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. 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.

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 Change.org.

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 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!

Hopwas Woods

Hopwas Woods – broadleaves and conifers

UPDATE 30/10/2014 – Lafarge Tarmac have withdrawn their application to quarry under Hopwas Woods.

Who will fight for nature in future?

The woods look fantastic in the snow – a world transformed by snow and ice into a fairyland of wonder.  All around us are the signs of the struggle nature has at this time of year – the busy seed feeders, tracks in the snow, food caches being dug up and consumed, the occasional evidence of predation.  It is a hard time of year.

It is perhaps easier to appreciate an acute threat, such as snow and ice, than an insidious threat, but it is there, nonetheless.  The renowned writer on management, Charles Handy, used a metaphor in his books about the boiling frog.  If you put a frog into hot water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water and heat it gradually, it will be boiled to death (I believe this is not true, but it is a good metaphor).  Not a nice thing to happen to a frog, but the same thing is in danger of happening to our natural environment.  We can appreciate, worry about, and try to solve an acute crisis, but we become habituated to the gradual loss and erosion of biodiversity and environment until we become aware it has gone, and gone for good.

What are these threats?  They are so common and ubiquitous that we don’t even see or appreciate them happening.  But they are there, and it all boils (pardon the pun) down to policy.  And we have a lot of new policies kicking in at present.  Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (including farm subsidies), the Natural Environment White Paper (failure to protect ancient woodland), the National Planning Policy Framework (failure to explicity protect anything other than species and habitats protected under European legislation).  Then there is Biodiversity Offsetting – the idea that you can rip up habitat in one place, and replace it in another – the more valuable the habitat, the higher it scores, but you can replace a little high-scoring habitat with a lot of low-scoring less-valuable habitat.  But nature doesn’t work that way.  There is the drive to industrialise agriculture, with the threat of mega-farms and mega-dairies, and the loss of hedgerows and habitats that this involves to provide fodder crops.  Ownership of land is concentrated in ever-fewer hands, and subsidies frequently go not to those who farm and care for the land, but large landowners.  Councils are selling off their farms – one of the few routes into farming for the non-wealthy.  People are progressively distanced from the countryside, and the land, and farming, and forests – it is a place to visit, not a place to live, and breathe, and experience.

Then there are pests and diseases, some imported (Chalara fraxinea for example) and some of our own.  And there are the neonicotinoid pesticides that have devastated our pollinators, and that most other countries have banned, but not the UK.  The Localism Bill has the potential for local people to say where they want development and of what type, but only if they are aware of what is going on, and are empowered to have a say.  And they are not actually going to be allowed to say no – only to say what and where.  There is a big difference.

Finally, there is the threat from global warming and the dash to squeeze the last fossil fuels from the Earth at a time when we should be moving rapidly away from them – fracking, shale oil – widespread and large scale habitat destruction that damages the environment twice – once when extracting and again when the greenhouse gases are generated.

So who is going to stand up for nature?  Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission used to have the power to advise on policy – but are now restricted to commenting on how to implement it.  So we don’t have an official advocate for the environment, providing checks and balances to Government whims.

But we still have the charities, right?  Well…yes, but many of these charities are already working in partnership with Government and its agencies, and are coming to depend on them for money.  They are responsible for managing public land and resources, and for taking over the running of initiatives, programmes and courses.  So, the Ramblers and McMillan have taken over Natural England’s Walking for Health.  Fine – but these are charities with their own membership, and agenda, and are not independent bodies charged with protecting the environment.  And even where involvement is not direct, charities make use of the Government subsidies and grants to which they are entitled as landowners.  The imperative is not to rock the boat.  How dependent have charities such as the Woodland Trust and Wildlife Trusts become?  How willing would they be to stand up against harmful policy initiatives if, for example, it put their income at risk?  Why was it that the policy to sell off the public forest estate nearly succeeded?  Perhaps because some of the charities involved stood to gain financially?  The Independent Forestry Panel was a result of campaigning not by the major bodies, but a widespread and fierce campaign from the public, headed up by a number of new campaigning groups such as Save our Woods

A report was launched today (1) that looked at the role of independence in the charitable sector.  This was from the perspective of charities that provide services for disadvantaged populations, but the findings are completely applicable here, too.  Independence is falling, and charities are unwilling to speak out when policies, or the way they are being implemented, produce harmful effects for those whom they serve or represent. Charities desperate for money will find it very tempting to sieze on any funds they can get – that is what makes policies like biodiversity offsetting so appealing, but so frightening too.

