – but the newly enlarged wood will join them.

As well as providing peaceful places to walk, and for the local scout troop, among others, to find adventure, woods clean the air, lock up carbon, and reduce flooding. They can also generate an income through sustainable coppicing and pollarding and carbon offsetting.

After announcing its plans to acquire the site, the trust held a public meeting last week. Twice as many people turned up as it had space for. Several people, out walking their dogs, collared Bancroft while I strolled with him, eager to talk about the exciting plans and ask when the next public meeting will be.

The scheme has to be carefully assessed. Will trees spoil the view? Will they have an adverse impact on the water table? And what about archeological sites? The adjacent Nomansland Common dates from the palaeolithic period (between 450,000BC and 10,000BC). There are mesolithic tools, and bronze age burial mounds.

Bancroft is confident such problems can be suitably addressed, and he has a vision of mass participation in the creation of the new wood. “We can engage a large number of people through tree planting, seed collection and growing, educational events and other activities,” he says.

This is no idle dream: since 2004, the trust's Tree for All campaign has involved nearlya million children in planting more than 5m native trees.

The trust will not be planting 600,000 trees at once, because one bad year could kill them (the average failure rate is about one tree in 15). Instead, it will convert the farmland gradually over a period of five years.

The planting will not begin until this autumn, when broad-leaved trees are dormant. It may not even start in earnest before next year.

We can hardly wait. Can we bring along the trees we've rescued, and the others grown from pips? Of course, he said – as long as they're native.

1020 words. First published 10 August 2008. © Times Newspapers Ltd.