An ambitious private sector project to plant 600,000 new trees in the North-East countryside has finally got the go-ahead – and is helping to safeguard the future of the red squirrel.

The new forest at Doddington North Moor near Berwick, in Northumberland, will cover 350 hectares – the equivalent of 65 football pitches - and is the first planting of this kind in more than a quarter of a century.

Although the government has set a target of planting twelve million new trees by 2020, Project Manager of the Doddington scheme, Andy Howard, has blamed the difficult processes for getting schemes like this off the ground, and the cost, for the two years it has taken to get approval.

Speaking on Radio Two’s Farming Today programme, he said: “A scheme like this hasn’t been done for 25/30 years because the processes are absolutely appalling. So slow. This project has so far cost just over £100,000, and while the government provided a contribution through one of its grant schemes, it was less than a third of the cost.

“Now, when the risk factor is huge, the cost is enormous, and the chances of success up until now have been very, very small, people just haven’t come forward with schemes. As an industry we have been working very closely with DEFRA to iron out a lot of the problems, and the Donnington project has been an opportunity to tear apart the process, identify where the problems are, and then try to put it back together again in a more workable fashion,” said Andy.

DEFRA has said that it will help speed up the process, with Dr Thérèse Coffey, the Defra minister responsible for forestry, saying that a number of changes to the grants system had been made to make the process quicker and simpler.

She also urged the private sector to bring forward more large-scale productive planting schemes, and voiced her concerns that first-time applications had to be of a higher standard, and challenged the industry to take up more of the money available from Government, especially through the Woodland Carbon Fund.

The saplings – which include a mixture of broadleaf and conifers consisting mainly of spruce, birch, pine and oak – are being sourced from tree nurseries, and the planting itself is going to take three planting seasons, explained Andy.

“We’ve been working with the tree nurseries to identifying what our needs are, and we’re in the middle of one planting season now. We plan to get the first trees in the ground end of March, early April. Then the trees for the next two winters we’ll be pre-ordering from the nurseries so that they can put them into seed beds this coming spring, and have them ready for us over the next two winters.”

The back-breaking work of actually planting 600,000 saplings will be done in the old-fashioned way – by hand.

“Because tree planting in this country has been in decline for so long, the workforce to be able to do this sort of work is also declining, but there is a band of very hardy souls who will be out in the forests all day long planting trees for five/six months of the year.”

The benefits to the local environment are also part of the planning.

Andy said: “The Kylo red squirrel reserve is less than five kms away, and is an area of forestry that is prime for them. The Donnington North site is in their buffer zone, to protect them from grey squirrels, so we’re going to be putting a habitat together which is a home from home for them.”

Going forward, Andy is hopeful that the planting of trees will become easier and more acceptable in different ways.

“There is going to be a change to the subsidy mechanism and that change is going to bring forward the opportunities for planting, - for trees to be seen as an alternative income source, and an alternative use of land that could financially support the land.

“Aside from that, there is research being done, for example at Bangor University, at the moment, looking into the physical benefits that trees on land can have for livestock, in terms of sheltering in extremes of weather, as well as having all the benefits of reducing flooding, stabilising the soil, reducing erosion, and hopefully being a virtuous circle.”

He said: "I’m delighted to have secured the go ahead for the project at Doddington North. Well-designed new forests are fantastic assets for local people and wider society, and, hopefully, us starting to plant trees at Doddington North, and the lessons learnt from the application process, will encourage others to take that important step."