From Plantagenet hunting parties to the 250,000 ramblers who now stroll among
its ancient trees, Hatfield Forest has coexisted with humanity for generations
without coming to much harm.
But this week the forest, among the last remaining of its type in Europe, faces
what its custodians at the National Trust say is the sternest test yet of its
survival, the ever-increasing thirst for air travel.
The 1,000 acres of woodland and pasture in north Essex stands less than a mile
from Stansted airport, beloved of millions of users of no-frills airlines and
the proposed site for a £2.7bn second runway to cater for a massive expansion of
passengers and aircraft in south-east England.
A public inquiry begins tomorrow into urgent proposals by the British Airport
Authority to expand the permitted number of passengers by 10 million to 35
million a year and flights by more than 20,000 to 264,000 a year.
The present limit of 25 million is expected to be reached by 2008. If the second
runway is built, 68 million passengers are forecast for Stansted by 2030.
But in what will be the most demanding test yet for the Government's plans to
expand aviation, environmental groups and residents say the proposals must be
refused to avoid an increase in pollution which would destroy the forest for
little or no economic gain.
Described as a Stonehenge of the tree world, Hatfield Forest is among the few
surviving havens of ancient woodland in Britain, with nearly 2,000 trees that
are more than 600 years old. From huge oaks to pollarded hornbeams, experts say
it is a vital habitat unchanged since the last Ice Age, and documents show it
was declared a royal hunting forest by Henry I in the 12th century.
But nitrogen levels around the forest generated by air pollution from aircraft
and vehicles is already twice that at which environ-mental damage, including
tree death, is caused, says the National Trust.
Ade Clarke, who manages the forest for the Trust, said: "Hatfield Forest is
internationally important. It is the most complete medieval royal hunting
"It is irreplaceable. Ancient trees cannot react quickly to rapid rises in
nitrogen levels. Even now, we are at a tipping point, so expansion, with all the
extra flights, car journeys and emissions, is a huge threat to the forest's
The woodland includes nearly 900 ancient trees, which have their own
conservation plan. Some are estimated to be 1,200 years old.
The woodland is also home to several hundred species of rare insects, plants and
lichen as well as 65 species of birds.
Campaigners say Hatfield Forest highlights a contradiction in the policies of
the Government, with plans including the construction of new runways at Stansted
and Heathrow to cater for up to 460 million passengers using UK airports in
2020, up from 189 million in 2002. But Labour has vowed to cut carbon emissions
by 60 per cent by 2050. Aviation accounts for 11 per cent of Britain's emissions
and is the fastest-growing contributor. But globally, it produces just 1.6 per
cent of all emissions.
Peter Sanders, chairman of the Stop Stansted Expansion group, said: "There is a
stark clash between warning that global warming is going to destroy the planet
and calmly advocating building another runway at Stansted. It does not stack up
on environmental grounds. Stansted is used as an airport for tourism, in which
Britain now has a £19bn trade imbalance."
The planning inquiry, will last until October. Last year, a decision was made by
the local authority, Uttlesford district council, to reject BAA's original
request to maximise its use of Stansted's present single runway.
If BAA is successful in its appeal, with a decision expected early next year,
passenger numbers will reach the 35 million limit by 2015.
But a decision to maintain the present limit would be a significant setback for
BAA and the Government by challenging the necessity for a second runway.