Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

In Praise of Restraint – Autumn in the Woods

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Dew on the woodland floor on an autumn morning

Dew on the woodland floor on an autumn morning

I keep going on about Autumn, but I make no apology for it.  It is my favourite time of year.  The spring flowers are magical, and the Summer meadows glorious, but there is nothing quite like the fungal smell of autumn in the woods.  What I particularly like is how oak trees don’t “shout” about autumn like many other species.  Maple and cherry have been particularly loud this year – flaming orange and yellow, and stunning reds lighting up the trees along the roadside.  Almost all the trees in the ancient part of our woods are oak, which takes a more restrained approach.

Some are still quite green right now, others have a gentle yellow tinge, and others simply go brown at the edges and fall.  Against this restrained backdrop, the yellow of field maple, willow and hazel, and the shocking reds of spindle, cherry and some rowan leaves, as well as a gentle pinks and purples of elder can stand out.  Betty’s wood in particular with its greater variety of young saplings shines out in orange, red and yellow against the darkness of the old oak trees.  Oak provides a pastel and gentle canvas against which the other species can stand out.

Yellows in Betty's Wood standing out against the green oak and ash

Yellows in Betty’s Wood standing out against the green oak and ash

Cherry leaves turn orange red in Betty's Wood

Cherry leaves turn orange red in Betty’s Wood

On the forest floor, things are changing too.  It hasn’t been very wet this year and the fungi are yet to get going, but we have seen some amazing hyphae on one of our fallen logs.

Fungal hyphae form a net on a fallen log.

Fungal hyphae form a net on a fallen log.

The lichens are also coming into their own, forming a miniature forest with the various species of moss, topped off by the fallen leaves covered in dew in the early morning.  The grass also shines with dew, giving the woods an autumnal feel, and a softness that is missing at other times of the year.

Dew on a fallen oak leaf on a bed of lichen and moss

Dew on a fallen oak leaf on a bed of lichen and moss

A tiny forest of moss and lichen

A tiny forest of moss and lichen

The leaves are gently falling now and autumn is in full swing.  There is no sadness – nature is beautiful all year round.  Winter is round the corner, and with it the milky low sunshine and stark beauty and form of our lovely trees.  The turn of the seasons is something I really treasure.  For now, I will enjoy the restrained beauty of an oak woodland in the fall.


Hopwas Woods – Ancient Woodland Under Threat

PAWS - regenerating broadleaf under conifer at Hopwas Woods

PAWS – regenerating broadleaf under conifer at Hopwas Woods

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.

Beautiful old oak tree at Hopwas Woods

Beautiful old oak tree at Hopwas Woods

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.

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.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

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.

Family enjoying Hopwas Woods

Family enjoying Hopwas Woods

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.

Rider on Bridlepath

Rider on Bridlepath in Hopwas Woods

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

Woodland Path at Hopwas Woods

Woodland Path at Hopwas Woods

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.

Please see:

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 and the petition on 38Degrees

And please read, share and reblog this blog and get this out to as many people as possible!

Hopwas Woods

Hopwas Woods – broadleaves and conifers

UPDATE 30/10/2014 – Lafarge Tarmac have withdrawn their application to quarry under Hopwas Woods.

Betty’s Wood – Three Years On

Young woodland path

Young woodland path – trees 2-3 metres tall

In October 2010, we bought a 9 acre field to add to our 11 acres of ancient woodland. During the early part of 2011, it was planted with 6500 little trees, and we carved out wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds in the wet areas, open areas, and areas for natural regeneration to take place. In summer 2011, it was a field populated by canes and tree-guarded, the little trees just peeking over the top of those guards in places.

Planting young trees

Planting young trees

Seasons came and went. The little trees were subjected to a drought during their first year, an extremely harsh winter in 2012-13 with a lot of snow and freezing weather, and floods earlier this year, during which you could paddle in the lower part of Betty’s Wood.

Betty's Wood from adjacent field

Betty’s Wood from adjacent field

We were very careful to choose our species mix well. We wanted to improve the site for wildlife, but could see no advantage in planting species that do not grow well in the local area. We also took account of the lie of the land and microclimate – one of the reasons why we didn’t plant trees immediately, but took a few months to get the feel of the place. Wet-tolerant species went in areas inclined to be damp. Species that like fertile soil nearer the top, where the former arable site is quite fertile. Cloning willow already growing on the site. Using self-set seedlings of birch, willow, oak and ash. But also choosing species that produce seeds and fruits for wildlife, good shelter for wildlife, and will produce a sustainable coppice and timber crop in future – hazel, willow, alder, oak, ash, cherry, rowan and others.

Mowing the meadow

Mowing the meadow during the first summer

It has not been all plain sailing, but the woods are really starting to shine now. Instead of walking in a field with sticks, we are now walking along young woodland paths. We can stand in the shade of our own little trees. We can sit with our backs against the trunks of these little trees and enjoy the view. The little trees offer shelter from the wind for insects and people alike. The ponds are really coming alive, with 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly seen here this year. Target species of butterflies have come into our meadows. Little birds are now perching in the young trees, particularly goldfinches and blue tits. Long-tailed tits and other birds are using our hedgerow as a pathway between our own woods and another piece of woodland, just as we hoped. We are producing an increasing quantity of hay for local horses. This year we harvested hazelnuts from our young trees for the first time. Leaf litter is starting to build up in places under the clumps of trees. In the wet areas, marsh orchids and cowslips are spreading and increasing in numbers.

Young trees in the landscape

Young trees in the landscape a few years on

It is not often that you get the opportunity to change the landscape, and make something that is both beautiful and functional. We were very privileged to be able to do this and it is very exciting. Every year turns up some surprises. What is particularly lovely is to see the self-set regeneration areas merging with the planted areas, possible because of what we think is a good choice of trees and careful attention to the landscape, soil and microclimate. It will not be long before we can take our first coppice cut in some places, nor will it be too many years before we can lay the hedge. It is truly becoming a woodland, as we hoped it would.

