Bare root sapling freshly planted into the ground

Getting to the root of growing the Forest

30 May 2023
by Ben Bek, Assistant Forest Ranger

The charity continues to grow and protect England’s largest new native woodland, with two million trees now planted in the Forest, as part of the array of habitats to boost biodiversity.

In total we have now planted over 2,100,000 trees since the charity started and created 4,685 acres of new woodland amongst the 7,000 acres of mixed Forest habitat. Between October 2022 and March 2023, we expanded the woodland cover in the Forest by planting 127,748 trees across ten sites, creating a total of 233 acres of new woodland.

Trees – the planting mix in the Forest

History and slow growers

All of the trees and shrubs we plant in the Forest are native or naturalised broadleaf deciduous species, sympathetic to the local environment and consistent with the local historic woodland landscape. The selection of species is informed by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s National Vegetation Classification, which is based on analysis of thousands of samples of recent and ancient woods across Britain. This information allows us to understand which species would have historically been dominant in the local area, and therefore which species are most likely to prosper in the specific local environment.

Based on this information, our planting mix is dominated by English oak (Quercus robur) and supplemented by other slow growing high forest trees such as, hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), and small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata). The latter, although less prevalent in many woods these days, was once a far more dominant tree in the British landscape.

A mature English oak in the Summer
English oak

What about ash?

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) would traditionally have also featured prominently in the local landscape, but sadly the ash trees across the whole of Britain are suffering a decline due to the fungal disease ash dieback. Due to this, they have been partly replaced in our planting mix by sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), a naturalised tree which serves a similar role in the forest ecosystem, and by increasing the numbers of hornbeam and small leaved lime.

Looking up into the sparse crown of ash trees

Faster growing tree species (nurse trees)

In addition to these slow-growing high forest trees, a variety of faster growing nurse trees are also planted, such as birch (Betula pendula) and aspen (Populus tremula). These pioneer species can provide shade, shelter, and nutrition for the soil as they drop their leaves in the winter, thus protecting and encouraging the growth of the slower growing trees, expediting the establishment of a woodland ecosystem.

The inclusion of water-loving trees such as willow (Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea) and alder (Alnus glutinosa) also allows us to adapt the planting plan to suit the local topography/ground conditions.

A close up of healthy green aspen leaves

Fruiting trees and shrubs

In contrast to standard commercial forestry practice where trees are planted in straight rows to facilitate easy maintenance and extraction of the timber crop, the vast majority of our plantations are designed to replicate the organic character of natural woodland, with clusters of each tree species planted in random spacing throughout.

Take a look at this year’s before and after planting video:


The parkland style planting at Arrow Mill and Little Dorsington features sparsely planted groups of trees interspersed with individual trees. This allows for large open areas of grassland which can in time be grazed by our livestock. The open aspect can also help preserve existing views for our visitors and neighbours.

The inclusion of small glades, generous headlands, and wide forest rides with scalloped edges, means that our plantations comprise a variety of habitats which encourage biodiversity, and provide vital food and pollen sources for local wildlife.

2022 / 2023 – how many trees did we plant?
33,000 at Spernal Hall Farm

11,500 at Perry Mill 

41,000 at Dorsington

28,500 at Dodwell

12,500 at Netherstead

200 were planted at Arrow Mill and 300 at Little Dorsington in parkland style, expanding existing plantations at these two sites.
Becky, Biodiversity Intern, crouching down next and smiling next to a newly planted sapling.

Tree maintenance and management

This year, for the first time at the Heart of England Forest, the majority of our newly planted trees have been protected using biodegradable, plastic-free tubes, a huge step in reducing the amount of plastic within the Forest. Find out more about our sustainable planting.

Help the Forest grow 

It is vital that we manage and conserve the land we have for people and wildlife for generations to come. If you would like to be a part of our continued growth and conservation efforts in the coming seasons, you can support our work creating a Forest that will be here for life by donating, dedicating a tree, or  leaving a legacy that will help the planet for years to come.