Our forests

The government published its response to the report of the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry last week.

You will remember that 38 Degrees launched a campaign to Save our Forests and more than half a million people signed the petition worded as follows:

The government is planning a massive sell off of our national forests. They could be auctioned and fenced off, run down, logged or turned into golf courses and holiday villages.

We can’t let that happen. We need to stop these plans. National treasures like the The Forest of Dean, Alice Holt, Kielder, Thetford, Grizedale, Bedgebury, Sherwood Forest and The New Forest could be sold off. Once they are gone, they will be lost forever.

A huge petition will force the government to rethink its plans. If we can prove how strongly the public are against this, they will have to back down. Please sign the petition now.

Half a million of us signed that – including me – and it was nonsense. The ‘national treasure’ of Kielder Forest? The New Forest sold off – when did the Government say they were going to do that? Weren’t many of these forests planted just so that they can be logged (and then replanted)?

38 degrees has now moved on but is still claiming on its website: We Won! More than half a million of us got involved in the campaign to Save Our Forests, and the government agreed to drop the planned sell-off.

Now let me be clear, even though much of it was nonsense, I signed the 38 Degrees petition (I was still working for the RSPB at the time) as it seemed an excellent way to make the government stop, think and think better about what it was doing.  As of last week do we have a clearer idea, two years after all the public hooha, of what the government intends to do?  What does it intend to do, and what should we think of it?

To work out what the government position now is you can read the press release, the Ministerial statement and the Government Forestry Policy.  I’ve read them, and there are many good words.

On forestry sales it is clear that the previous policy to dispose of 15% of the forest estate has been scrapped – although I cannot see with what it has been replaced.  I see no clear statement that no forests will be sold (and I think it would be a bit mad if such a commitment were to be made).  So I think we are in a ‘wait and see’ position on that one.

There is a clear commitment to set up a new public body to look after our public forests with a much clearer role in looking at social and environmental aspects of forestry as well as economic aspects.  This is good – provided the implementation of this policy is done well.

If you read the policy statement section on what will be done to deliver more wildlife it is a rather uninspiring packet of words but does include the important statement to publish an open habitats policy.  This is good – provided, when it comes, it contains the right words, and has been something that wildlife conservationists, most notably the RSPB, has been fighting for for years.  This is because some of our forests were planted in serried rows and ranks on open ground which had much higher wildlife value than the plantation of Scots pine could possibly ever have.  We’ll have to see what eventually emerges.

There is lots of other stuff here too: a bit more money, an enthusiasm for more trees, Big Society stuff, ecosystem services stuff, lots of stuff.  It hardly feels like a clear and definitive way forward but it isn’t that bad. However, it is not an inspirational or even a clear statement of the future of forestry.  It is absolutely typical civil-service-speak; there is something here for everyone and little to upset anyone.

And, lots of tree disease and health mentions sneak into the government response showing that government blows with the prevailing winds just like the rest of us.

So is everyone happy?

38 Degrees is very happy and claim victory.  But then their take on this matter was always simplistic and only reached one dimension. Interestingly, the squirrel they portray on their website looks rather like a grey squirrel doesn’t it?

Save our woods has nothing on its website about the government response.

The CLA praises government for its report and picks out the bits about reducing red-tape, encouraging woodland management and obviously has an eye on making money from carbon stored in trees.

The NFU says nothing – if only that were more often true.

The Woodland Trust is ‘very pleased’.  I was pleased to see the Woodland Trust say that they would have liked more clarity on aspects of the government response. Here is a large chunk of what the Woodland Trust statement said:

“Woodland protection, improvement and expansion, cited by Government as priority areas today, carry equal weight and cannot be taken in isolation. To ensure we achieve truly resilient landscapes able to withstand threats not only from disease but also increasingly from development, the Woodland Trust will continue to champion a strategy that includes all three approaches.  

We are pleased to see Government’s recognition of the need to deliver an increase in woodland cover up to 12%, which must ensure planting the right trees in the right places to protect, link and extend what little remains of our existing ancient woodland, as well as identifying appropriate areas to plant new woods and individual trees in towns and cities too. 

