Q – So what is the creation of the Forest of Marston Vale all about?
Answer – Back in 1991, the Forest of Marston Vale was designated as one of England’s twelve Community Forests, with the aim of repairing the damaged landscape left by years of landfill and brick-making. The Marston Vale is the 61 square mile area between Bedford and Milton Keynes, and the plan was to plant millions of trees – taking tree cover from a very low 3% to 30% (about the same as the New Forest) by 2031, transforming the landscape and making the Vale a thriving place to live, work and play.
Q – So who’s behind it all?
Answer – The Forest of Marston Vale was originally established in 1991 by a partnership between the Forestry Commission, Countryside Commission, Bedfordshire County Council, Bedford Borough Council, Mid Bedfordshire District Council and some major private sector companies operating in the area. Early work was done through the local councils, but in 1998 the Forest of Marston Vale Trust was formed as an independent charity (Registered Charity No. 1069229) to take the lead on creating the Forest. The Trust created, owns and operates the Forest Centre and Millennium Country Park, which opened in 2000. Whilst the original public sector partners have over the years supported the Trust through various means, significant financial support stopped around 2007 and all direct funding ceased in 2011.
Q – So how are you funded?
Answer – Through fundraising, from both the public and corporate sponsors, and as a social enterprise via the Forest Centre. This means that any money spent in the Forest Centre (from room hire, weddings, gift shop and Café sales etc) helps to keep the Forest growing and thriving. As a charity, the Forest needs your support to plant more trees and look after it now, and in the future – fundraising and donations will play a vital role in the future legacy of the Forest.
Q- If the Forest of Marston Vale covers 61 square miles, how come I don’t see many trees?
Answer – It’s a Forest in a traditional sense, rather than a modern conifer plantation, which people often refer to as ‘a forest’. Traditionally ‘forest’ referred to a region or large area covering a whole patchwork of villages, fields, woodland, lakes, rivers, water meadows etc. When the Forest of Marston Vale started it had the lowest woodland cover of any Community Forest at only 3% (the national average was 6%). Since then it has increased to around 10% which we are pretty proud of. We have planted over 1 million trees, and though we need to plant another 5 million to achieve our target, we are not looking to ‘cover everywhere in trees’. We just want the Forest of Marston Vale to continue to be a lovely, green place to live, work and play.
Q – What happens in 2031?
Answer – We don’t just stop! Obviously we have a target to achieve, which is 30% tree cover so we will hopefully have achieved that or be very close to it by then. Nobody knows what the future will bring, but we will continue to manage our sites in the Forest to maturity and beyond - harvesting wood for timber, with waste from this becoming biomass for use in energy efficient boilers. Potentially we will still be creating more woodlands, to replace those harvested and carry on benefiting local communities.
Q – Why woodlands?
Answer – There aren’t many other land uses that can have such a diverse range of benefits! Trees help to cool and clean our air, lock up carbon and slow the rate of climate change as well as being one of the richest wildlife habitats in the world (a single mature oak tree can support over 500 species of other plants and animals). They reduce flooding and stabilise water levels, protect and sustain livelihoods and provide valuable raw materials – from timber to firewood to biomass. Woodlands enhance the beauty of the countryside and generate employment, providing opportunities for recreation, and improving the quality of life in and around towns and cities. Green space, particularly woodland, is even known to improve our mental well-being. Woodlands make somewhere a better place to live, work and play. You could call that the magic of trees.
Q – What sort of trees do you plant?
Answer – Virtually all the trees and shrubs that we’ve planted in the Forest recently were grown from seeds collected locally. They are a mixture of species similar to those found naturally in the area and are therefore suited to local conditions and wildlife. About 70% of the woodland is planted with trees and around 10% is planted with shrubs. The remaining 20% of the woodland is not planted at all, but left as open space used to create paths and glades. We look at the planting mix of each site individually, depending on its geography and geology. In the past, we planted a lot of ash but obviously since ash-dieback struck, we don’t plant this anymore. We have mainly planted oak, field maple, willow, silver birch and wild cherry, at our sites, along with shrubs like hazel, hawthorn, dogwood and wild privet around the edges of the woodland. A mixture of trees and shrubs creates a great habitat for many species of wildlife.
Q- How big are the trees when you plant them?
Answer – We plant what are called ‘transplants’ – young trees, about 40-60cm tall – because they are typically more robust and will grow quicker than larger, more mature trees. We know this because in 1993 we tested it out with a circle of oak trees – ranging from a transplant up to a 2.5m oak. Ten years later, the trees grown from transplants were the tallest and healthiest, and had outgrown all of the others!
Q – What happens after they are planted?
Answer - A bit of extra help is always advisable to ensure the young trees get off to a good start, so a weed free area is maintained around each one for the first 3-5 years to reduce competition from other plants for water, light and food. In many situations trees are also at risk of being eaten by rabbits, hares and deer so some form of protection is essential. Plastic spiral ‘shelters’ are fitted around the newly planted trees which expand and continue to offer protection, as the trees grow. A few trees and shrubs die in the first 1-2 years due to the stress of being moved though this ‘failure rate’ is low, at less than 10% and any dead or dying plants are replaced during the first few winters.
Q – Why are the trees planted so close together?
Answer - About 2,000 trees are planted in every hectare of new woodland (a hectare is about the size of 2 football pitches). This means that on average trees are about 2 metres apart; we plant them close together, to encourage them to grow tall and straight by competing with each other. Trees are planted in lines to ensure that they are planted the correct distance apart and so that they can be found in amongst tall vegetation when we are doing maintenance, however, to avoid creating an unnatural grid pattern, these planting lines are curved. Up to 50% of the young trees planted might be removed during the first 25-50 years, a process called ‘thinning’, which is done to improve the structure, landscape and wildlife value of the woodland. Most of the wood created by thinning will be processed into firewood and, if possible, milled into timber for furniture etc.
Q – How long will do they take to grow?
Answer - As the saying goes “from tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow” and of course this takes time. Planting trees is just the beginning and creating woodland is a long term project, but areas will look and feel like a wood much faster than you might think. If you look at the top of a young tree towards the end of the summer, you will see a shiny, bright green length of stem which shows how much the tree has grown during that year. In as little as five years some species will already be well above most people’s heads – silver birch, wild cherry, willow to name a few.
Q – What is the difference between the Forest Centre and the Forest of Marston Vale?
Answer –The Forest Centre is set in the Millennium Country Park, at the heart of the Forest of Marston Vale. It’s the hub of our operation – the home to our Forest team, and the only one of our sites with purpose-built facilities like toilets and the Lakeside Café. All money spent or donated there goes towards helping us to keep the Forest growing and thriving. Sometimes people who aren’t familiar with the area think that the Park is the Forest of Marston Vale and while it is huge (225 hectares) it is only a small part of the overall Forest!