When the farmhouse and farmland of High Ewebank were sold in the 1960s, the land on the fell, between the hamlet and the road to Tan Hill, was bought by a private company and planted with conifers. From the end of the First World War, when timber for the trenches was in perilously short supply, British governments were keen to encourage the growth of timber crops in the uplands of England, Wales and Scotland.
Until the late 1980s tax breaks allowed the costs of purchasing and running conifer plantations to be set against personal income tax and many wealthy individuals – including personalities like Terry Wogan and Cliff Richard – were lured into making investments. Many of the projects were ill-advised, leading to the drying up of peatlands that supported a wide variety of wildlife and kept water from flowing too quickly into rivers downstream. In Scotland quite a few of the areas of new conifer plantation are being actively restored to their earlier state, both for habitat restoration purposes and flood alleviation.
The plantation above High Ewebank remains in private hands. Cultivation conditions on this windswept North Pennine fellside were never ideal, with the trees growing too slowly and too close together to produce high quality building timber. Gales have often brought whole groups of trees crashing down like dominos, sometimes across the forest tracks. The shallowness of the roots is all too evident.
Meanwhile a mono-culture environment has created a fairly barren wildlife habitat, with bare dry ground between the trees, scattered only with pine cones and needles, and simple grassland in the narrow firebreaks between the stands or where the limestone escarpment has been too steep for planting.
About half of the plantation has been clear-felled in the last ten years or so. Although the cutting process is brutal and creates an unsightly mess, views that have not been seen for decades suddenly reopen. Before long nature moves in and the land sprouts with flowers and shrubs, creating, if only for a few short years, a haven for moths and butterflies. Replanting with broadleaved trees around the edges, now required by law, softens the look of the plantation from the surrounding countryside.
Early attempts to replant the conifers were thwarted by swarms of rabbits, who gratefully nibbled all the young saplings, aided and abetted by sheep who could break through the fences rather too easily. It is, apparently, not worth protecting conifers with tubing as the broadleaved saplings are. To deal with the problem the forest management company put up more fences, with chicken wire at the bottom, and planted again. Most of these were eaten too. The company finally resorted to a ruthless programme of rabbit eradication. We understand that nearly 200,000 saplings were lost before a new crop was finally able to grow.
Today the first clear-felled areas now have conifers standing between three and six feet high, while some of the broadleaved trees, including rowan, oak and beech, have reached nearly twice that height. Because the newly planted conifers have been delayed they are interspersed with scrub, bushes and grasses that have had time to establish, although whether much will survive once the conifers cast their shade over the ground is questionable.
Before the felling the conifer woodland did have an atmospheric feel, particularly in winter under a blanket of snow, when entering it from High Ewebank was like going into a long dark tunnel. Although it was not the best of wildlife habitats, the trees provided food and refuge for families of red squirrels and we would often see deer in the occasional clearings. We continue to go up the track from High Ewebank from time to time as the tank for our spring water supply is in the plantation. It is still a pleasurable walk but the mood of the place is definitely changed; it requires a leap of imagination to see it as the enclosed, almost claustrophobic, space it once was.
The red squirrels have not given up on the place entirely, but it is a longer stretch now from the ancient woodland by the river to the fully grown trees of the plantation, where food and cover can be found. We used to see them quite regularly bounding up the dry stone walls. As well as changes in the plantation it is possible that a successful campaign to control the grey squirrels in the valley has given them back territory that they were previously being hounded out of. If so, then it is all for the best, but we do miss seeing them.
Aerial RAF photographs from the 60s and 70s that we initially researched to find the old packhorse trails from High Ewebank show the new forest management tracks being carved through the hillside. They appear as bright clean cuts across the moorland. These are the tracks we use now on our visits to our spring water tank. They extend like tendrils into every part of the plantation, with one reaching up to the Tan Hill road and providing the main entrance into it. Not being Forestry Commission owned, none of these tracks are open to the public and indeed the gates at either end are padlocked. For most, this is a hidden and cut-off world.