Young trees with woodland ride

Young trees with woodland ride – trees now over 2 metres tall

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Signs of spring

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Wild Daffodils

Wild Daffodils

After a long and very wet winter, there are at last some signs of spring around the woods.  In particular, there are catkins.  Lots and lots of catkins – hazel, birch, alder and willow – and my hay fever tells me they are producing a lot of pollen.  This is wonderful for the honey bees and bumblebees that I see around the woods, waking up from their hibernation.

The wild daffodils have also started to come out, although the naturalised domestic daffs are a little behind their wild cousins.  The bluebells are also showing their shoots through the ground.

The little birds are singing their territorial songs:  dunnock, robin, wren, great tit and blue tit are in full song, as well as willow tit and yellowhammer, and the great spotted woodpecker is drumming away.  A pair of buzzards are calling as they circle over the woods.  The skylarks are up as well and that is truly a sound of summer.  And in our meadows, the grass is rising and the speedwell is in flower in places.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit



The light, too, is getting that lovely light and watery quality of spring as the sun creeps higher and higher, and sets later and later in the day.  The sunshine and showers weather is a big improvement over the wet winter storms.

Hazel Flower

Hazel Flower

Spring is such an exciting time and always welcome, whether the winter has been cold and snowy or mild, wet and windy.  It represents a time when the winter work in the woods is finally done and we can sit back, enjoy the fruit of our labours, cease worrying about the dwindling supply of firewood logs and concentrate on the beauty, tranquility and peace of the woods again.  And maybe even turn our hands to a little bit of green woodworking again with the fresh supply of coppice wood…but that is a post for another day!

Spore Heads on Moss

Spore Heads on Moss


This year's coppice

This year’s coppice showing the cut stems and large amount of light coming into the area

Coppicing is a traditional form of woodland management.  It seems counter-intuitive to cut down trees when you are trying to preserve ancient woodland but this is exactly what is needed.

First of all, a lot of species do not live very long unless they are coppiced.  By coppicing I mean cutting the tree down to allow it to sprout again from the base.  Hazel, in particular, thrives upon coppicing, living many times longer if it is repeatedly cut and allowed to regrow than if it is just allowed to grow and decay.  Other coppice species include ash, sweet chestnut, sycamore (not in our ancient woodland!), oak, willow, birch and alder.  Shrubs such as hawthorn, crab apple, holly and elder also coppice well.  In fact most trees will coppice provided they are not too old when cut, and provided the stems are protected from browsing while they are regrowing.

Our great ancient oak trees are not suitable for coppicing, but a relatively large area of our woodland has young, scrubby trees growing fast and crowding out each other and the light.  It also has an un-managed hedge boundary between the main woods and Betty’s Wood that can be revived by coppicing.

We started coppicing in 2009-10, cutting an area of predominantly willow, hawthorn, oak and a bit of hazel.  Since then we have extended the coppice area.

The photos here show a sequence:  the top photo is what an area is like when it has first been cut.  It looks bleak and empty, but it is not.  The key thing is that we have let in a lot of light to the area and this will stimulate both regrowth and regeneration.  At this stage we can do some targeted planting if we want to improve the diversity of the area.

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The next photo shows coppice that was cut 2 years ago.  It is regrowing quite strongly.  You can see we have protected the stumps (called coppice stools) using a combination of stock netting and chicken wire to prevent browsing of the new shoots by deer and rabbits.  This is essential – browsing can easily kill a regenerating coppice stool.  You can also see that there is a lot more ground flora in this area. A lot of woodland plants rely on coppicing to thrive, coming up periodically in the cleared areas to benefit from the light.  As well as some bramble, we have a patch of violet in this area, and the bluebells are spreading into what was once a sterile piece of ground.  Finally, we get natural regeneration happening – willow and birch seedlings are thriving because they have access to light, and where they come up, we provide them with protection.

4 year coppice

Coppice cut 4 years ago showing strong re-growth

Above we have a piece of coppice that was cut four years ago.  The regrowth on the willow, in particular, is over 10 feet/3metres, and the poles are 3 to 5 cm diameter at the base.  The hawthorn and oak are regrowing more slowly and will be cut less frequently.  There are some young oak that we are leaving to grow up as specimen trees or “standards” in our “coppice-with-standards” system.  We have also done some planting to increase the amount of hazel and ash in this area.  The regrowth will result in us being able to cut it again at about 7 to 10 years, and thus have a sustainable source of wood for craft, habitat and firewood.

We do the work ourselves.  It is not always straightforward as you can see below with a sequence of photos from the past weekend.

Hooking up the winch

A difficult twin-stemmed holly needs winching down

This year we are, amongst other things, clearing a patch of holly.  This has been slowly invading the coppice area and the problem is that it cuts out the light, particularly in the spring, which holds back regeneration.  Holly springs back very quickly, usually from root suckers, so we are not destroying this patch of holly, just reviving it, and allowing the coppice to thrive too.  However coppice species often have multiple and quite inter-twined stems.  This particular holly was separated at the base, and had welded itself together higher up, which mean both stems had to be felled together.  The area was confined, and the holly got “hung-up” rather than falling straight down.  we had to set up a winch to roll the tree away from the branches that were holding it.

Setting up the winch

Setting up the winch

We were using another, larger tree as a winch point, and you can see in the foreground the log pile, a brash pile (leaves and smaller stems) and behind that a habitat pile.  About 1/3 to 1/2 the brash will be left as habitat piles for birds and mammals to nest in, and the rest will be chipped to provide a good, dry surface on our paths and they will eventually rot down.  The log pile will be used mainly for firewood but the straighter stems may be used for rustic furniture making and some green wood turning.  We select wood that has crevices and particularly wood that is already a little bit rotten for the habitat pile.  Very large logs usually come from fallen branches, and we use these as sitting logs around the woods, and they provide habitat as they gradually decay.

Felled holly tree

Felled holly tree

We finally managed to fell the large holly (about 40ft, 13 metres tall), and here it is on the ground.  The smaller stem is underneath slightly to the right and cannot be seen in this photo.

Felled holly

Felled holly showing just how much light is now coming in.

