Wildlife Trusts rehabilitated

The Wildlife Trusts, in my opinion, did not distinguish themselves over the issue of public forests and SSSIs in 2010/11.  They gave the impression to many of us of having one eye on the main chance and having lost focus on the needs of nature.  Let’s put it down to a momentary aberration which we should now put behind us since their line on public forests now seems very good (to me – see what you think).

Here is what they are saying ahead of the Independent Panel’s report on Forestry which will be published tomorrow (and on which sits the Wildlife Trusts’ supremo Stephanie Hilborne):


The Wildlife Trusts’ seven criteria:

1.  A new remit for the Forestry Commission

The Wildlife Trusts want to see a shift in the Forestry Commission so that its primary focus is on nature and the provision of other public benefits.  The Public Forest Estate should be an exemplar of sustainable management.  This will require a change in the Forestry Commission’s statutory remit.

2.  Integration

Forestry should be part of a coherent strategy for the natural environment: woods being one part of a resilient ecological network.  Forestry policy and grants should be integrated with other land use and management policies and incentives.

3.  Better protection

We want to see better protection for existing woods, especially ancient woodlands.

4.  Reconnection of people with the natural environment

People’s access to the Public Forest Estate (PFE) should be protected.  Government should also create more opportunities for people to enjoy and be inspired by woodlands and forests outside the Public Forest Estate.

5.  Reconnection of woodlands at a landscape-scale

Natural regeneration and tree planting should be encouraged to buffer, extend and link existing woodlands.  In all cases, a ‘right tree in the right place’ principle should be adopted.

6.  Restoration of existing woodlands

Existing woodlands that could be richer in wildlife should be brought to life by appropriate, sustainable woodland management.  This can increase habitat quality and help to reverse declines in woodland wildlife.

7.   Restoration of open habitats under plantation forestry 

Areas of lowland heathland, meadow and other internationally important open habitats planted with conifers must be restored with urgency.

Paul Wilkinson added:  “The Public Forest Estate represents the single biggest opportunity to implement the recommendations made in last year’s Natural Environment White Paper, including the Lawton Review.  It is critical that this opportunity is taken.”


I think all of those points are good ones and the most important is the first – a new remit for FC – because so much else flows from that important change.  And, personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few grotty forests being sold off under that new remit (for there are grotty forests that could easily be managed by the private sector and whose sale would top up public coffers).  But a new remit for FC is key – one that recognises the real value of forests not just their timber value.  And that new remit would look much more similar to the remit of NE, wouldn’t it?

So, well done Wildlife Trusts.  Well done for recapturing your conservation essence and getting your mojo working again.


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25 Replies to “Wildlife Trusts rehabilitated”

  1. There is not one 'grotty' forest in FC hands. If you know forestry management they all can be managed in a better way. Once in private hands the land is lost for ever. Community sell off is the only sale which should be looked at as in Scotland. The money should then be used to buy new land. Job creation is the other positive approach for communities. Buy Knarsdale and turn it into a Black Grouse reserve with upland planting run for the community.

    1. John - I agree there is not one grotty FC forest - there are lots! And, of course, they could all be improved but that is why the remit of FC needs to change as they have not been improved in the past and will not be in the future without a strong remit to do so. my guess would be that we could have twice the wildlife in half the area of state owned forests if they were managed much better. Let us hope that the Independent Panel's report says that, and that government then acts upon it.

  2. I'm very pleased to see this - a huge improvement which i hope other NGOs will follow.

    However, there is a glaring omission: like all the NGOs even including the excellent report from Plantlife they seem to be dodging the ownership issue. NGO after NGO has said 'ownership doesn't matter'. On that basis I am going to challenge you directly, Mark: how would your former staff at ham Wall feel if someone came along and said 'this is all very inefficient, why don't RSPB give the reserve to Natural England who are doing a good job next door ?' Would ownership matter then ? Do you think, perhaps, that RSPB people bring something special to the reserves they manage ? If so, why not the same for a (silenced) FC ? The public certainly seem to think so.

    Ownership and access are two quite seperate issues: when people step onto FC land they don't have to worry about where they walk, don't have to follow prescribed paths. Surely that is the freedom we are all looking for in our relationship with nature ? And they know THEY own the land, not a group of trustees, however benign. This is a national treasure comparable to the buildings we seem to value so much higher. It binds communities, it probably binds the nation - as the Daily Mail report you featured in March proved - it is above and beyond the grubby arguments over short term economics and misbehaviour in office that dominates a rather dreary present. And history suggests that where so many people have acted as one over an issue the conclusion is only a metter of time - in this case new legislation to confirm that we all own the national forests, and forever.

