If you go down to the woods today... you might find a school, a photographer’s studio, or a carpenter’s workshop. Britain’s forests are getting a new lease of life
In the stillness of autumn, the only sound on the old Saxon road is the gentle tapping of beech nuts falling on a carpet of terracotta-coloured leaves. “You must meet Robert Cunningham – he’s tremendous,” says Kathy Harris, pausing to touch the huge trunk of a venerable beech tree. Harris knows all the ancient trees in this 25-acre wood as individuals. There is also a decaying ash called Cecelia and a beech with two trunks: one has thrown out a limb to fuse with the other, like twins holding hands. There are badgers, rare bats, otters and water rails. A bonfire crackles with burning holly and, as dusk falls, a tawny owl hoots.
Harris is one of a growing number of small woodland owners in Britain – a market for resellers, who buy big forests and subdivide them into “affordable” four- or five-acre plots. One, woodlands.co.uk, has sold more than 625 plots in the past four years. Prices range from £39,000 for six acres in Wales to £95,000 for a similar plot in Hampshire. The reasons for becoming a woodlander are varied and often idealistic, but the Mark Twain quote “Buy land – they’re not making it any more” usually lurks somewhere in the background. Large forests may be the preserve of tax-dodging multimillionaires (if a wood is managed commercially, harvesting timber, it is exempt from inheritance tax), but most woodlanders are a long way from being able to run a commercial operation.
Harris’s motivation is more altruistic than most. In 2003, her 12-year-old son, Louis, died of leukaemia. During his long illness, she struggled to find places to take Louis and his two older brothers; with his depleted immune system, he couldn’t enjoy crowded amusement parks or busy beaches. After he died, Harris wanted to provide a place of peace, privacy and fun for other terminally ill children. She had spent much of her adult life running a research station for ecologists in east Africa’s Rift Valley and wanted to help protect the environment back home, too. After a year of searching, her eldest son, Joe, spotted 25 acres of boggy wood for sale three miles from their home in Norfolk. “We drove down. It just grabbed me by the ankles and I bought it.”
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