And here are the final results.  You can see just how much more light is being let in.  The ring of stumps around the large oak are all holly, and you can see just how much it was dominating the area.  We still have to cut the hazel in the hedge in the background, and then our coppice will be open to the sun and ready to regrow strongly.  There is a lovely standing dead tree in the background too, providing excellent habitat for wildlife.  We leave our standing deadwood as habitat, and have no plans to fell this old tree.

In future we will extend our coppice along Betty’s Wood boundary to refresh the boundary hedge.  We always leave joined-up canopies as a route for dormice (although we have no evidence that they are present despite a survey for them), and never fell old trees with holes and hollows that are good habitat for owls, bats and other creatures.  The younger trees, however, should respond very well and the whole woods should be rejuvenated.  The coppice only comprises about 1/5 of the woodland.  There are other areas and plenty of other habitats being managed in different ways.  We have some areas planted with young trees that will become coppice of the future in the ancient woodland and in Betty’s Wood which was planted in 2010-11.

Coppicing is part of the way in which we try to ensure that there is an excellent variety of habitats in our woods – we also have mature ancient trees, wood pasture, wildflower meadows, hedgerows, dead hedges, thickets, areas that will become continuous cover forestry, and wet woodland, as well as eleven ponds.  The wildlife has already responded and we hope to report more and more species making their homes in our woods in the future.

Alvecote Wood in 1650

Map of Alvecote in 1650

Map of Alvecote in 1650

We know quite a lot about the history of our woods.  We are pretty sure the area has been wooded since Domesday, and that they were included in the original land grant to Alvecote Priory in the 13th Century.  We also know that its unusual shape dates from at least as far back as 1805, from the sketches for the first Ordnance Survey made at that time.

Recently, I was put in touch with a gentleman in Australia, who was researching the history of villages in and around Shuttington and Alvecote.  One of the documents he had been researching was the deed of sale of the Priory holdings dated 1650.  This was interesting because it gave quite a lot of verbal detail about the fields, meadows, lanes, coppices and woodlands in the Alvecote and Shuttington area, including their relative geographic locations, and their acreages.

This information filled in some of the gaps, and had the potential to give me information about the size and shape and location of the woods in 1650, so I decided to research this further.  As well as the deed of sale of the Priory holdings, I also consulted the “Green Book”,  old maps including the original Ordnance Survey sketches of 1805 as well as the first series OS maps themselves, a book on Woodlands in Warwickshire and a book on the Domesday geography of the counties of England, including Warwickshire.  Finally, I sought a copy from the National Archive of the original enclosure map of 1805 detailing the 19th Century enclosures, but which also named some of the fields from the original mediaeval enclosures that were also named on the 1650 deed of sale, although did not extend as far as Alvecote Wood.

Then I had to attempt to work out the geography of the Alvecote area in 1650.  Geographic reconstruction was not easy:  the deed of sale did not distinguish between East, South-East and North-East, for example, so I had to allow some licence to translate the four point compass to eight points.  In addition, it is very easy to get quite confused because of the 19th and 20th century modifications to the geography of the area, and in particular by the West Coast Mainline railway and the Coventry Canal, which run through the area, and which obviously weren’t there in 1650.  It is hard to train your eyes to see past these features as if they were not present.

Eventually, I decided to tabulate all the fields, pastures, meadows (leasons) and woodland with its geographical neighbours and size in acres where mentioned in the 1650 deed of sale.  I then added things onto a sketch map in the following order:

  • Put onto the map the roads and lanes, including those that no longer exist but which were present in 1805.
  • Put in what I would term to be “hard” geographic features:  the River Anker has not changed course substantially since 1650; the Parish boundary is a hard boundary, since fields, woodlands, meadows and pastures and indeed, land holdings very rarely crossed this boundary.
  • Put in other water courses that are known or marked on older maps:  this includes a water course running along the Parish boundary on the West of Robey’s Lane.  These may have been canalised or placed in a culvert during subsequent years, but their course will have changed little.
  • Considered what I know about the quality of the landscape:  whether it is damp or dry (from my own experience, and reports from farmers);  whether it is high or low-lying;  whether it is marked on early land-use maps as woodland, meadow, arable or pasture, and any other information I could find.
  • Considered modern place and field names:  Priory Park, for example, is a go-karting track, but was it the same as the Park marked in the 1650 sale document?  The answer is no.   Likewise the Green Lane south of the B5000 is on a Parish boundary, and likely to be a very ancient feature because of both name and location.  Anything name Wood House or Wood Lane would be a clue as to the land type at the time.
  • Finally, I placed the field names and sizes mentioned in the 1650 deed of sale on a sketch map of the area that did not have the Canal, railway and other modern developments in place (such as the diversion of the B5000 which took place in the 1970’s).  I took account of the relative field sizes and did not try and put something into a space that was either too small or large.

What I ended up with was more-or-less the only possible map that fit with the geography of the area.  This has a number of interesting features.

First of all, Alvecote Wood (that is the portion we own on the East of Robey’s Lane) was almost certainly its peculiar shape a lot earlier than we thought.  It was already a strange shape in 1805, when the Ordnance Survey sketches were made, but we thought this shape had been forced by the location of the canal that was built in the late 18th Century.  However, from the description of Hill Field and Wood Field (Close) it must have been close to its existing shape at the time of its sale, the shape forced by the Parish Boundary rather than the canal.  It pushes its history as a known and continuously wooded area back to 1650.  In the UK, woodland is defined as ancient if it has been wooded since 1601, so this pushes documented woodland on the site very close to its definition as Ancient Woodland which would require it to be wooded since 1601.  It is unlikely it was clear-felled between 1601 and 1650, particularly with the unrest of the Civil War, therefore it is very likely to be true ancient woodland by documentation as well as by inference from the trees and flora, its location on a parish boundary, and the mention in Domesday of substantially greater wooded areas than are currently present in the parish of Shuttington.