    1. Roderick - if the public forest estate had been assembled on conservation criteria then the analogy with Ham Wall would be more apt. But, as you know, it wasn't - it's a rag bag (a delightful rag bag in many ways) of sites of high conservation importance and of practically no conservation importance (though everywhere has some wildlife and has untapped potential). And so if we had an FC with a public benefits remit it would seem strange to me if that body necessarily wanted to keep all the land that had been assembled with a mixed public benefit and commercial timber remit. Another difference is that the RSPB isn't a government department like the FC - it's the RSPB's money, whereas the FC's money is my money and could be spent on hospitals, schools or better nature conservation if that was what we all decided. I know it isn't just about nature conservation, there are other public benefits of course, but the same argument applies.

      The ownership thing is not as important to me as it is to Save Our Forests - I'd like our forests' wildlife to be 'saved' by better management, and that really does not have to be done by the state.

  3. The Neroche project seems to me to embody most of the seven criteria. Yet there was vociferous opposition to any change to the forest, by a few elitist misanthropic objectors who regarded it proprietorially as their own, for the purposes of furtive walking, tree-hugging and box-ticking expeditions.

    Fortunately sense prevailed and the current state of the forest provides a greater public good than formerly. I believe the tactical clearance of conifers and targeted grazing by longhorn cattle has allowed ingress of host plants and has been particularly beneficial for invertebrates.


  4. In relation to point 7 above. " Restoration of open habitats under plantation forestry" Kirconnel Flow NNR in Dumfries and Galloway was a very large plantation of scots pine on peatland, subsequently the scots pine regenerated and formed an extremely fine forest. It was such a good forest and one of the best examples of a regenerated forest on peatland that it was designated an SSSI, SAC and NNR for this reason. Then along came the climatic change threat and of course most of this woodland was cleared to protect the peatlands. What remains is some amazing scots pine woodland full of breeding birds and threatened red squirrels and an area of degraded peat bog with only around 6 or so species of sphagnum mosses and with virtually noi breeding birds. As for the NNR what would people prefer to have a beautiful woodland which could be crossed by a network of paths or to clump through an area of soggy moorland with little botanical or animal interest. How much carbon must have been locked up in those 150 ft high trees before they were felled and how long will it take for the sphagnum mosses to build up in mass to absorb this same amount of carbon. The answer is for ever !!
    This blinkered approach to removing every last tree from lowland moorlands and peatlands is destroying some fantastic wildlife. Why not try to improve biodiversity in such areas instead of being obsessed with rewetting areas for sphagnum mosses. What the powers that be do not seem to know is that the really rare mosses such as Sphagnum austinii and Sphagnum fuscum which are hummock formers do not like over wet peat bogs and a lot of present management will actually be destroying these species

    1. DavidH - interesting. These issues should be better dealt with in a body with public benefits at its heart than profit. That doesn't make them any less complex, but does take out the trump card of profitable forestry. Thank you for an interesting example (albeit a Scottish one).

      1. "Why not try to improve biodiversity in such areas instead of being obsessed with rewetting areas for sphagnum mosses"

        Spot on. Some careerist's vanity project? I think this is a widespread malign influence - whereas habitats evolve over centuries, restoration projects have to happen during a career span, for published papers, promotion and kudos reasons.

        1. Habitats evolve over centuries but can be destroyed in weeks or even days. I agree that patience is no bad thing and over hasty management decisions may be repented at leisure but, given the widespread decline and loss of quality wildlife habitats across the whole landscape we perhaps don't have the luxury to just sit back and let things evolve in their own way for a few centuries. I would hope that management decisions affecting individual FC sites would be taken on their merits rather than through the inflexible application of a one size fits all rule but it seems to me that in at least some cases there is merit in attempting to restore conifer plantations (not all of which develop into NNR standard forest habitats) to peatland. Provided there is adequate awareness of the ecological requirements of the whole suite of mosses it is presumably possible to manage water levels in such a way as to not destroy the hummock forming species that prefer drier conditions whilst achieving high enough levels in the lower lying areas to promote the wet-loving species? Of course, any management decision, including the do nothing option, can turn out to be wrong so it is important to include adequate monitoring to enable adjustments to be made if this proves to be the case.

      2. Mark
        Kirkconnel Flow is owned by SNH a governmental organisation which doesn't mean they are any more capable of managing a wildlife habitat than anyone else and indeed have more political issues to take into account than a private organisation or an NGO. I do not understand what you mean when you say (albeit a Scottish one). Is this blog only for the English or maybe even southern English. Take care that you do not become branded a racist !

