A new long distance trail which aims to attain the status of footpaths such as the Cotswold Way and the South West Coastal Path is due to open next year, opening up beautiful and diverse areas of the Midlands to keen and weekend walkers.
The trail will wind its way through some of the 200 square miles of the National Forest taking walkers 70 miles across diverse landscapes, with the chance to make detours onto smaller local routes enabling them to explore villages and attractions of interest along the way.
Core sponsor of the National Forest Way is Fisher German which has been working with the National Forest company since its formation in 1995, with funding going towards installing and repairing stiles and providing waymarking.
Simon Evans, director of operations at the National Forest Company explained the thinking behind the trail.
“We’re creating an experience. The trail tells the story of the forest as the walkers travel through the various landscapes. It covers six zones – two areas of ancient forest Needwood and Charnwood, the Trent Valley, productive farmland, former coalfields and woodland. It showcases what the National Forest is about. Ardent walkers may want to tackle the whole 70 miles in two days. Others may want to dip into it and take bites out of it. Local walks of between three and ten miles loop off the spine route offering access to villages and other places of interest which they may want to explore.
“It's a visitor attraction like our Discovery Centre at Conkers and our heritage and wildlife sites. It’s part of the outdoor experience.”
The precise route is still being finalised and discussions are continuing with landowners, but the walk will begin at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and finish in Leicestershire’s Charnwood Forest.
It trail will be officially launched in 2014 at the annual National Forest Walking Festival in May, which sees people take part in guided walks along 100 different routes across the area.
Fisher German’s long standing work with the National Forest Company is wide ranging, with its sponsorship really being an acknowledgment of the ambitious work being carried out by an organisation which is creating an area of environmental biodiversity and an attractive landscape for locals and visitors, as well as bringing economic benefits to the region.
One of its many roles involves identifying land for sale within the 200 square miles, or 50,000 ha, of National Forest.
“Fisher German are our eyes and ears in helping us with land acquisition. We own 220 ha at the moment and have the ability to own up to 300 ha at any one time,” explained Simon.
“When we have bought land they will tell us how best to manage it, arrange farming tenancies and licences for grassland management. They will give us advice on practical ways to look after it.
“They also advise us on agricultural issues. There is often time lag between land purchase and creating habitats, paths and woodland, and we may phase development over three years or more. We look to create farm business tenancies to help manage the land until its ready to be planted up.”
“Usually we buy sites, develop them and then sell them on to the Forestry Commission, Woodlands Trust or local authority and now Fisher German is looking into the possibility of leasing sites out as well.”
Head of Forestry, Matthew Brocklehurst, added: “Our original remit was to link the ancient hunting forests of Needwood and Charnwood and ancient woodland in Melbourne. We’re creating a forest environment and landscape for visitors, restoring degraded landscapes, which have been excavated for clay and coal, and improving wildlife habitats. A lot of work is involved in restoring former collieries and mineral sites to improve public access and enjoyment for everybody.”
So far eight million trees have been planted to create 400 woodlands across the 50,000 ha forest – increasing forest cover from 6% in 1995 to its current level of 19%.
The NFC is funded predominantly by DEFRA, with additional support from the Lottery Fund and local authorities. It also generates revenue by a number of enterprising means – accepting legacy bequests, through corporate sponsorship from companies wanting to fulfill their Corporate Social Responsibility role and via a plant a tree gift scheme to individuals.
In turn, a chunk of the DEFRA funded is given out in grants to landowners in exchange for improving the forest’s habitat.
While the idea and execution of the three different grant schemes is very much Matthew’s baby, Fisher German plays a role in identifying potential recipients for the money, which is available only for land falling within the National Forest boundary.
The Changing Landscapes Scheme offers 100% funding to owners of more than a hectare to create new woodlands and associated habitats including parkland, meadows, unimproved grassland, orchards, hedgerows and wetlands and its management for 10 years.
The Freewoods Scheme is aimed at those with less than a hectare interested in creating a small woodland to fit in around continued farming activity and other land uses.
And the Parkland and Wood Pasture Scheme is aimed at town parks or large gardens of between 0.25 and five hectares and supports more sparse planting of trees in an urban or paddock settings.
Matthew is also the driver behind a new website created to promote wood products and services across the National Forest area – to help landowners and local wood related businesses and to enable members of the public to source local services and products with the aim of stimulating the woodland economy.
“We also need to be aware of the ever present reality of pests and diseases, which are currently hitting the headlines. This is something we are monitoring and we are mapping outbreaks as they occur and providing guidance and information to landowners.”
“Fisher German play a very important role in our work, offering us guidance and support in many intertwined ways. They are very positive, productive and supportive,” added Matthew.