The National Forest for Wales

Coed Cwm Einion

Today, at COP26, world leaders made a historic pledge to halt global deforestation by 2030. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use could be transformative in restoring balance with nature but it requires action not just words. Maybe the new National Forest for Wales can provide an inspiration and roadmap for how to achieve the pledge. Here’s an essay from the Liminal Forest exploring the National Forest for Wales concept.

Coed Cwm Einion, one of a small collection of ancient Atlantic Rainforests that can be found on the western edges of Wales, has prospered for centuries because its intimidating terrain that hugs the craggy valley sides near the mouth of the Afon Einion made it damn near inaccessible. Technically speaking, I was walking in Tilio-Acerion woodland, predominantly comprising small-leaved lime trees that grow in the rocky sites of the ravine and where ash and wych elm also grow.

Coed Cwm Einion was considered one of the best examples of this very rare type of woodland. It also was home to sessile oak, rowan and downy birch – ancient semi-natural mixed broad-leaved woodland that provide a home to a rich mix of biodiversity. These included 177 species of lichen (including the very rare Parmotrema robustum which looks like a cross between kelp and some lettuce that you’ve left in the bottom of the fridge for too long) and more than 150 species of mosses and liverworts. Lichen is often referred to as the coral of the rainforest such is its importance in supporting biodiversity. After some digital detective work, I deduced that the spongey, vibrantly green forest floor also consisted of marsh hawk’s-beard, Tunbridge filmy-fern and hay-scented buckler fern.

Amid this tapestry of ancient trees and the plant life below them the Einion river rushed through, bubbling and breaking into white foam as it encountered the many rocks and boulders in its path. Some of the larger oaks had grown out to hang over the river and touch their neighbours on the other side – the trees providing the river with a surrealist guard of honour.

Coed Cwm Einion looked majestic and magical to my untrained eye but actually it was slowly being nursed back to health after many decades of neglect, overgrazing and suffering under the yoke of invasive species that bully natural ecology (Rhododendron ponticum being a major culprit). The woodland was part of a seven million-pound multi-year ancient forest conservation and restoration initiative. And it was a prime example of the type of woodland that the new National Forest for Wales aimed to nurture and protect.

The National Forest was a bold strategy to embed an appreciation of nature and biodiversity at the very heart of what it meant to be Welsh. The idea was to create a connected ecological network throughout the country that would provide people with easy access to woodlands and forests wherever they lived and to protect, restore and grow tree cover and biodiversity to help combat climate change and species extinction.

The multi-year plan involved planting new forests and restoring ancient woodlands with an emphasis on nurturing native deciduous trees, breathing new biodiversity life into the hedges and edgerows that line the countryside and working with the farming community to improve tree cover on their land. It also aimed to educate communities and schools about the importance of nature and create a network of walks, trails and paths that will connect people to the forests and woodlands of Wales – some huge expanses like Wentwood, Brechfa and Bwlch Nant yr Arian along with other small woods like here in Cwm Einion.

The National Forest plan couldn’t have come at a more important time for Wales. Just 20 percent of the Welsh landscape had any tree cover (compare that to nearly 30 percent on average in mainland Europe). Only 15 percent was actual woodland – the remainder a hodgepodge of agricultural landscapes, urban areas and transport corridors that, while still valuable, didn’t deliver nearly the same degree of environmental benefits as intertwined woodlands could.

Even as the government was pledging £15 million over the next five years to bring the National Forest idea to life its own State of Natural Resources annual report was sounding the alarm – warning that Wales was using up its natural resources, including rivers, forests and farmland, at a completely unsustainable rate. In fact, it wrote, if everyone on Earth used natural resources at the same rate as Wales, two and a half planets would be needed. A complete rethink of our food, transport and energy systems was required but also individuals needed to come to terms with the impact the way they lived was having on nature.

Education was going to be an important part of helping people, young and old, reconnect with nature but so was the experience of being outdoors. And that experience had to be enjoyable even if sometimes it also would be challenging. That had been my goal in setting off on this walk – to map one route for a National Forest that would be enjoyable and also an achievement. Now that I had made it this far – some 150 miles of connected woodland walking from the start point in Wentwood forest – I was more determined than ever to complete the plan, even though my legs ached, my ankle felt bruised and my back had all the flexibility of a slab of Welsh slate.

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