        1. David H - take care you don't brand the wrong rump! It is difficult for any blog to deal with the politics of nature conservation across the four countries of the UK and so I tend to stick to what I know best.

  5. The 'Ownership thing' is the biggest single issue at this moment in time.

    It is all well and good and quite right to shout for a strong vein of nature conservation for any Public (or rather publicly accessible - according to far too many commentators) Forest Estate, but this is to ignore the two other vitally important pillars of sustainable development: The economic and the social. Post Rio + 20, (nothing more than acceptance by many that SD is simply not understood by most people who should really have taken the time and trouble to truly understand its principles) we are at a time when the mainstream are further away from SD than ever before - unsurprising as it cannot be realised sat in an office. It was European foresters several generations ago who invented modern SD, which incorporates the need to consider the complexity of forests for humankind and as science has proved it is a symbiotic relationship with biodiversity, but this is too oft abused by linking deforestation in with forestry.

    To embrace SD and a landscape approach, we must have public ownership and we must have a solid 'forestry' based organisation - to not do so is to ignore the vital and wide role of the Forester. Or else it all collapses and we continue to see a pitifully poor amount of case study based on increasingly fragmented habitats and with armies of volunteers mismanaging woodland to the detriment of biodiversity because the traditional and innovative knowledge of those in arboriculture and silviculture has disappeared.

    And the threats all our trees face simply cannot be paid for by voluntary donation. So government funding is critical, not least to ensure that the UK doesn't face international export sanctions because it cannot guarantee, even partly, that its goods are not infested with a variety of beasties that threaten continental trees - which is what is at the back of many European observers minds as they watch the NGO hyenas circling the large and respected FC body.

    1. Pip - thank you, but I don't totally agree. I want public ownership of forests, and I want a FC that has a remit better fitted to public ownership and delivery of public benefits. But that doesn't mean that all the current forests owned by the state are the right ones at the moment. With a new remit some new forests and new land might be acquired, and some existing, rather grotty forests might be sold off. Anything else is such a conservative, non-progressive approach that I couldn't countenance it.

      Is anyone really saying that ownership is more important than management?

      1. Is anyone really saying that ownership is more important than management?

        Yes. The campaigns by 'Our Forests' and 38 degrees are all about ownership and nothing about biodiversity. They managed their propaganda superbly, with some clever examples of mis-information. Their petition - run in Cheshire by FC staff who wanted to maintain their jobs and off-road cycling organisations who have killed much of the undergrowth in the FC land - aggressively targeted ill-informed visitors to the FC woods with horror stories about the government wanting to stop people walking in the woods; the exact opposite of the DEFRA consultation proposals.

        Sadly this rapidly became, like the NHS discussions, a politicised debate all about who owns and runs the forests rather than about achieving the best outcomes for wildlife and the public.

        The Wildlife Trusts (and other NGOs), in my view, were caught on the back foot against the wave of propaganda. But no-one in the media wanted to listen to reasoned argument anyway.

  6. "But a new remit for FC is key – one that recognises the real value of forests not just their timber value. And that new remit would look much more similar to the remit of NE, wouldn’t it?"

    FC is likely to get a new remit very soon...in Wales. It will be merged with the CCW and the Environment Agency withing 12 months. We'll let you know how it goes!

    1. Fi Syn Siarad - yes, I wonder how that will go...? I always think that the EA is the odd one out in that threesome.

  7. Mark, David - Actually, it's neither myself nor Our Forests which is ignoring biodiversity : it is you who are ignoring two very vital points:

    First, that whilst biodiversity is a key component of the forests they are actually - especially in FC hands - exemplars of management for a range of objectives - which i accept involves tradeoffs, mistakes and places where FC doesn't always get ir right. Throughout the whole process what has struck me has been the number of people who've argued for one point of view - the timber side is as bad - without taking account of the whole. A rather vital lesson is a society increasingly focused on simple, single, maximum profit outcomes - notably agriculture.

    Second, there is a very deep feeling amongst many forest users that this is THE bit of our country they really, actually own. I think both politicians and other interests including environmentalists have simply failed to understand this. It is ironic because these are the same feelings as the belief that nature is far more than something to be analysed by economists and exploited by business. We're on the same side really - its just that conservation has struggled to grasp the bigger vision FC has led in places like Neroche.

    And, yes, there are forest that don't deliver much public benefit - but your argument, Mark, equates to focussing conservation effort on SINCS (local wildlife sites) before thinking about SACs and SPAs (international quality wildlife sites).

