How one landowner joined investors to deliver major forestry project

Edward Milbank - Doddington North, Northumberland

In the words of landowner Edward Milbank, the UK is in “a bit of a pickle” about its forestry. Compared with Scotland, where 10,000 hectares of forest have been planted annually in recent years, England has lagged behind pitifully. Determined to accelerate planting, the UK Government has set a target for growing woodland cover in England from 10% to 12% by 2060 – an increase of a quarter of a million hectares. It’s a challenge to which Edward, who owns the Barningham Estate in the Yorkshire Dales, has responded with a passion. Through his business, Pennine Forestry, he has set out with a small group of investors to focus on afforestation. His largest project to date is to transform the bulk of a 354ha hill farm in Northumberland called Doddington North into a forest. “We bought Doddington in early 2016 in the belief that we could create England’s largest private sector productive woodland planted for 30 years,” explains Edward. By English standards at least, it is an ambitious project that will take 16,000 individual worker-days to complete. By the summer of 2018, the team had planted 25ha, with plans to plant 125ha in each of the next two seasons.

Forest in the autumn

Branching Out

Pennine Forestry has contributed to the project by sourcing the land, taking the project through the myriad consultations required for woodland planting, applying for grants and carbon funding, and assuming responsibility for the establishment of the forest. However, he is confident it will repay the investment. “We have an enormous demand for timber in the UK,” Edward says. “We are the second largest importer of timber in the world after China and we have a great climate for growing trees. “We knew we wanted to increase the amount of woodland Pennine Forestry was managing, and it seemed the right thing to do to go out and buy low-value land to plant for forestry.” At the core of the arrangement with his investors, Pennine Forestry’s interest comes in a profit share of the increased value of the land. These can be 10-, 15- or 20-year arrangements whereby after the process of afforestation Edward will sell his company’s stake in the project to the investor. However, even getting the project off the ground was a challenge because of the potential disruption to public access rights and the impact on biodiversity. “We took the public consultation very seriously,” Edward says. “From the start, we knew there were going to be problems with planting this site. Half of the area was under Countryside and Rights of Way Act access, and we needed to engage and make sure the public were going to be able to access the land and forest in the future.”

The Right Path

He was right about the amount of interest it generated, from local riding and walking groups to a climbing group that has access to the land. Following conversations with these people, his team designed a circular timber track around the site that links into public rights of way. From a challenging starting point, they now have a win-win scenario. “So before the consultation the public had limited access across an overgrown site. In the future there’s going to be 10km of well-maintained roads and tracks for riding, cycling and walking.” As well as local groups, engagement with the Forestry Commission and Natural England was key – particularly getting them to agree to a common objective for the woodlands. “We had to create a biodiversity action plan for species and habitats,” Edward says. “For example, we prioritised a buffer zone for red squirrels. We had to agree how best to plant a riparian woodland for flood alleviation on a tributary to the River Till, and we had to work out how to control invasive species such as bracken and rhododendron to protect the existing priority habitats on site.”

Balancing Act

Maintaining the right balance can be difficult because so much of the UK’s land is designated or protected habitat. But growing up at Barningham, which has both new and mature woodlands, has given Edward a solid understanding of how to manage the ground, particularly for bird species. “I’m very sensitive to the correct management of land to protect those species,” he says. “We have a blackcock lek here at Barningham. It would be unsuitable to plant commercial forestry alongside a blackcock population. But we have been able to design a woodland that is suitable for habitat for blackcock that doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the blackcock population and other birds such as golden plover, peewit and curlew.” One of the great successes of the Doddington project was persuading the stakeholders involved to plant a mixed productive woodland, including a commercial crop of 40% sitka, while 35% is native broadleaves and mixed conifer, and the rest is open ground and managed priority habitats. “This I think is the future for forestry – particularly on designated land.” While most landowners may not have 350ha of land available for afforestation, Edward believes the principles can be applied to smaller landholdings. Barningham itself has patchy areas of woodland in small blocks across the estate – something probably typical for many farmers and landowners.

“We know there is going to be a shortage of timber in the UK. The Forestry Commission forecasts a 30% decline in timber availability in 2030”

Edward Milbank

“These woodland blocks are very difficult to manage, they’re inaccessible, the fences are falling down and they are often forgotten about. We are now increasing our forestry cover and in doing so we are absorbing some of these smaller blocks to make the whole forest, including these smaller outcrops, more manageable, more accessible and more profitable.” Pennine Forestry currently manages a portfolio of six forests in the north of England and southern Scotland and has a handful of ambitious afforestation projects underway on both sides of the border.

Wonders of Woodland

To a large extent, the future of Edward’s business depends on the success of the environmental scheme rolled out in England over the next few years following Brexit. He is encouraged that forestry and woodland will be one of the land options within that scheme, and taking the premise that pubic money is available for public goods, and forestry and woodland provides more public good than many other land uses, it bodes well.

“It does help that I work in an industry that I find inspiring – who’s not inspired by looking at a champion tree? But it is also a business and it makes money and that is an inspiration, too."

Edward Milbank