The Westcountry is known for its verdant landscapes but now the Western Morning News can exclusively reveal that the region has nearly a quarter more woodland and forest than previously thought.
The WMN has been given access to a new report by the Forestry Commission which reveals that the South West has 22 per cent more forest than previously known, increasing the total area by 45,030 hectares to 251,638 hectares. It means that more than 11 per cent of our landscapes are covered in woodlands – the figure previously stood at just under nine per cent tree-cover.
The increase has come to light thanks to a greater accuracy in research techniques – modern aerial camera and mapping equipment is able to detect many more smaller broadleaf forests than was the case when the last census report was published in 1998.
The latest figures are all part of an ongoing country-wide survey being carried out by the National Forest Inventory which was set up in 2009 and employs the use of high resolution aerial photography and cutting edge satellite technology.
The Forestry Commission team also relies on ground-based research and its work is now described as the most robust scientific evidence on forests in British history.
It's all part of an initiative to place the forestry industry higher on the national agenda – the Westcountry might have more woodlands than previously thought but the UK remains far behind most other northern European countries when it comes to the number of trees we grow.
"Up until now we haven't had facts and figures to put our case as an industry in front of the decision makers or the public in general," says Ben Ditchburn, head of the National Forest Inventory. "We aim to re-profile forestry so people can understand the value of our woodlands and see what they can do for the country."
In extrapolating the Westcountry figures contained in the report, Mr Ditchburn said that just under a third of this region's forested area – some 32 per cent – is made up of 40,647 smaller woodlands and copses, each less than 10 hectares in size. The largest 363 forests (woodlands covering over 100 hectares) in the South West including places like Haldon Forest and Fernworthy account for 28 per cent of the total forest area. Of the remaining 3,813 Westcountry woodlands, 40 per cent falls into the small to medium 10 to 100 hectare size.
Mr Ditchburn said: "The results for the South West show that the area has a unique rural heritage, with many smaller broadleaved woods evenly distributed across the landscape, reflecting many centuries of Celtic land management principles. There is also a definite trend of trees being older in the region than compared to the national average, indicating different approaches to woodland management.
"What this report shows is that the people of the South West are still in touch with nature and many know how to look after their forests from small local woodlands to large forest landscapes."
Analysis of aerial photographs shows that 66 per cent of our woodland is predominantly broadleaf, whilst 24 per cent is conifer and 8 per cent is in transition (the remaining two per cent are uncertain).
Ongoing surveys of forests on the ground are further refining these estimates.
The National Forest Inventory is compiled using 240,000 high-resolution aerial photographs taken at 10,000 feet and covers the length and breadth of Great Britain to provide fine detail mapping information. The latest satellite imaging technology was introduced in 2009 to provide up to date information on changes in land use and tree felling.
"What I'm keen to do is provide facts as to how much of this resource there is out there and look at the possible growth of the forestry industry," said Mr Ditchburn. "For example people might ask: can we have another sawmill on the back of this information? Are there more opportunities for bio-mass and wood-fuel production?
"I wouldn't be surprised if you don't see a new sawmill in the Westcountry," he added. "A lot of this is about investment in the rural economy in an area like the South West.