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.