It has been heavily modified by grazing through the 20th Century that we know of, but is likely to have been grazed before that, resulting in the modified flora, and absence of some ancient woodland indicator species.  Most of the oak trees date from 1800 to 1900, being between 100 and 200 years in age:  it is likely that mature trees were felled for timber during the 19th Century, probably for pit timbers given the expanding local coal industry during that time.  Oak trees that were saplings at that time are now mature, but there is little oak regeneration due to grazing through the 20th Century – most of the younger oak trees are now 15-20 years old, dating from the cessation of grazing on the site.  There are few stumps on site, but this is not surprising, since they will have rotted away over 100-200 years since they were cut.  The documentation, together with residual flora and trees on site, do support the assertion that Alvecote Wood is true ancient woodland, and that the site has probably been wooded since Domesday (11th Century).

The whole area was historically much more wooded at that time than it is now – hardly surprising, but this provides evidence.  The woods as described clearly extended on both sides of what is now known as Robey’s Lane, but which must have had another name at that time, and it is easy to imagine walking up this heavily-wooded lane in an enclosed tunnel of trees towards the road between Tamworth and Polesworth  (Hermitage Hill, now the B5000), connecting with a track to Wilnecote that is now a Green Lane.  This is supported by modern names Woodhouse Farm and Wood Barn.  These woods probably joined up with woods in Amington to form a larger wooded area, as indicated by residual woodland in early Ordnance Survey maps (Amington Frith, Glascote Coppice).

Some areas that were pasture were also probably at least partially wooded (wood-pasture) rather than completely devoid of trees.  In addition, the fields were smaller, and their boundaries are likely to have been hedges, possibly with some emergent trees, so the whole area would have looked much more wooded than it does currently, where only isolated trees exist to mark the former woodlands, and hedge boundaries of fields that have now been merged.

There are some inconsistencies in the information that I was able to obtain.  For example, the Gostells Leason in the 1650 sale was only 4 acres, a small piece of land, but the Gostells in 1805 enclosure map were a large tract of land, probably 20 or more acres, although located more or less in the same place.  Bridge Close, from the description in 1650, cannot be north of the River Anker, and yet in the 1805 map it is placed north of the river.  However the correspondence between the 1650 descriptions and the 1805 enclosure map is generally very good.  Unfortunately the map does not extend far enough south along Robey’s Lane to include the area that is currently Alvecote Wood.

Researching the history has been extremely interesting.  I may have got some things slightly misplaced on the map, but it gives a very good feel of what the area looked like in 1650, and gives us, and our woodland, a connection with times much further in the past than we had previously been able to go.  These tracts of ancient woodland are precious.  It is becoming harder and harder to walk in the footsteps of people who lived here hundreds of years ago yet still be in a landscape that is the same as the one they walked through.  Our woods are one of those few remaining places in the area, and it behoves us to look after them very carefully indeed.


  1.  P Edden and H Jones  The History of Alvecote Pub Warwick 1968
  2. Cassini Maps:  Past & Present Maps series – Tamworth – 1834 to Present Day. Cassini Publishing Ltd 2007
  3. Sale of Alvecote PRO State Papers SP 320/74 1650
  4. 1805 Enclosure Map of Shuttington – from National Archive E13/1187
  5. Ordnance Survey Drawings – from online collection at The British Library
  6. Wager, Sarah J. 1998. Woods, Wolds and Groves: the woodland of medieval Warwickshire (British Archaeological Reports British Series 269).
  7. Darby, H. C. & Terrett, I.B. 1971. The Domesday Geography of Midland England (Cambridge University Press, London).
  8. Old Maps Online:  Maps of Tamworth from 1805 onwards available to browse on this site including Boundary Commission maps 1832 and 1868, first edition OS maps, Land utilisation survey of Great Britain 1937:  See,52.604502,-1.638139,52.651599&q=&datefrom=1000&dateto=2010

Irreplaceable means just that…

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

The Government recently published its paper on Biodiversity Offsetting, a scheme whereby damage caused by development can be offset by creation or improvement of habitat elsewhere.  On the face of it, this seems very reasonable.  You build a supermarket on a meadow, and make another meadow elsewhere.  Simples!

The problem is that habitats are not simple things, and this simple scheme is fraught with hazards for our wonderful wildlife.  Look closely at the document and you will see not all is well with this proposal, which proceeds on the premise that a small amount of high distinctiveness (i.e. high quality) habitat can be replaced by a large amount of poorer distinctiveness habitat, that this can be done in an area remote from the community of people and wildlife affected by the development, that developers can in effect choose the type and location of “offsetting” that they provide, that habitats are assessed on their current, rather than potential value (laying them open to the risk of wilful neglect to reduce their value and offsetting costs), and that the distinctiveness and condition of a habitat can be assessed in 20 minutes.  It also supposes that the habitat created can be colonised by the displaced ecosystem, which does not take account of distances, ecological networks, the place of the ecosystem in the landscape and most important of all, the timescale over which such colonisation could take place.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

High value habitat can be replaced by a larger quantity of lower-value habitat

Ecosystems are complicated.  Even a very simple garden, brownfield site or arable site is a complex ecosystem, with archaea, bacteria, fungi, bryophytes, plants, insects, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds co-existing in an intricate network of food, prey and predators.  The higher the value (or distinctiveness, as it is called in the document) of the habitat, the more complex and rich the ecosystem is.  Many habitats are irreplaceable, having developed over many centuries into the rich ecological web that we see:  ancient woodlands, limestone pavements, lowland heath, wildflower meadows (particularly unimproved or semi-improved), ancient hedgerows and hedge-banks are examples of this.  The idea that you can simply assign a ratio of valuableness to habitats, and then replace something that is irreplaceable by a bit more of a lower value habitat is really very absurd.  Irreplaceable means just that…you cannot just dig it up and put it somewhere else.  Of course it is possible to develop new wildlife habitat, but you cannot develop new ancient woodland or lowland heath on a site where it has not existed before.  It doesn’t work that way.  As we have said before, it is like trying to replace the crown jewels with a skip-load of cheap costume jewellery.  These ancient habitats are our crown jewels and cannot be replaced.