We welcome Government’s reaffirmation that the public forest estate will be overseen by a publically accountable body but urgently need clarification on plans for the future of Forest Services as we are concerned that this remains uncertain.”

The National Trust has said quite a few very sensible things about forestry recently and do so again: “It’s really good to have the Government agreeing to most of the other recommendations of the Panel. The policy statement is light on detail for some key areas, and we look forward to hearing more about how these aspirations can be turned into reality. There are no big surprises, and given the big vision from the Panel it would have been nice to see a few more fresh commitments and new initiatives.”

The RSPB is encouraged by the report but also points out that the report leaves many questions, including funding, unanswered. I liked this part of the RSPB statement, particularly the penultimate sentence and the last one too: “Whilst these proposals are encouraging, they won’t help if our woodlands are starved of funding and effective management in the long term. Healthy and well-managed woodlands are one of our greatest natural assets. England’s public forests cost £20m a year to fund, but the benefits they bring in terms of the environment and people’s health and wellbeing are worth £350m. Today’s announcement signals Government is starting to understand this wider value.  If money-saving decisions affecting our natural environment are made in a piecemeal way, we risk squandering our natural assets.”

The Wildlife Trusts warmly welcome the government response but also are waiting for the real meat of the decisions: “Defra’s statement demonstrates that it has listened to the thousands of people who want to see a better future for our woodlands and public forests.  Actions speak louder than words, however, and so we await clear signs that the right action is being taken.”

Do you see a theme emerging? Everyone thinks that there are good things in this government response but no-one is confident that the final outcome will be quite what they want.  Indeed, no-one seems entirely clear about what the outcome will be – or even what it is intended to be.  After two years of talk we are a little clearer about the future of our forests but not clear enough.  We now know that the very worst is not going to happen to them (although the very worst never was going to happen to them) but we cannot be sure that the future for our forests is much better than the past.

Government seems incapable of making decisions clearly and quickly on environmental issues. There is precious little political leadership here and that has allowed, and encouraged, the civil servants to write a government response which keeps everyone happy-ish but does not commit anyone to too much.

When this coalition government came into ‘power’ it started removing any independent voices on environmental issues; Natural England was muzzled and neutered (and kept indoors) so that it said nothing and its budgets were slashed so it could do less too; the RCEP was abolished; the SDC was abolished.  The idea, if there was an idea behind it, was to bring back policy making into government where it belongs.  If this government statement is an example of policy making then it’s a pretty poor outcome.  It’s a holding statement par excellence.

This government is stumbling towards a policy on forestry and has somehow lost its way in a thicket.  It lost its way over badgers and TB too – we don’t have a clue where it’s going with that one except that instead of everyone feeling somewhat reassured as they do with forestry everyone feels let down and angry instead (and we are no closer to solving the huge problem of bovine TB). The government has lost its way over marine nature conservation too – Richard Benyon praises those who clean seabirds but can’t promise those seabirds much in the way of marine protected areas despite years of Big Society public engagement.

What has this government done for the natural world – it is close to two thirds of its way through its term of office?  No, really – what has it done?



16 Replies to “Our forests”

  1. I am sure Save our woods response is forthcoming, probably late as a result of having to really understand what the govt’ is saying beyond the excellent news that the PFE is secured. After all SOW always did a lot of research and asking around in order to provide as much of a consensus view as possible. There is a considerable amount of contradiction, not least when you compare the commentary against what else is happening under their charge. Are Our Forests safe now? Not so sure, this may be the first time public are truly engaged on a major land use issue or excluded completely.
    The response by the Woodland Trust is somewhat at odds with their initial stance, when they were not opposed to the sales. The public response managed to eventually get them to see sense, but to many this was too late and in doing so they looked as though they were chasing potential funding instead on the back of a collective public reaction and work.

  2. I think that in general the voters get the policies they deserve! The natural environment is not top of voters priorities therefore it is not top of the Government’s priorities. The real meaty issues are as you imply never as much in the popular imagination as more sensational issues (badger culling, forest sell offs, etc). It would be interesting for you to poll your readers on the issues important to them!

