The Future of Woodlands

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To all of us involved in woodlands and woodland management, the last few months have been a time of great uncertainty.  First of all we had uncertainty over the future of the Forestry Commission and its relationship to other public bodies.  Was it going to remain or be abolished?  And what would its future functions be?
Then we had the planned sale of publicly-owned woodland that was to include not only the large timber plantations, but also woodland of huge value for biodiversity and wildlife, and woodlands around the country enjoyed by very large numbers of people and which provide an opportunity to enjoy the countryside to many from towns and cities around the UK.  A consultation was launched, but this seemed to focus only on the criteria for the sale, rather than whether the sale should take place at all.  This caused a huge outcry, not the least from the very charitable and conservation bodies who were expected to take over the management of these important habitats, as well as countless members of the public who felt that their access rights would be restricted, and the habitat value allowed to decline.
Then we had an announcement that a planned sale for this year was to be halted pending the results of the above consultation.  Finally we had an announcement that the consultation itself was to be halted, along with the sale, and the legal provisions to allow sales of more than 15% of the estate were to be withdrawn and the establishment of a new panel to look at the future of all woodlands and forests, not just those in public ownership.
So where does that put the future of forests, woodlands, and the role of the Forestry Commission now?
The most important thing about this episode is that people around the country have become really engaged in, and supportive of, their local woodlands.  This seems like a great opportunity to have a proper debate about the future of woodlands, and indeed all important wildlife habitats, in the UK.
To me it seems that there are a number of important issues that need to be addressed.
It is quite clear that we need an integrated plan for not just woodlands, but the environment and biodiversity to cover all types of land, not just that in public ownership.  The vast majority of woodland and forests that people enjoy on a daily basis, and that provide important habitat for wildlife, are not in public ownership – they are owned by a number of different individuals, companies and bodies including local councils and private landowners, some who manage the land well, other who do not.
The question of who owns what therefore seems much less important than who does what – in other words, how the woodland and habitat is managed rather than whose name is on the deeds at the Land Registry.  Public woodland is already well-managed by the Forestry Commission, but what about the huge estate that is owned and managed, or mismanaged, by others?  How can that woodland be better managed for biodiversity, and better access secured for people.
The landscape of the UK has been managed for thousands of years, and countless species rely on human management for the survival of their habitat.  Woodland needs management, as do other habitats, or they will gradually decline, and biodiversity will decline along with it.  Lack of management is a huge threat to woodlands and other wildlife habitats across the UK.  Alongside this is the fact even where woodlands and wildlife habitats are managed, this is not necessarily integrated, even between adjoining sites.
Our own woodland, for example, is supported by the Forestry Commission.  Adjoining arable land is managed under stewardship schemes via Natural England.  Across the canal is a SSSI managed in part by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and in part by Warwickshire County Council.  It adjoins farmland on both sides of the canal managed by a variety of owners, and land being managed to encourage wildlife by Polesworth Abbey.  But this is not joined-up.  Money comes from different pots, and those behind the different pots have different agendas.
The question is, therefore, how do we make sure that the countryside is managed appropriately, so that it can provide the food we need, the wood we need, the recreational opportunities we need and the habitat and biodiversity that we must protect?  This cannot rely on publicly-owned woodland, or the national parks, important though they are.  It has to take a wider view.  Management for habitat and biodiversity costs money to whoever owns the land:  money for equipment, personnel, time, money to cover damage, vandalism and theft, and sometimes for lost production while the land is converted to different use – trees take a long time to grow and generate income.
There are local projects, such as the Tame Valley Partnership, that draw together a wide range of organisations and landowners.  But what we really need is a proper countryside and wildlife service that covers all habitats including woodland and forests, to ensure that the support that is given for habitat and biodiversity management is integrated, consistent, and includes advice, grants and training.
It has been clear from the recent campaign to save our woodlands that public access to the countryside is valued.  However public access is not simply a question of removing fences and letting people get on with it.  Fences may be there for a good reason (exclusion of deer, for example).  Some areas may need staff on site to provide first aid, maps, and assistance.  Owners need to prevent theft and vandalism and unauthorised use by motorcycles and 4 x 4 vehicles, or unauthorised occupation by travellers.  Parking facilities may need to be provided.  Control of dogs may be important for livestock.  Prevention of unauthorised shooting or poaching can be a problem for those seeking to protect wildlife.  Access means maintaining fences, stiles, wheelchair surfaces, tracks, bridges, pond dipping platforms and pathways.  Some sensitive wildlife may require exclusion of people or CCTV monitoring to prevent disturbance, or theft of eggs.  All this costs money and requires staff too, whether the land is publicly or privately-owned.  We cannot open our own wood all the time without somebody on site – so we have scheduled, and well-supported, open days, evening walks, and activities for community groups throughout the year, but not open access 24/7/365.  Owners who want to provide access need support to make it possible, so that woodland and countryside outside the public ownership domain can be made accessible to all.
We have found the Forestry Commission to be extremely helpful in the provision of advice, and grants, to support our work in getting our woodland back into management and to develop it for wildlife and as a community resource.  But all around us we see un-managed or under-managed woodland that is slowly deteriorating.  A future role of a countryside and wildlife service must be to get this woodland back under management, whoever owns it.  It also needs to ensure that management with a primary objective of timber production is sensitive to the needs of wildlife, just as there is a need to ensure that farming is done in a way that minimises impact on wildlife and improves biodiversity, while maintaining the ability to generate an income for the farmers concerned.  Finally, it needs to ensure that owners are supported to provide and maintain access, and that needs to include proper investigation and management of rural and wildlife crime without which, people will not open up their land.
The recent publicity generated by the woodland sale issue is a big opportunity to ensure that the future of the countryside environment is protected for everybody, regardless of who owns the land – public, local councils, charities, private landowners.  But we do not know how many of the campaigning bodies will be represented on the new advisory panel, and recommendations may be compromised by job cuts at the Forestry Commission itself and budget cuts at DEFRA in general.  And woodlands don’t exist in isolation, but as part of a rich tapestry of habitats.  A wider debate is needed across all ownership groups, and all types of habitat, or the opportunity will be lost.

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