In my view these high-value, irreplaceable habitats should be afforded a higher level of legal protection, equal at least to SSSI:  Ancient woodland, limestone pavement, lowland heath, wildflower meadows (unimproved or semi-improved), ancient hedgerows and hedge-banks.  In addition, local Wildlife Trusts and conservation organisations need to be able to designate habitats on a more local level to the same standard if they are locally rare, locally irreplaceable or have particular local value.  Any development on such sites (other than small tool stores, small visitor or community centres, or small scale permaculture based crafts and industries) should be subject to a full planning enquiry.

Offsetting can take place anywhere, with any habitat

Another flawed idea is that the offset provided for any development can be anywhere, and even of a different type to the one destroyed or compromised.  This ignores two fundamental things:  first of all, the habitat that will be destroyed is where it is because it is suited to the local landscape and the ecological connections within it, and second, that a wildlife habitat only has ecological value, and does not have a value to the local human community that live nearby, and may derive great benefit from it.  Habitats that provide exposure to wildlife in the urban and suburban environments are particularly valuable to that community, even though they may not be particularly distinctive in what they contain, or of high ecological value.  Likewise, an ecosystem exists where it does because it fits in with the local landscape, soils, and ecological connections:  destroy it, or move it, and you will not get the same thing back.  Even worse, destroy it and replace it with something else in another location, and you risk losing not only the human social benefits of that habitat, but knocking a piece out of the local ecological jigsaw that will impact not only on that site, but on others around it too.  The idea that you can replace lowland meadows with upland forests, say, is just wrong – they are different habitats, in different places, and will be accessible to different people, and different communities of flora and fauna.

Developers can bank habitat to be used when the need for offsetting arises

This proposal effectively allows developers to choose the type of habitat they provide, where they provide it, how they provide it, who they provide it for and at what cost.  It leaves the planning authority, the local ecologists and naturalists, and worse of all, the local community, with no say.  Developers will be able to choose cheap land, and cheap habitat creation (such as new woodland planting, planting of low-quality meadows, creation of low-value ponds) which may not be in a good area for the community, and not provide habitat that is a priority, nor support species that form part of local Biodiversity Action Plans.  It takes control of the process away from local planning authorities, and local people, and puts it in the hands of the developers, who will be seeking to maximise profit.  It does not seem to be a good way to ensure high quality, high priority habitat that is accessible to and wanted by the local people is created.

Habitats can be rapidly assessed on their current, not potential value

The document suggests that the distinctiveness (or value) of a habitat can be rapidly assessed in 20 minutes.  20 minutes to assess the complexity of centuries.  Even the most naïve ecologist would hesitate to think they could assess the value of a habitat in such a short time.  And who will do the assessment?  Will they be independent of both the local planning authority (who may be under pressure to agree developments to meet targets) and the developer (who wants as much habitat to be given a low a value as possible to reduce costs)?  And where is the requirement to consult both the Wildilfe Trusts (who will have Phase One survey data), the local Biological Records Office (which will have some, although not all, records of species sighted), and local naturalists and enthusiasts who may well be aware of important species on the site that cannot be uncovered in a single survey, taking minutes, and undertaken during a single season?

There is an additional worry here:  developers could buy up and then sit on land, allowing it to deteriorate through neglect or even wilful damage.  This would reduce its value and distinctiveness and allow it to be offset more cheaply.  Land needs to be assessed according to its potential value, not its current value to avoid this happening.  For example, they could neglect a coppice for 20 years until the important species move on, thus lowering its habitat value and distinctiveness and allowing for cheaper offsetting.  Assessment of potential value is the only way to prevent this.

New habitat in Betty's Wood

New habitat in Betty’s Wood

The displaced ecosystem can and will move into an offset area in a reasonable timescale

Can an ecosystem just move?  This is not going to be likely unless the habitat is of low distinctiveness, and the creatures within it are mobile, and it is provided close to the land being destroyed.  Ancient woodland, for example, colonises new adjacent woodland very slowly.  Obviously, habitat creation is possible, and can be very successful, provided it is done well, managed well, and appropriately placed. It can be more successful if adjacent to an existing high quality site, or when it caters for very mobile species, such as some birds or butterflies.  But this is not what is being proposed.  Move a habitat even a small distance and the conditions may be very different.  Some species, although seeming to be mobile, may actually move a very short distance – house sparrows are an example.  Some species may move in very quickly, but others may move slowly, or not at all.  If they can’t move in an appropriate time-frame or distance, then unless alternative habitat is available locally, they are likely to become locally extinct.  Build it and they will come?  Yes, but not all of them, and not necessarily straight away.  Our own woods have habitat for purple emperor butterflies, but they are not there.

The timescale is important – if a new habitat takes years to develop, where are the displaced plants and animals to go?  And how long is the offset agreement going to last?  If it is a short duration (and some existing agreements are), then the habitat may actually only just be getting to a stage where it can host a rich ecosystem when the agreement ends.  And of course the land can be vulnerable to development, or neglect.

An offsetting market is the way to deliver this programme

Markets tend to favour the large provider, who can provide large areas of habitat at a low cost.  Is this really the best way to manage valuable habitats?  Landscape-scale conservation relies on an ecological patchwork or networks, not huge swathes of monotonous habitat.  Small and local patches of wild land, managed to enhance diversity and promote access for people and wildlife, will produce not only the diversity of habitats that are needed, but also the networks that wildlife requires to move around, colonise new areas and be resilient to threats such as fire, disease and pests.  Managing small areas of land is more difficult, more costly, and more time-consuming – hardly something the market is likely to favour.  Of course there could be genuine partnerships that deliver high quality objectives, but that is not usually the way in which markets operate – they tend to high volume and low cost.