  3. ‘some of our forests were planted in serried rows and ranks on open ground’ just like the plantations on RSPB reserves. If you have ever worked with trees this systems works where ‘grow tubes’ placed in thick vegetation like bracken does not. Especially if there is no follow up management. These plantations now have a new vegetation under the trees offering habitat for new bird species. Wind blow breaks up the’iron pan’ and lets new light in allowing natural regeneration. Plants found in the bracken before planting include Wood Sorrel, Wood Anemone and Climbing Corydalis all woodland plants in themselves. The Bracken is replaced by Broad Buckler Fern, Sweet Vernal and Creeping Soft grass due to shading by the dominant Birch. The rows brake up with thinning and Natural Regeneration [if the deer numbers are low!] In time plant species expand as the fertility of the land is also increased by the trees. Take note that the Langholm project wants to remove Birch from the moorland so that Red Grouse can increase while Black Grouse and other birds decrease.

  4. I’m happy – in fact I couldn’t really have asked for more: who, as you hint, Mark, would ever have thought forestry could be promoted to a point where real, sharp decisions had to be taken – the wonders of in/out referenda !

    And, of course, one can gripe over the fine print – which is a deeply embedded behaviour for NGOs and other commentators on Government policy. The reality is the politicians had to jump one way or the other – continue the fight or agree with public opinion. I hear the siren voice of Oliver Letwin ‘is this worth even a single seat ?’ Of course it isn’t. Having decided to do what people want, trust is the key issue – easily lost, hard to win. That is the guarantee the Government will try and what they have come up with is a good deal more insightful and competent than I’d feared.

    I probably understand this a good deal better than most conservationists having worked for an organisation that completely lost public trust. It was a very long haul back and the first step was to accept wholeheartedly that we had simply got it wrong – and work from there, making sure each and every step was consistent with a new approach. It was very hard work and it took over 20 years but it suceeded. the organisation was, of course, the Forestry Commission. It’s not a lesson the conservation sector has learnt – conservationists do, after all, have a right to be right – there aren’t many compliments for what FC has achieved anywhere in the commentaries on what has happened, nor many mea culpa’s about their initial wrongfooting (and I’m not being wise after the event – I was on RSPB Council when Nicholas Ridley tried to sell the NNRs and was one of the loudest voices for ‘don’t even think about it’).

    There are both some lessons and challenges here. The Government is right about the fact it isn’t just about Government – everyone has a role and the opportunities are great, for wildlife, the green economy and for lots of the other things we talk about – kids getting out into the countryside, for example. For starters we could do a lot for woodland birds if all the conservation land managers got their act together on woodland management – at present only RSPB and some but not all Wildlife Trusts are really up to the (FC) mark.

    Once again we’re bemoaning the lack of political interest in the environment – but there was one environmental story that hit the news like almost no other during our lifetimes – and that was the forests. Maybe years of success have caused complacency, but in the absence of anything else we all should have ridden it for all it was worth – I said so two years ago – but the residual antagonism to forestry from way back in history and a lack of imagination meant it didn’t happen. Perhaps, however, we will pick up on a couple of other pointers in the Government response – hints at the wider role of ecosystem services beyond nature conservation into things like flood protection and what we do around our towns and cities – talking about trees in the report, but we should be extending it to the totality of green space, including a new scale for nature, Rainham writ large.

  5. My discomfort with statements so far is, so far as I can tell, there’s no mention of the public as Trustees of the Forestry Estate. Who will panel the proposed new public body? The public made their point on a sell-off very well, but to secure democracy in landscape (and responsibility in a sense of communal ownership), we need to be included in future plans. How is it that I and others still feel, to an extent, excluded?

    1. “Who will panel the proposed new public body?”

      Mr Huhne will be looking for a job – with a bit of luck all this will be sorted before he gets out.