Who IS going to fight for nature?  Do people even know we have a fight on our hands?  The level of knowledge is frighteningly poor, not just among those who set policy, but among the generations of people failed by the system that has distanced them from nature, failed to teach them about it, failed to immerse them in the experience, and failed to produce a new generation of advocates.  Why are there so few angry young people now?  Where are the protests?  I see few, or none – nothing like the student protests of the 1960’s and 70’s, nothing like Woodstock, nothing like Greenham Common, the Vietnam War protests.  There should have been millions of students protesting about tuition fees – not a few hundred thousand.  There should be millions of people protesting against the policies that are threatening our environment, and with it, the future of this planet and of the human species.  There are a few shining lights, but mostly people sit and take it.

We are sitting in the pot and the heat is on.  Who is going to speak up and protest?  Who is going to jump out and sing before the water boils?  Or will it just boil away, and we will wake up one morning to find it has all gone?

(1) Independence Review

Natural Balance

It struck me last night, as I was watching the new BBC programme that reconstructs our human ancestors, just how precarious our situation is.  We were once one of several species of hominids co-existing on Earth, but recently, very recently, all the others died out, except for Homo sapiens.  We are not the climax of evolution on this planet.  We are a tenuous final relic of an evolutionary grouping that has all-but died out, or, in the case of the Neanderthals, been incorporated into our North European DNA.
What I found disturbing about this was that the assumption is that we are better, and will adapt better and survive because we are cleverer than those hominids that died out.  But are we?
How do we interact with our environment?  Do we use our intelligence to learn about what is out there, study it, listen to it, value our time in the environment and what the environment gives to us, nurture the environment, preserve its resources, work with it so that every species can prosper?  Or do we seek to modify, dominate, apply technological fixes, eliminate those things that don’t suit us, marginalise species to the ever-diminishing bits of the planet that people don’t want to exploit?
There are many, many people out there who would like to live in the former way – in harmony, in natural balance with the environment.  But there seem to be many more who want to exploit and control it.
Agriculture used to be about working with the land – using the right bits of land to grow the right bits of food.  Now global markets determine what is grown where for maximum profit, regardless of whether the land is suitable.  So we modify, drain, irrigate, apply chemicals, cut down trees, clear scrub, create terraces, canalise rivers, remove hedgerows and wildflower margins.  In doing so we upset the natural balance created over millions of years.  Our interventions in turn upset the ecosystems, and lead to certain species that are tolerant of our activities dominating – only to be condemned as pests and attacked again with chemicals, with culling, with shooting, poisoning, trapping.
There seems to be a great deal of thought and technology applied to the mechanics of agriculture and environmental management, but not a great deal of strategic intelligence.  It does not take a great deal of intelligence to realise that if we upset the natural balance too much, we will suddenly find ourselves in a crisis of our own making.  We were never given “dominion over all the creatures on the Earth”.  We are just another one of them – a perilous relic of a group of species, all of which, apart from us, have failed.  We absolutely rely on the natural balance for the production of our food, for materials for our housing, for our energy, for our medicines, and for our lives.
Humans seem to think that we can simply force the world to our will.  We cannot.  Sooner or later the natural balance will tip against us, and none of our intelligence or technology will be able to cope.  We are the last of the hominids.  We have to wake up and think about what this means and how we can get back into balance with nature.
At the woods, we try to keep things in balance.  It is not easy, and we have made mistakes.  But if you respect the cycles of life, and seek to help them achieve balance, rather than constantly throwing them into disarray, it is remarkable what a difference you can make to the wildlife, and the richness of the environment.
Most people love the countryside, and enjoy being there.  Very few see the complexity of what is around them, and even fewer understand the key processes that go into making it the wonderful place it is.  If Homo sapiens is to avoid the fate of other hominds, then we have to re-acquire this understanding quickly, and learn that if we work with nature, it will help us many times over, but if we try and fight it, the battle is already lost.  Ecological processes are beautiful – few human interventions are, and they are mostly those interventions that work closely with nature – windmills, solar panels, water-wheels.
So here is a message for those in charge:  stop destroying the countryside.  Stop shooting things that happen to be in the “wrong” place.  Stop spraying “weeds” but start encouraging wild flowers that in turn will bring beneficial insects that themselves control the “pests” that we encourage by our hundred-acre monoculture crops.  Start managing forests and woodlands sustainably.  Stop building on valuable habitat just because the land is cheaper.  Stop tidying up the countryside.  Put the hedgerows back and sell the huge machinery – go to a smaller scale.  Look at the principles of permaculture, and learn to make the land a great place for every creature, including humans.  Stop seeing nature as something that is OK provided it doesn’t cause any inconvenience for anybody.  Stop denying the human contribution to global warming and start doing something about it, rather than paying lip-service and carrying on as before.  Stop pandering to globalised vested interests, corporate greed, corruption and cover-ups, and start being open and honest.  Value every living thing, including humans who don’t come from the same country, background, religion or point of view as yourself.
Or lose the natural balance, and lose out.  Other creatures will come along and take our place.  We are not God’s anointed and never were.  We are just another endangered species, the difference being that we are endangering ourselves.  We must acknowledge this quickly, and do something about it, before it is too late.