The report of the Independent Panel on Forestry is a good one. I recommend that anyone interested in access, wildlife, trees, public policy, land use and politics should read it.
The question for us all, particularly the coalition government, is ‘what next?’.
Let’s go back to those distant-seeming days of early 2011 when David Cameron panicked and repudiated his government’s forestry policy in what will remain in my mind as a telling example of his lack of management experience. No half-decent manager, let alone half-decent leader, publicly dumps his colleagues in the mire in the way that Cameron did at PM’s Question Time. And that is true, in my opinion, whether they are right or wrong.
Our relatively new-in-the -job Prime Minister was panicking because there had been a great uprising of public opinion against his government’s plans to sell off some forests to the private sector. The public somehow got it into their heads that the New Forest and Forest of Dean were about to be sold off to asset strippers who would arrive with chainsaws to fell our forests, surround them with barbed wire and despoil our landscape, although I don’t think that that was what government really had in mind.
And so, ever since, the forestry debate has been too much dominated by the ownership question and not enough by the ‘what next?’ question. The great radical campaigning victory over forestry, so far, has been to maintain the status quo, which is OK if the status quo is OK but hardly earth-shattering if it isn’t.
Ownership is important, and don’t get me wrong, I am glad that much of the public forest estate is staying in our hands (although the bits I am most pleased about were never going to leave our hands).
And, trees are important and lovely – I spent half a day last week in the oldest part of Abernethy Forest seeing some 350+ year old Scots pines and marvelling at the look of them. I’ll tell you more about that trip in a book (if the publisher says yes) or a future blog (if not).
But, but, but, but but, the status quo is not good enough. Our publicly owned state forests are a mixture of the very good, the average and the ugly, and that is just what you would expect from the long and changing priorities of the Forestry Commission over the last 90+ years.
My friend Roderick Leslie, who often comments on this blog (and with whom I agree about most things) once pointed out to me, quite rightly, that foresters have to live with their mistakes for longer than most people as the rotation for a commercial forest may be 30+ years. I am making mistakes all the time, 30 seconds ago I mistyped something, 30 minutes ago I mis-dialled a phone number and 30 days ago, 30 weeks ago and 30 years ago I was making mistakes. But my mistyping, misdialling and general mistake-making have either been corrected or forgotten whereas some ugly conifer plantations on heathlands or replacing ancient woodlands still remain.
And in recent years our FC has not been doing a good enough job for nature and wildlife in our forests as a whole. The glacially slow progress, seemingly deliberate to those of us closely involved in the issue, in removing some trees from some heathlands can’t be ignored or denied because the trees are still there to this day.
The FC has performed well, generally speaking, in delivering its remit. I think it has done less well on delivering nature conservation than it has on access, timber production and general entertainment value but others might disagree. But at the core of this problem is the mixed up remit of the FC. Wildlife has always been shuffled down the list of priorities because it has never been clear where exactly it stands. Provided there are a few good examples of progress to show a government Minister then that has seemed to do the trick.
The Independent Panel’s report seems to have fallen a little too far into the ‘aren’t trees lovely’ camp for my liking, which is just as prejudiced as a ‘aren’t trees horrible’ view which nobody would espouse. I do think that the report’s cover is very witty though – a falling oak leaf against a background of a conifer plantation.
The Panel recommends that we should remove some trees from places where they should, arguably, never have been planted in the first place, but also recommends that we should increase England’s forest area by50% by 2060. Will the NFU be speaking out against this on the grounds that it will prejudice world food supply and our own food security? Probably not as consistency is not to be expected from that body.
Most of the real nature conservation bodies have stressed the importance of woodland management as a key factor in delivering nature in ‘our’ woodlands. With many woodland birds, woodland butterflies and woodland plants declining in numbers it is very much to be hoped that this element will be taken up by government and by the FC with enthusiasm. To repeat, the status quo is not good enough and more of the status quo (50% more by 2060) is nothing special in wildlife terms either – so let’s see a real push for delivering wildlife in our forests please.
This is a very good report and I have only touched on some elements of it here (read the bits about tree diseases for an eye-opener about forestry in the future). It is one of the best of such reports I can remember and so the long wait for it was probably worth it. But it is ‘only’ the report of an independent panel, and so this is not the end of the story. This may be the beginning of a new, better, public forests story if, and only if, government does something and there is no guarantee that this government will do anything so the future of our forests, our enjoyment of them and the wildlife which depends on them is still unresolved.
Government should be considering the role of public forestry in a crowded country with rather low woodland cover overall, with exotic diseases threatening the economics of timber production, with declining woodland wildlife, with some trees in the wrong places and serving little public benefit, and with there being many non-market benefits of trees in the landscape. It is a lot to think about but nothing will have been gained if the status quo is allowed to continue through lack of investment and lack of action.
A new remit for FC, which takes all these things into account and more, seems key to me in a better future for our forests.
Good report – now let’s make it stick in the right places. In the last 18 months little has been lost and little has been gained, but this report spells out clearly that there is much to be gained in the future.
PS – and to the couple, who read this blog (avidly, so they say), whom I met in the woods yesterday, no, I didn’t see any either….