  6. Have only skimmed the actual report but have found plenty of bad stuff already:
    – lots about timber production linked to jobs and economics. So the forestry lobby still has the government thinking that intensive timber growing will produce more jobs than conservation and tourism. And forestry economics? You can just make it up.
    – lots about carbon sequestration. A major plank in the forestry lobby’s own defence when it couldn’t even make up the economics figures. Complete rubbish of course. The main long-term sequestration is going on below ground, and is actually damaged by commercial forestry. Just leaving the land to grow its own natural wood would be better, but even so, the global contribution is negligible compared with the wildlife loss. It would be like us building more reservoirs to lower sea level.
    – and nothing about changing the priority for our forests from timber production towards nature conservation. The main event here is still to come with the future of FC to be decided, but it looks like it will be merged with DEFRA – currently an environmental disaster in its own right, and a science-free zone to boot.

    What conservationists should be pressing for is to change FC into a primarily wildlife-centred organisation, like the ‘Wildlife & Forests’ bodies of many countries. But it looks like DEFRA has won and it won’t happen.

    The open habitats policy looks as though it might be a bit better, but it still only aims to restore ‘some’ heathland etc with much talk of ‘balance’. This means continuing with intensive forestry on a bit less internationally important wildlife habitat.

    And while this is being endlessly debated, FC still continues to plant conifers on cleared southern heathland, destroying it all over again.

  7. Hello Mark, with reference to your closing statement, if something appears to make no money will it ever be a priority in the eyes of government. But then again, it is because our country contains (contained) a wide range of landscapes in a fairly small country, that overseas visitors come here in the first place. This does not mean we should be introducing landscapes, we should be conserving them. I know this sounds an “old fashioned” phrase but is this what conservation means? Or perhaps Preserving. Not replacing with something new. “The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust and we must account for it to those who come after” King George VI. Also another good quote following the Enclosure Acts, “The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from the common but lets the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose.”

  8. Mark – you say “lots of tree disease and health mentions sneak into the government response showing that government blows with the prevailing winds just like the rest of us.” That’s slightly reassuring. However, unless there are robust plans to legislate, regulate and enforce for proper biosecurity checks to keep out plant diseases, and pretty darn quick, then any strategy for our forests is not worth the trees it is printed on IMHO. It comes back to Peter Marren’s point about efforts expended to increase the number of trees, yet ending up with fewer.

    Lets consider the situation faced by our some of our natives and a few of the friendlier introduced species:
    * Ash – we all know about
    * Oak, Alder, willow, beech – already under pressure from disease, with more serious potential threats out there
    * Scots pine – potential threat, possibly one of the most devastating of all
    * Hazel – in the long term threatened due to grey squirrels (see Rackham)
    * Elm – losing its last strongholds in E Sussex and NE Scotland and not likely to be back as a mature tree anywhere in numbers any time soon
    * (Of the friendlier exotics) – larch and horse chestnut in trouble, even the previously indestructable London Plane apparently threatened.

    Imagine our forests and our wider country with even half of the above ‘subtracted’ from the landscape (to quote Rackham again). And imagine, as Peter Marren again said last year, how we’ll feel about ourselves if that happens. As if our woodland and farmland birds and biodiversity didn’t have enough problems …

    (BTW I’m assuming no immediate looming threats to field maple, lime, hawthorn, birch, black poplar, the sorbuses … plus anything else I may have missed).

    As for “what has this government done for the natural world”, there aren’t enough expletives left in the world to respond adequately to that one…

  9. Mark,

    Public Forests is one area where we won’t always agree mainly because you are bound to come from the conservation view whereas I think there is a much stronger social aspect to public ownership. Forests originated as a hunting playground for the elite and we fought hard for the right of access (sometimes literally with local heroes even deported for demanding such rights). We do need that ownership to ensure conservation follows on.

    You have omitted one group that featured strongly in the original campaign and was the first to be visited by the panel. Hands off our Forest (HOOF) is still going strong and clearly will be monitoring developments to protect The Dean. I note the website contains inputs from Roderick Leslie so they have good mentors.

    You say “The ‘national treasure’ of Kielder Forest? The New Forest sold off – when did the Government say they were going to do that?”

    Quite clear that was.