Any system that is put in place must have the following characteristics:

  1. Offsetting must be seen as absolutely the last resort and only used after it has been made clear that it is not possible to avoid or mitigate (rather than that it is uneconomic to do so).  It seems clear that already it is being used to justify developments that otherwise would not get planning permission.
  2. Any development that requires offsetting must have such offsetting agreed by, and done in agreement with, the local community, who need to be consulted at all stages, including the valuation of the habitat, the location and preferred type of offsetting schemes, and the monitoring of the scheme to ensure it is of high quality.
  3. All high value, high distinctiveness and high quality habitats must excluded from offsetting and afforded protection.
  4. All irreplaceable habitats must be given legal protection: Ancient semi-natural woodland, limestone pavements, lowland heath and unimproved or high quality semi-improved wildflower meadows and high-quality hedgerows. This legal protection cannot completely preclude development, but any significant development on such land must require a full public enquiry.
  5. The principle of offsetting the loss of high quality habitat by more low quality habitat is flawed: habitat does not work that way, and ecological networks take a long time to develop. Therefore the underlying principle is that offsetting can only be small scale, local, and replace low quality habitat by an equivalent amount of at least equivalent and preferably higher quality habitat. It also needs to be long-term, ideally covenanted to the local people in perpetuity. It must not be seen as a way to bank land for a few years before building on it and moving the habitat again.
  6. The measurement of habitat quality should consider the POTENTIAL MAXIMUM value of the ecosystem, not its value in the current condition. This is essential to stop the developers sitting on land and either actively damaging it, or allowing it to deteriorate by neglect, in order to place it into a low category and save money.
  7. The assessors need to be properly trained and independent (that is, not employed by either local authorities or developers), and they need to bring in experts on different ecosystems, and different species and species groups where required. They should also be obliged to consult with local people and local naturalists given full opportunity to contribute to discussions on the value of the habitat. Offsetting should be determined by the local people. It must be appropriate in scale and location, and take into account the ability of wildlife to re-colonise new areas and the community to benefit from it.
  8. The system comes from the local community upwards: they should be the ones who decide whether offsetting is appropriate, and if so, what is done, with the support of professionals, experts, local naturalists, local and regional wildlife organisations. The local community MUST be trusted to make this decision.

Will this make development uneconomic for developers?  In some places, yes, but this is a flawed economic model to begin with.  If nature is properly valued, then some developments will indeed be uneconomic.  However some will not be, particularly if the developer and the local community can work together.  Biodiversity offsetting has deep flaws, and betrays a lack of ecological understanding.  Worst of all, it ignores the value of habitat to the local community of wildlife, and people.

People enjoying Warwickshire Moor Local Nature Reserve

People enjoying Warwickshire Moor Local Nature Reserve

HS2 – Selling the Crown Jewels

HS2 will pass along the horizon as seen from Betty’s Wood
This week the northern route of High Speed Rail 2 to Manchester and Leeds was announced.  HS2 is, apparently, going to bring about an economic miracle, creating jobs, slashing journey times and cascading prosperity out from London to the North.  But in the process, it is going to blight the lives of many individuals and communities for many years to come, destroy many jobs and businesses with knock-on effects to the local community and it is going to cut through priceless, irreplaceable wildlife habitats and countryside.
HS2 to the North is going to go through 17 ancient woodlands, one SSSI and up to 30 biodiversity action plan sites.  It is going to cut through two of the three country parks used by people in North Warwickshire (Pooley and Kingsbury Water Park).  It is going to cut the National Forest in two.  It is going to destroy businesses and severely impact upon farms en route.
HS2 will cut through the trees in this picture
Transport corridors are important habitats for wildlife – we know this and the Natural England White Paper acknowledges it.  Trees and plants alongside road and rail provide refuge for many birds, plants and animals.  So what is the big deal?  Surely a new railway line will actually provide a lot of wildlife habitat?  Well, yes.  The problem is that most of this habitat is relatively low-grade, and supports relatively few species, and is of relatively low quality.  High quality habitats, such as lowland heath in Staffordshire, or ancient woodland, or SSSI, take many years to develop.  These habitats may be small in area but they are high in quality, with many ecological niches that support a wide diversity of plants and animals.  You cannot recreate this – once it is gone, it is gone forever.  And little by little we are destroying ancient woodland, justifying it by the benefit to the economy, and by the fact that it is only a little bit we are destroying.
But the fact is you cannot replace the crown jewels with a skipload of cheap jewellery, which is effectively what we are doing here – destroying beautiful, high quality, rich habitat and replacing it with a lot of low-grade habitat.  In doing so we do two things:  first, we diminish the available ecological niches and reduce diversity and second, we reduce the connectivity between remnants of the ancient habitats and thus reduce its resilience to insult.  And insults come, either from construction of the railway itself, or from natural events such as fire, flood, drought, chemical incidents and so on.
HS2 to the North will pave over an area of countryside the size of the City of Manchester.  It will also open the way to construction on open countryside for housing and businesses associated with the railway.
HS2 will cross the Coventry Canal
The fact is we cannot continue to consume the countryside.  But what about the economy?!  Well, what about it?  The business case for HS2 is built on some quite heroic assumptions – that new jobs will be created (other than in the construction of the railway itself), that increased capacity is required, that the railway is carbon friendly and sustainable.  All of these can and have been challenged.  The Public Accounts Committee has already amber/red-flagged the project from the economic viability viewpoint.  The fact is that in other countries where high speed rail has been built, some communities have been winners and some losers, but the issue of whether jobs have actually been created, as opposed to moved around is very unclear.  The benefits of the railway have been valued to include knock-on jobs such as catering, but the costs have not included knock-on losses of jobs which either move (relocate towards the new stations), or are lost (if, for example, people switch from flying and existing slower trains, with loss of jobs, catering and so on, not to mention businesses destroyed by the line itself).
HS2 will pass behind this mound and through visitor centre
Nowhere in the economic case is the opportunity cost mentioned:  that is, the cost of what is lost if you spend the money on HS2 as opposed to something else e.g. local transport links and hubs, proper freight connectivity from East to West coasts, schools, hospitals and so on.  Alternatives to HS2 have been considered in terms of different types of transport links, but no full opportunity cost appraisal has been carried out.
And worst of all, nature and ancient woodlands are not valued at all, other than at the value of the land.  Yet woodlands and forests can in themselves benefit economy, wildlife and community in a sustainable way, and in a way that rail links cannot.  Land is valued just at market value, not at its potential economic value, be that in farming, business, sustainable forestry or from the ecosystem and services that it provides.  Even if the principle of reducing everything to a monetary cost is uncomfortable, the fact is that nature provides economic benefits of a huge amount already, and has the potential to deliver a lot more.
Alvecote Wood – ancient woodland habitat
The railway will not go through our woods or our house, although it will pass close to the woods – indeed, our woods are one of the closest ancient woodlands to the line apart from those through which it will pass.  But it will affect our wildlife. Our landscape-scale conservation project is under threat as the railway cuts through and potentially cuts off some of our partners, and makes it harder for wildlife to move freely along the Anker Valley corridor.  It will compromise the very thing that we have been urged to do by the Government in the Natural Environment White Paper, underpinned by the Lawton Report.  Shy wildlife is likely to retreat from the construction, perhaps never to return. Already-tenuous connections will be severed.  A local Forest School base is now threatened, and children may lose the ability to learn in a natural woodland environment.  Communities who have invested time, effort and money in the wildlife parks on their doorstep will now lose out.
And homes and communities will be blighted.  Is this NIMBYism?  Suppose you had struggled all your life to pay for a house, or to build up a business in rented property.  And suddenly you find your house cannot be sold to pay for your long-term residential care.  Or your business will be bulldozed, leaving you to move, and lose the goodwill and clientele you have built up.  Farmers can’t move easily, be they tenants or landowners, yet many face their land being cut through, buildings and businesses on the site destroyed, and links between fields and farm buildings severed.  This is not NIMBYism, it is about real suffering caused to real people, many of whom cannot get compensation in the time-frame within which it is required – indeed, some can’t get compensation at all.  It is about fairness – it is about making sure that advantage for some is not gained at the expense of disadvantage to others. It is about fair treatment for communities and people wherever they happen to live.
But mostly it is about the destruction of wildlife and habitats – habitats that are, by the Government’s own admission, valuable.  Habitats that have been supported by public money and community goodwill.  Habitats which have taken thousands of years to develop will be destroyed by drawing a line on a map.  It is about selling the crown jewels for a skipload of plastic.  A few people will undoubtedly gain from HS2, but everybody will lose.  Just how much longer can we go on chipping away at the crown jewels of our countryside?

