Where next with England’s forests?

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….


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8 Replies to “Where next with England’s forests?”

  1. Writing in a national magazine recently I compared words like messy and now 'Ugly'. You see ugly other people see beauty! Spruce bark beetle enters the forest and you have 50% die off. What is 'ugly' then when Lesser spotted Woodpecker makes dramatic come back!

  2. Excellent blog as always Mark! I wonder nobody seems to have commented that if it weren't for the Government's clumsy 'sell-off' proposal in the first place we wouldn't have this much needed report, nor exciting new launch pad it has now provided us with! Hope there's enough fuel for a beautiful journey ahead!

  3. There is no 'status quo' with woodlands as they are constantly developing and evolving which is one of the things that is fantastic about them.

  4. Here's a question: does being a nature conservationist mean never having to say thank you ?

    Throughout the forest saga there has, as far as I've been able to find, barely one word of acknowledgement of FC's conservation achievement - with the notable and honourable exception of Tony Whitbread of Sussex Wildlife Trust who also happens to know more about woodland conservation than most of the other commentators put together.

    Who would guess from the conservation rhetoric, including Mark's, that FC has actually restored more heathland than any other organisation - and probably more than everyone else put together ? (FC can't prove this because of the poor data from the other bodies - we tried to fix it with EN but they weren't interested). Anyone - including RSPB - who has worked on heathland knows that by far the biggest problem is persuading local people that removing trees is a good thing. It is bitterly ironic that the tree people - FC - have been by far the most successful at it - including the massive and risky New Forest-New Future programme, certainly the most complex ever rural planning exercise resulting in massive gains for England's most important terrestrial habitat. Chris Corrigan of RSPB played a key role in this - but the lessons we all learnt just never seemed to penetrate out into the wider conservation world.

    It's an issue that plays a wider part in the systemic problems facing nature conservation generally: as I've noted before here, when we hit the 2010 target point there's no doubt we'd failed - but conservation missed a huge chance by presenting an amorphously gloomy outlook when the truth was the opposite: very, very poor performance on the wider countryside contrasted with great success on targeted programmes including the SSSI programme where FC did best with a score of 99% in favourable or improving condition - another stat you'll never, ever see a conservationist quoting. Might the message 'we've done brilliantly, lets do more ? be a little more appealing than 'you're just a load of wasters ?'

    Even Defra and FC civil servants are people, you know, and they also have other priorities - I will admit I didn't push heathland as hard as I might have done when RSPB attacked FC as we faced decisions on the next round of heathland restoration. Partly because the attack severely eroded my political capital within FC on what had always been a difficult issue - it took a lot of leadership to get to where we did- but also because I was pursuing the wood energy story - which hopefully will now play the key role in recovering England's woodland biodiversity - and it looked a far better investment in time than pursuing something where all the organisation was likely to get was brickbats.

    Mark has, however, picked up the key issue that he & Mike Clarke wouldn't pursue before the sales fiasco and that is remit - by 2010 FC had run way beyond its remit and more open habitats in particular raised fundamental questions for a body that was still meant to be about timber production - but through really the last decade I found it impossible to get conservationists to shift from their narrow perspectives onto the bigger context in which I agree with Mark we must all hope and lobby for the national forests to work to in the future. The challenge now is making it stick - these are complex issues and the threat of them quietly disappearing in the gloop of Defra policy making worries me intensely.

    I know conservationists are having difficulty accepting it, not invented here, but I think its a much bigger issue even than it seems: FC's incredible multi-purpose delivery on the ground - including now wider issues like flooding - could, handled well, be a key vehicle to elevating ecosystems services thinking to the central place across Government that it has to be if we are to conserve our wildlife and defend ourselves against climate change.

  5. I have mixed feelings on the issue of the vast FC plantations of The British Isles. On the one hand they WERE a great idea at the time. A sustainable source of wood for a country and government that was planning ahead for the possibility of future world wars. But things changed, as they inevitably do in this world, and the cost of importing wood became cheaper. Now we are left with vast areas of woodland that is, in a lot of cases, past it's "sell by" date and costly to remove and replace with mixed deciduous woodland. Yes there are wildlife benefits for many species but walking around these plantations often leaves me with a feeling of emptiness. Row after straight row of planted pines. A lack of shrub and ground fauna due to acidity levels in the soil apart from the ever invasive ponticum. A lack of birdsong, excluding, for example, Goldcrest and occasional Firecrest. Just a general sense of an empty wood. The FC has started to redress many of these issues. Areas are starting to be felled and replaced. Opening up plantations to the public for mountain biking, horse riding and other activities is making a better use of the land but is it ultimately beneficial to the British countryside as a whole? Mr Bradshaw above says that there is no "status quo" within woodland and on the whole, when discussing mixed deciduous woods, I would agree but for me there is nothing BUT "status quo" within these dead plantations.

  6. In reply to Ian - Wow, if that's a common view of nature conservationists we have a mountain and a half to climb to realise sustainable development. The UK is not the Galapagos and imported timber is not guaranteed sustainably sourced, even with an FSC stamp as the recent fiasco with Ikea felling large tracts of Russian ancient boreal forest proves. And given the immense passion people have for Spruce plantations however misguided this may be - surely people have to concede that plantations are a much better use of certain land than many agricultural practices are environmentally speaking. Okay we have to get serious with land values and this is where nature capital valuation can help - and hopefully see future planting in the peri urban rather than moorland landscape.

    1. The problem is the cost of commercially felling these FC plantations for selling to big business for timber is just not competitive. If these sources of sustainable wood were being felled and sold on a regular basis then there wouldn't be a problem. But there not! What we have now are "over mature" plantations and these trees are self-seeding and poor secondary woods are the result. Neither beneficial to wildlife or humans. I have no problem with being "self sufficient" in supplying our own wood but it's just not happening. Whether we need tighter regulations from government about importing wood from non sustainable woods and 3rd World Countries is a matter that needs to be looked into. Profit, as always, is what drives businesses such as IKEA and somehow we need to address this imbalance for the sake of our woods and wildlife.


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