    In evidence to the Public Bodies Bill committee Jim Paice said “Part of our policy is clearly established: we wish to proceed with, to correctly use your word, very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it. As I said earlier, the precise detail of who it will go to and in what form is yet to be decided” also “In order to have substantial disposal, we need to change the law. Our lawyers advise us that up to about 15% of the forest could be sold without risk of transgression of current legislation, which requires the Commission to own and manage the public estate. To get beyond that, we would need to change the law. That is the reason for it”


    “The Earl of Dundee: The drift of my question was rather more that, given that there are targets, let us assume that, as custodians, the private sector will deliver and meet them. In the first place, which range of incentives do you think might work best to encourage the private sector to take on Forestry Commission land?

    Mr Jim Paice MP: First, all the inquiries I have made suggest that there is ample interest in the private sector to take it on. For a long while, I laboured under the impression that, like the previous Government’s gold sales, if you unloaded them all at once you would end up with a seriously devalued price. I have been disabused of that by a number of different forestry investment operations. They think that it would be possible, if we chose to go down that route, to dispose of the whole thing at a sensible market price. But, as I said, we have not necessarily chosen that route.”

    So, from the mouth of the Ex-Minister for Forests (or it could easily have been the Minister for Ex-Forests) that is either political speak for “We aren’t going to sell forests and this is just to keep you on your toes” or more likely political speak for “We are seriously looking at selling the Forests at a sensible market price”.

  10. My view is that the Government has duped the opponents of privatisation. This new arms-length body will be stuffed with industry interests and will receive minimal support from public funds. The issue that has still been avoided is ownership public ownership (the ideal) does not equal state ownership (what we have at moment). if the public want to save “their” forests, they need to change the ownership model not the management model. See my blog for further details

  11. I disagree with Andy Wightman’s analysis.

    The whole body language of the Government’s response is about closing down forestry as an election issue – they have rightly asked themselves is it worth a single seat ? Having invested political capital and even money in their solution they would be terminally foolish to risk it with dirty tricks.

    The people who opposed the sell off wouldn’t be too bothered about representation from our real forest industry – it has been far more consistent in its support of public ownership than most conservation NGOs and is a more consistent driver of environmental standards than either Government or the conservation sector – it was the Kingfisher Group which was really responsible for international certification coming to Britain whilst companies like Iggesund which make carton board (for Tetra packs) are a fierce advocate of certification. The forest community groups would be more than happy to sit down with people like Stuart Goodall of Confor or David Sulman of UK Forest products Association. What neither industry nor the forest communities wanted were the carpet baggers and asset strippers the Government was courting at the time of the sell off – as Bob’s fascinating snippet shows.

  12. Hello Mark,

    There are a few pieces up on SoW now..

    Government response to the Forestry Panel report – FCN Press Release:

    Government response to Forest Campaign – it’s a Victory, no doubt about it!:

    Middle Ground not No Mans Land:

    Forestry Commission Forever:

    I’ve been working on this campaign since almost the begining and as has been the case all the way through, I feel you’ve completely missed the mark on this. You dismiss the informed and engaged grassroots forest campaigns that were there BEFORE 38 Degrees and are still there long AFTER 38 have moved on. You appear to know nothing about the level of engagement and serious work we’ve all put in to arrive at the Governments response, with some of us working almost full time alongside our day jobs for the past 2 years for no rewards, neither financial nor kudos.

    Grassroots campaigners have had to work bloody hard on this as we feel we are the only truly cross sector and independent voice in this debate and only the Ramblers and a few amazing people behind the scenes have supported us. Not once have we minded when a few folks have gone off with our ideas, style of campaigning or have taken credit for our work for financial gain.

    Is it that you don’t feel we are informed enough on the issues, Mark? Do you consistently dismiss us because we don’t say what you want us to say?
    What ever it is that makes you so cutting about the campaigners that have committed so much to do right by our forests, I do hope you’ll get in touch and start a discussion with us so we can have the chance to change your mind.

    Warmest wishes,

    1. Hen – if you read what I wrote I simply said there was nothing on your website. There was nothing on your website. There now is something on your website.

      1. I wasn’t talking about that, of course.

        So does this mean that you’ve changed your mind about the forest campaign groups? Do you agree that it wasn’t 38 Degrees that started the Save Our Forests campaign? We were all as frustrated as you about the text that went along with the petition!

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