  8. Dear David Norman, I think by Our Forests you are referring to one of the many campaign groups involved last year called 'Save Our Forests'. Not to be confused with the outfit I am proud to be a part of 'Save Our Woods' (who were also involved with the NPPF debate - and certainly cannot be accused of not considering biodiversity) - with no FC staff, and I by the way am a private sector forester. Our Forests is the ginger group to the forestry panel comprising of Johnathan Porritt, Tony Juniper, Gabriel Hemery, Hen Anderson (also of SOW), Roderick Leslie and Rich Daniels. I was impressed by and am involved with SOW because they were looking for the truth beyond some of the misinformation and sometime use of the campaign to simply get donations flowing - which at least one of the campaign groups and one of the NGOs involved were also.

    Good management is not solely with the FC - there are many fine examples of good management from the private sector. But forestry is too complex to be subject to the limitations of debate placed on it here; as an example the 'grotty' woodland referred to, assuming this means Sitka Spruce plantation - which is highly valued to many people and now often considered to be an image of the forests they were prepared to campaign for preserving as public (and even given hollywood stardom in the UK landscape portrayed in films such as Braveheart and Robin Hood). Is it not quite useful to have such temporary forest of low conservation value but treasured by the public - therefore enabling a relieve of pressure on woodland of high conservation value? After all a mountain bike course through Wistmans' Wood is not even worth contemplating.

    So before debating this further maybe it is best to ask here what ownership is considered and what exactly constitutes good management by the readership and author of this blog. To me good management is multi-purpose sustainable forest management - but have a feeling that most consider untouched ancient woodland as such, which constitutes a very small proportion of the PFE, the majority is there to help fund it.

    1. When I referred to Our Forests, I meant Our Forests, although the website of that 'ginger group' is indeed hosted by Save Our Woods.

      Last week (27 June) Our Forests published a press release (http://saveourwoods.co.uk/our-forests/public-ready-to-rise-up-again-if-government-fails-them-over-public-woods-forests/) ...

      Working closely with grassroots & forest community groups across England – Our Forests has produced a shared declaration of support for our public woods & forests & those who look after them:

      “We believe that public ownership of the Public Forest Estate must be secured, through new legislation. The rich cultural, historical and natural diversity of our forests and woods, and full access to them, is best protected under the continued stewardship of the Forestry Commission, fully resourced to sustainably manage and expand our multi-purpose Public Forest Estate now and in the future.”

      Their declaration puts ownership first.

      1. David, It is interesting how different groups are approching the same problem from a different direction and I suppose that is to be expected. I don't agree that the prime aim of this group is ownership it is stated as protection of the "rich cultural, historical and natural diversity" but to do that they wish the ownership of the public forest estate to be with the public and I would personally support that. As a scientist I am sure you rightly see forests in terms of biological diversity. As a layman I tend to see forests in terms of social and historical diversity protecting within that the natural element that is important to us all.

        The Forest of Dean is the one best known to me and that contains a wide variety of natural resources but is based on an area that was still mining when I was young, had been historically stripped out for Nelson's navy, where access had gone (not that long ago) and come back and which still remains an area under old feudal laws of free mining, sheep badgering etc. That heritage is as important to the public as the biodiversity that it protects.

        We will hopefully know what might happen later today.

        Best Wishes, Bob

  9. And so it should do - because it's what concerns the wider public who rose up against the Government's proposals - and what scared the Government was the very fact that it wasn't party political - opposition came from all shades of opinion in a system that has got used to nice, neat left-right debates and an electorate modified through easily identifiable organisations including our countryside NGOs.

    And, on the grotty forests lets remember that Kielder was key to the re-establishment of Goshawk in England and that in the 1980s an RSPB report from the Welsh Marches informally concluded that the life chances of nesting Buzzard depended entirely on the ownership of the land they nested on - with FC nesting Buzzard rearing far more young than on any other ownership - and as we've seen on this blog charitable ownership doesn't = protection for raptors.

    After the quite spectacular effort, often doing what civil servants aren't meant to do, going the extra mile and sticking our heads above the parapet (as I did over many years on that most contentious of issues, heathland restoration) it wouldn't surprise me if, whilst silent through the same Government orders that are silencing NE, many FC staff aren't rather disappointed by the ungenerous behaviour of many of their conservation colleagues.

  10. "silent through the same Government orders that are silencing NE"

    Do tell us! Or Guido ...

  11. No great secret ! Simply follow this blog - the spectacular saga of Walshaw Moor - and, of course, the strange case of the dissappearing Hen harrier data - far more thrilling than Guido !


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