The right tree in the right place by the right method

planting trees

There seems to be a perpetual tension between trees and other habitats, and within the tree category between planting and natural regeneration, sometimes with very entrenched and strongly-held views, particularly now the Independent Forestry Panel has weighed in with its support for increasing tree cover in England.

So how do we decide what is the right tree and what is the right place?

First of all, we could let the trees decide. That is what natural regeneration is, right? Well, I’m not so sure that is always the case. Many trees are pioneer species that will rapidly colonise other habitats. Indeed, many of these habitats are only as they are because one way or another the growth of trees is controlled: by agriculture, grazing, burning, climate or some other activity. It is wonderful to watch a habitat being re-colonised. Across the canal from us is a former spoil heap that has recolonized within my lifetime with woodland, mainly birch, oak and willow. Within our own wood, there are areas recolonising naturally too.

But there are also areas, such as heathland, which are valuable and declining habitats in their own right. The growth of trees there would endanger the habitat, and in many places, even in areas such as the New Forest, these trees need to be controlled to preserve precious habitat.

So, if we don’t let the trees decide, should we plant instead? There is a lot going for planting. You get quick results. The woodland becomes economically viable in a short time. You can connect fragmented habitat quickly. There are lots of grants and incentives to plant. You can engage the community in planting very easily. Young trees grow rapidly and fix a lot of carbon.

The problem is that there are also arguments against planting. The trees are likely to be all the same age, and it will take a long time for a diverse woodland to emerge. You may introduce disease, alien species, or cultivars that don’t thrive locally. Planted trees need a lot of maintenance, at least in the first few years. Planted trees don’t often come with associated mycorrhiza that are needed for healthy growth. Planted woodland tends to be less ecologically rich than naturally regenerated woodland. Planting may suppress natural regrowth and skew the balance of species locally.

Even on ground where woodland is wanted, and appropriate, regeneration is slow, and doesn’t come with appropriate subsidies, and it can also be taken over by invasive non native trees such as sycamore, and threaten other local woodlands.

So how do we achieve the right tree in the right place and who decides? I am sure our own decisions have been flawed, but were made in good faith, and sometimes because of financial constraints and incentives.

We have done our best to stimulate natural regeneration that was lacking in our own woods by bramble clearance, protection of saplings, introduction of light and so on. It seems to be working in some places and not in others.

We have also planted some areas to provide more diverse understory. Why? If we don’t do this, the elder growing on site because it is too fertile due to years of animal grazing simply takes over and we have had to resort to planting with species already on site to suppress this and allow the woodland to regain the diversity it has lost. How do we know it has lost diversity? Mainly because of the ancient hedge around the edge, and the diversity still present in the areas where animals were excluded.

Was this right? I don’t know. Some of it used our own seedlings, some didn’t. All I can say was it was done with thought, knowledge of the microclimate and soil, and careful weighing up of pros and cons.

Then there is Betty’s Wood. Appropriate for trees? Well few would say no. It was on poorly productive wet farmland, and connects two pieces of ancient woodland fragmented for years but clearly connected in the past.

The ideal solution would be natural regeneration. Except that the ground has been seriously disturbed and over fertilised with chemicals to maximise yield. Natural regeneration would be anything but natural. But planting is unnatural too.

What we have done is some of each. We have planted the centre section, and left the edge, where there are already trees to provide seed, to regenerate. In practice this seems to be appropriate in that there aree hardly any natural saplings growing outside this regen area. The centre section we planted with wildflower meadow and then planted into it, mindful of the soil, microclimate and the species already growing in the area. We planted in natural curvy lines to allow access for maintenance in early years and left large meadows, thickets, clumps and other features. Planting density varied, so some was spread out and the rest closer, to provide maximum variety.

It is no ideal. Many would say right place, possibly right trees, but wrong method. But the long and short is we wouldn’t get the money for natural regeneration alone. Herein lies the problem. I think in our case, planting was the best method, although others will no doubt disagree. But in many places it isn’t. But if we are to persuade people to allow tree cover to expand on their land, if it is right to do so, then we need to offer finance for this, or all the new woodland will be planted. At least we were allowed to regenerate over 16 thousand square metres of land and still get the money provided we met the density target over the whole site.

