There are many misunderstandings around the phrase “ancient woodland”. But it is really quite simple: ancient woodland is a piece of land that has been wooded since 1600. The age of the current trees don’t matter, although ancient woodland is often home to special, ancient and craggy trees of great wildlife value. What matters is that the piece of land has had woodland on it for a very long time.
So, woodland that has been destroyed by fire but that is regrowing can still be ancient woodland, as can woodland that has been felled and planted with conifers – the soil is what matters, and that soil contains all the special organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria and slime moulds, as well as flatworms, insects and others. Once the planted woodland disappears, the soil will regenerate the special ancient woodland that was once on the site. Provided the soil is left undisturbed.
Ancient woodland is very special. It is a relic of ancient forests extending back in time to Domesday. It is not fossilized, or set in stone. It has been extensively managed and used by humans – indeed, many of the most wildlife-rich parts of ancient woodlands are in the areas that are sustainably managed using techniques that are centuries or even millennia old. The key thing is that it has been there a long time, with its unique and delicate ecosystem. As such, it supports a unique community of creatures. Once it is destroyed, this community is lost. Newly-planted woodland may develop over time to provide a good woodland habitat, but it will take centuries to become ancient, and we don’t know if it ever really acquires the richness of the relict ecosystem in our ancient woodlands.
Ancient woodland is thus irreplaceable: you cannot dig it up, replant it, move the soil and transfer it, or do anything to it. To remain as ancient woodland habitat, you have to leave it be. Only 2% of our land area remains as ancient woodland, fragmented, clinging on. Fragmentation makes every piece even more valuable – each ancient woodland ecological community is vulnerable to threats such as fire or disease and the seriously-fragmented remnants provide precious little resilience against these threats. Destruction of any ancient woodland is a disaster, particularly where fragmentation is so severe that there is nowhere for the woodland creatures to go. Each and every piece of remaining woodland is a vital lifeline for wildlife, not to mention the people who enjoy these pieces of woodland for recreation, education and health and well-being.
Woodland species are declining along with the loss of ancient woodland – and many of the species are associated with either ancient woodland itself, or regenerating woodland scrub in areas that have been coppiced or cleared – lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser whitethroat, redpoll, willow tit, bullfinch and others.
Hopwas Woods, to the west of Tamworth, is one of the few remaining fragments of ancient woodland left in the area, our own being the only other sizeable fragment, lying to the east of Tamworth. It is designated mostly as ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW), with a small fraction of it as plantation on ancient woodland site (PAWS). You can’t get away from it: the whole site is ancient woodland, and this can be confirmed using DEFRA’s own mapping system, MAGIC. http://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx
But now there is a threat thanks to Staffordshire County Council review of the Minerals Core Strategy and Local Minerals Plan, which is currently undergoing revision. Following a consultation on the draft plan in April 2014, which had already identified reserves of sand and gravel sufficient to meet statutory requirements, contributions were invited from developers for additional sites for sand and gravel extraction, and these include a proposal by Lafarge Tarmac to destroy a large proportion of Hopwas Woods for quarrying. Virtually all of the proposed affected area is ancient woodland or PAWS, despite the developer claiming that this designation affects only half the proposed site.
Sadly, the protections for ASNW and PAWS are inadequate. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that:
“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”
The problem is that this leaves wriggle room for developers to justify development based upon economic criteria. Sadly, this works, as the fate of Oaken Wood has recently shown – permission was granted to quarry this ancient woodland on economic criteria after appeal to the Communities Secretary.
So what we have is a proposal for extraction of sand and gravel that is not actually needed, from an important ancient woodland site, that is widely valued and used by the local community, that is home to important wildlife including European Protected Species. Other sites for gravel extraction can clearly meet the economic need, so its destruction is not required. But it is still under threat.
More than that, it will rip out the heart of a wildlife and local community with knock-on effects for wildlife in the whole area. The Lawton Report (Making Space for Nature) clearly identified the need for landscape-scale conservation, a patchwork of habitats, and wildlife corridors. Conservation based upon reserves has failed to halt the decline in nature in the UK. Wildlife from the vanishingly-small pieces of ancient woodland in the Tamworth area has nowhere else to go. Lose Hopwas Woods and we lose far more than the woods alone – we lose an absolutely vital link in the local wildlife community.
And there are the people. People who grew up walking in the woods, enjoying the public rights of way therein. People who learned to love nature by spending time in the woods as children. People who enjoy walking, running, mountain biking, horse riding and other activities in the woods. People who connect with the local landscape, appreciate it, care for it, and who have taken it to their hearts.
The local community is not taking this lightly. In 24 hours, a new Facebook page, Save Hopwas Woods, got 7000 followers, and has now passed 10,000. The Friends of Hopwas Woods have issued a document detailing the plans and how you can object. Objections can be lodged on the Staffordshire County Council web site. The campaign has engaged the local MP and local Mayor. An important petition is now online with Change.org.
Ancient woodland is irreplaceable, and this campaign must succeed. The Woodland Trust have stated that the plan is the largest threat to ancient woodland they have seen in their 42 year history. The plan to tear up this ancient woodland is all about profit. It is about taking away a resource from local wildlife and community and putting it in the hands of developers. The consultation is open until December 5th. It needs to be stopped.
Save Hopwas Woods on Facebook
Friends of Hopwas Woods web site
@savehopwaswoods on Twitter
}Lodge objections with Staffordshire County Council using their questionnaire
Sign the petition on Change.org and the petition on 38Degrees
And please read, share and reblog this blog and get this out to as many people as possible!
UPDATE 30/10/2014 – Lafarge Tarmac have withdrawn their application to quarry under Hopwas Woods.