The Origins of Friends of Quantock

In 1952 a book was published by Berta Lawrence entitled Quantock Country. In it she describes the origins of Friends of Quantock. She, like many others, was distressed by a proposal in 1949 to lease 1,200 acres for re-afforestation. She wrote that

Arguments about the need for home-produced softwoods cut little ice with men who saw vanishing for ever their right to let flocks or ponies graze upon the hills, their right to cut furze, firewood, ferns and heather.

At one time they used heather for thatching sheds and even cottages, put furze through the chaff-cutter to feed to calves, cut ferns in abundance for bedding cattle. Another most valuable prerogative was the gathering and selling of whortleberries.

The disappearance or barring of paths, the loss of “rights of way”, soil erosion after felling, all these were feared and justifiably so.

To combat the proposals a society called Friends of Quantock was formed, and further supported by many lovers of the hills who had no axe to grind whatever.

Serious damage in lovely Hodder’s Combe stiffened the Society’s resistance to further afforestation. It is true that the hills contain much worthless oak-scrub, that the hardwoods there have long needed skilled attention and new planting for they themselves are a potential source of wealth.

But, ever since re-afforestation, huge numbers of the native oaks, beeches, ashes and chestnuts have been carted away wholesale and replaced by phalanxes of dismal conifers for the making of poles and pit-props.

On aesthetic grounds, no less than practical, the change is deplorable – twisting red track and time-worn pathways disappear, so do the rowans, the silver birches, the wild flowers, the birds and animals who lived in the native woodlands, for only pigeons, jays and goldcrests seem to like the gloomy conifer woods. Roads to carry traffic are laid through tranquil combes.

By the efforts of the Society a tree-felling order by the Ministry stopped felling in Hodder’s Combe.

Fortunately, the aims and aspirations of the Forestry Commission have changed in the intervening years. Their website states:

“Increasing woodland creation in England is in line with our aspiration of 12% cover by 2060: this would involve planting 180,000 hectares by the end of 2042.

…..We will increase tree planting by creating new forests and native woodlands, and incentivising extra planting on private and the least productive agricultural land, where appropriate.

Trees and forests provide a unique blend of social, economic and environmental benefits. However it is important to make sure that the right trees – in terms of biosecurity, value for money, air quality impact and biodiversity among other criteria – are planted in the right places, in line with the UK Forestry Standard.

In spite of such assurances, the Quantock Hills need our vigilance and protection as much today as when Berta Lawrence was writing over 60 years ago.

This article was previously published in the 2020 Friends of Quantock Magazine, available only to members. Join Friends of Quantock online today!