I don’t know if we have achieved the right trees in the right place by the right method. But I do think there needs to be much more flexibility over how expanded tree cover is achieved and in particular the method by which it is achieved. There also needs to be a great deal of thought put into identifying appropriate land for trees, so that neither productive agricultural land, nor precious alternative habitats are harmed.

Much will depend on the system put in place to achieve this. However given the target-driven nature of governments, planting is likely to get the nod. That is likely to create a lot of woodland very quickly, it of what quality? Do we really want lots of even-aged plantations? Will these really be well managed to encourage emergence of diverse ages and habitats? Will they be put in the right place or just the cheapest place? I have no idea. I just hope that people do put a bit of thought into what they are doing, and why.

Forestry Panel Report

On 4th July, the Independent Forestry Panel published their final report into the future of forestry in England.  Although it was initiated in response to the public outcry at plans to sell off a large proportion of the public forest estate (PFE), it is of great interest to everybody who owns, manages, works in or enjoys woodland.  So, from the perspective of somebody who owns and manages a woodland for wildlife, as well as somebody who loves trees and woodlands, and somebody who cares about the future of our precious woodlands and the ecosystems they support, what is good, and what is not so good about the report?
First of all, I would like to say that I think this is an excellent report.  The Panel appear to have taken account of all the visits they made, people they talked to, and submissions they received.  If implemented, there is no doubt that the state of our woodlands would improve enormously – safeguarding public forests for the nation, providing help and support to improve management of existing forests, providing support for planting of new woodlands where they can best be enjoyed by people, and make the greatest difference for nature, and supporting the wood industry as well as other enterprises based in and around woodlands.
Woodlands and forests provide so many benefits, and it is clear that people care about them.  What this report makes clear is just how important these benefits are, how we have not recognised them in the past, and just how much it would cost to accrue these benefits in other ways, even were it possible to do this.  Forests, and their benefits, have been significantly under-valued, and under-invested in, and yet provide an excellent return in terms of environmental and ecosystem benefits, leisure and tourism, physical and mental health, connection with nature, as well as the more obvious benefits of carbon dioxide reduction, and provision of wood as fuel and for construction.
This report envisages an expanded role of two divisions of the Forestry Commission – Forest Services, and a new body to replace Forest Enterprise.  The new Forest Services would be tasked with providing advice proactively for all woodland owners on how their woods can be managed in light of their own objectives for the wood.  Considering many woodlands are under-managed, or un-managed, this will be very helpful, particularly if the advice considers the contribution the woodland can make to the ecosystem as a whole, as well as support to help the owners achieve a good outcome – be it support for increased public access, visitor centres, small enterprises or small scale extraction of timber to local markets.  At present, these are activities are frequently loss-making, or not supported by local planning authorities.
Public forests will be managed by a new Forest Enterprise, which will be overseen by Guardians, and in turn will be put in trust for the nation under a Charter.  The new FE will still have the ability to buy and sell forestry land, but this will be a controlled process, rather than a short-term stop-gap to balance the books thanks to under-investment by the Government.  A more strategic viewpoint on management, on forestry cycles, rather than Parliamentary cycles, is a great move – none of us own woodlands, but are simply their guardians, as they have outlived generations of humans.
Woodland creation is to be targeted to areas of greatest benefit for the environment (to improve connectivity of habitats), and for people (nearer to where they live, rather than small, random, inaccessible farm woodlands).
Best of all, it is recommended that all children have woodland education sessions as part of their education, with the aim of connecting children to nature.
The main areas of concern that I have are around the protection afforded to Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW) and how the Guardians are appointed and operate.  I think this report has missed an opportunity to secure high-level protection for ASNW (and plantations on ancient sites, or PAWS).  Although protection through the planning system is recommended, the report stops short of recommending that all ASNW gets de facto SSSI status.  This is a shame.  It leaves the door open to developments where the benefits outweigh the costs, a system which can be exploited by those with powerful interests and good lawyers, even when local planning authorities and local plans wish to retain ASNW.  Thus further loss of this irreplaceable habitat, is not guaranteed.
The other area of concern I have relates to the Guardians of the public forest estate.  They will have a powerful role, overseeing the work of FE, and in particular, acquisitions and sales of public woodland, and permissions for other organisations, including private enterprise and NGOs, to manage the woodland on behalf of the public.  Who will be the Guardians?  How will they be appointed or elected and how can we ensure that these same Guardians do not act in self-interest, particularly if they come from the same private and third-sector organisations that stand to benefit from purchases, sales, and management contracts?  Parliament, and its Committees and Members, can come under huge pressure from those with vested interests.  It will be important to see that this group are accountable, and that their interests and those of their work do not conflict.
I hope that this will result in real support for small woodland owners.  The type of support I would like to see will come in the form of expertise, helping small woodland owners to fit in with the larger picture at landscape level.  Public access will not be improved if there is no support for security, staffing, and most of all, paying public liability insurance, which can amount to many thousands of pounds a year if woodlands are accessible to the public and particularly children.  Management will not be improved if there is no support for harvesting of wood and its extraction, and this requires new local markets.  The principle of “wood first” in construction is advocated, but unless local wood is available at appropriate prices, there is a risk it will just be imported.  Wildlife habitats will not improve if the wrong trees are planted in the wrong place, and a single system of management is enforced across all woodlands – some woods may be best left alone, others need a lot of work, and the advice given by FS needs to reflect that.Woodland owners will not work with schools if it costs them money to do so – the health and safety culture makes this difficult, even for those who are willing to encourage school visits.  Woodland owners will not be able to improve the facilities offered at their woods if there is no funding for improved access, and planning authorities consistently refuse reasonable requests for tool sheds, shelters, visitor centres, eco-camping and temporary or low-impact accommodation for workers managing woodland sustainably.
Most of all, nothing will happen if the Government does not commit to funding, and to making the recommendations of this report a reality.  We need to hold them to it.  We need to make it happen.