Celebrating 100 years of the Forestry Commission — and 10 of the finest walks on the land they manage

Celebrations are underway for the centenary of the Forestry Commission, which was created in September 1919 in a bid to promote forestry and woodland across the country.

September marks the 100th anniversary of the Forestry Commission and a packed calendar of events is at the heart of the celebrations.

The Commission, which now works through two arms, Forestry Research and Forestry England Forestry England, was established with the Forestry Act of September 1919. The First World War had taken a huge toll and Britain’s woodland cover was at a meagre 5%. Thus, the new body was tasked with creating and managing state-owned forests and developing forestry across the country. Two months later, in December, the first trees — beech and larch — were planted at Eggesford Forest in Devon.

In the following years, the Commission quickly expanded its estate, first when it began to manage the Royal woods, including the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, in 1923, then when it created vast expanses of new woodland, including Western Europe’s largest man-made forest at Kielder, in Northumberland, in 1926.

By 1929, the estate totalled 600,000 acres, of which just under a fourth had been planted by the Commission. But another landmark was soon to be reached — the first National Forest Park opened to the public in Argyll in 1935, nurturing the British tradition of enjoying the great outdoors.

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A walk around a windy & wet Kielder

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The Second World War once again put pressure on Britain’s woodland but it also had the unexpected side effect of promoting the role of women in forestry: a shortage of male staff saw the Lumber Jills (more formally known as the Women’s Timber Corps) formed in 1942 (although the first female forester would only be appointed in 1976).

In 1956, the Commission acquired one of the biggest jewels in its crown, when it took stewardship of the Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire — today, one of Britain’s most loved attractions. That very same year, the Commission’s one millionth acre was planted, with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh both planting a tree at Eggesford Forest, where it had all begun.

Meanwhile, the role of woodland started changing across the UK and the Commission reflected this by appointing its first landscape consultant (in 1963) and wildlife officer (in 1964) and giving the public unlimited access to public forests (also in 1964). In 1977, a group of artists-in-residence was invited at Grizedale Forest to create new work, marking the beginning of a fruitful co-operation that continues to this day. Later, the Commission expanded its focus to conservation and sustainability, with the public forest estate becoming the UK’s largest supplier of sustainable wood in 1999.

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Look what I found in the forest!! 🌳🌲😍

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There were also difficult years — in 1975, Dutch elm disease proved unstoppable, killing more than 20 million elms across the country by 1980, and, in 1976, an intense summer drought sparked fires that also destroyed millions of trees. Then in 1987, the Great Storm felled another 50 million — in some places, like the Weald and Suffolk Forest Districts, it took down the equivalent of ten years’ worth of felling.

Now, however, the Commission’s Forestry England arm has become ‘the largest single provider of outdoor recreation in England,’ with more than 1,800 miles of waymarked walks and mountain biking trails, plus Go Ape sites, forest cabin stays and a wide range of events — particularly this year.

Among others, the centenary celebrations include the planting of a new tree avenue at Eggesford on December 9 — exactly 100 years after the first trees were planted there — with more glades being created across the rest of the country; the screening of The Custody Code, a film installation by artist Amanda Loomes, which shares stories from a working forest and is being shown at Kielder until December 1; and the hosting of a series of 10-kilometre (about 6.2-mile) runs across forest trails.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has also written a new poem to honour forests, two writers, Zakiya Mckenzie and Tiffany Francis, are creating new tree-inspired work after having spent summer in Forestry England’s woods and members of the public can post their tribute to beloved trees on the agency’s website

Forestry England is also using the centenary as an opportunity to highlight how spending time in a forest can improve mental health and wellbeing. People are encouraged to take part in the Big Forest Find — England’s largest survey of forest wildlife — or simply take a walk in their nearest wood.

Discover Forestry England’s top ten autumn walks

1. The autumn trail at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire
2. The Be Here Now trail at Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest in Kent
3. Walk the Tall Trees trail at the New Forest’s Blackwater in Hampshire
4. Dales Wood trail at Fineshade Wood in Northamptonshire
5. The Adderson Rigg trail at Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire
6. High Lodge trail at Thetford Forest on the Norfolk to Suffolk borders
7. The Broomfield Loop at Jeskyns Community Woodland in Kent
8. The Look Out at the Moors Valley Country Park in Dorset
9. The Buzzard trail at Wyre Forest in Worcestershire
10. The Tarn Trail at Grizedale Forest in the Lake District