Guest blog – Save Mortimer Forest by Nigel Rowley

Nigel Rowley is a founder member of the Save Mortimer Forest campaign which was started earlier this year when the public became aware of proposals by the Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays to build a large holiday complex in Mortimer Forest.

Twitter: @MortimerForest

Mortimer Forest, near Ludlow, on the border of Herefordshire and Shropshire, a tranquil place filled with wildlife, is currently faced with the threat of a large holiday village of nearly 70 holiday houses. Despite the land being publicly owned by the Forestry Commission, Forest Holidays (a company that Mark has previously written about both on here and in the Guardian) is planning a massive holiday park in the heart of the forest on a 125 year lease for a peppercorn rent.

I’m part of a campaign group – Save Mortimer Forest – made up of locals from both counties who are opposed to the scheme: walkers, cyclists, naturalists, runners, horse-riders, conservationists, artists, dog-walkers and many more. People who love, appreciate and use this forest every day, every week, every month. Many of us in the group have faced a steep learning curve, met with details of complicated legislation and processes we’ve never dealt with before. Luckily, the surrounding area is also packed full of knowledgeable experts and seasoned campaigners who have lent us their experience, advice and expertise free of charge.

What Forest Holidays represent is effectively the privatisation of our public forests by the back door and we’re not the only ones who think this and are fighting them. Our fellow campaigners, Friends of Fineshade, have successfully fought them off, for now at least, and our friends at Delamere Forest had a long and sustained campaign which was only defeated recently, after a long and hard fought battle. Public forests up and down the country are being targeted for development to deliver large profits to Forest Holidays (majority owned by a private equity fund) and it offers a terrible deal for the Forestry Commission, with land being handed over for measly rents – just £3k per holiday house per year – when Forest Holidays charge in excess of £2,500 per WEEK for some properties.

Long-haired Fallow Deer

Mortimer Forest is a truly special place with a fascinating history. We’re lucky to have many rare and protected species in the forest, from the endangered Wood White Butterfly to numerous red and amber listed birds and the rare Long Haired Fallow Deer, whose ancient rutting ground lies atop Juniper Hill, at the centre of the proposed development, a piece of land that has never – in its entire history – been developed and yet which Forest Holidays are proposing to dump a 68 strong holiday park on with all the sewage, infrastructure and more that goes with it, dwarfing the nearby settlements of Elton and Pipe Aston.

Yet the planning rules and regulations, and indeed the way in which our biodiversity is protected from harm, can be pretty much a mystery to anyone who is not an expert. The layman can have all sorts of expectations when they hear the word “protected”. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2017) aim to protect our biodiversity from harm and state “It is an offence to deliberately

Hazel Dormouse. Photo: Hugh Clark FRPS

kill, capture or disturb a European Protected Species, or to damage or destroy the breeding site or resting place of such an animal.” The ‘protected’ category includes most species of bats, the Hazel Dormouse, Great Crested Newts (the bane of developers!), the Smooth Snake and the rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper. Yet because these plants and animals are themselves part of a wider ecosystem, things can become very complicated very quickly. If we take an area of forest, for example, its ecosystem comprises every animal and plant, from the very smallest to the largest, each one interacting and relying on each other.  For example, the rare Goshawk (present and breeding in Mortimer Forest) has a huge range of prey items both living and carrion, and each type of prey will have its own prey items, and so on down the chain. In the proposed developments site, these ecosystems, which take thousands of years to evolve, provide the perfect habitat for a range of protected species present on the site, including Hazel Dormice, Great Crested Newts and at least twelve species of bats. Let’s not forget the fungi and microflora too, right at the bottom of the food chain. Yet when a developer wins planning permission on a greenfield site, say in a publicly owned forest, the whole ecosystem of the area, its surroundings and all access points to the site will be destroyed. If someone applies for a licence for a protected species to move, say, a dormouse population from an area to be developed to another part of the forest, they cannot guarantee that the area they are moving the dormouse to has a compatible ecosystem to support it. And that’s for a “protected” species. Everything not covered by the licence is left behind to take their chances. Not so protected after all eh?

Wood White

For Mortimer Forest’s rare and endangered Wood White butterfly, the effects of the proposed development will be disastrous. Verges (the butterfly’s natural habitat and breeding ground) will be destroyed during construction and ongoing damage will be caused by traffic thereafter. The delicate balance only exists because of the tranquil nature of the forest. Traffic fumes and oil, diesel and petrol residues from the cars will cause irreparable damage to this delicate and precious environment. The Hazel Dormice, Great Crested Newts and bats need to be able to move freely between roosting, feeding, hibernation and maternity sites without impairment.

It seems crazy to me that, in a world where we are struggling to combat climate change, a development of great flat-packed houses that sleep up to ten, with hot tubs, disposable barbecues, welcome packs that include foil balloons together with lots of car parking spaces, is even being considered. Yet this is what Forest Holidays offer. They are simply Center Parcs by a different name – it’s extremely telling that Center Parcs wanted to buy Forest Holidays as recently as last year. Forest Holidays (just 14% owned by the Forestry Commission) has an exclusive licence to develop on Forestry Commission land. Yes, you read that correctly. Exclusive. And the rental fees are not even ring-fenced for the local forest but instead go into the general Forestry Commission coffers. So if a group of locals wanted to develop – in partnership with the Forestry Commission – a genuine eco-friendly scheme using local expertise, materials and talent to develop something small-scale in which the profits would be kept entirely by the local Forestry Commission, we would immediately be turned down because of their deal with Forest Holidays.

Forest Holidays development in the Forest of Dean

Forest Holidays were working on the plans for Mortimer Forest for four years before going public. They did not consult any of our many local wildlife groups, conservationists and experts over that period. Four. Years. This is a not a company that genuinely cares about wildlife or local communities. We shall fight them every step of the way both here in Mortimer Forest and wherever else they turn up. We know of at least another five sites throughout the country that are being targeted and there are likely to be many more given Forest Holidays’ tactic of secretly developing plans for years without any local consultation. We are not the first to be fighting them and we shall not be the last but, the key thing I’ve learned in the last few months is that we are stronger working together. Campaign groups across the country have helped and advised us and we will do the same for others. So keep your eyes peeled if there’s a public forest near you. Watch out for what might be lurking in the bushes… we need to defeat Forest Holidays locally but we also need to make this into the national scandal that it deserves to be. Join the fight at www.save-mortimer-forest.co.uk

 

Mark writes: and see this piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian on Friday Will we stand by and watch the privatisation of our forests? which follows an article earlier this month by Ben Webster in The Times, Forests are growing…into cabin parks.

 

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10 Replies to “Guest blog – Save Mortimer Forest by Nigel Rowley”

  1. As well as these large schemes I've noticed a growing trend for individual cabins popping up all over the place in otherwise undeveloped private woodlands. I think people must buy up a small section of woodland with a view to setting it up as a weekend or summer retreat. There are certainly lots of 'woodland for sale' signs along the roadside if you look out for them and these companies often seem to sell off woodland in small plots. Presumably the cabins needs planning permission but, if so, then it seems to be readily granted.

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  2. Privatisation by the back door indeed. You’ve only to look at the damage done to the Forest of Dean to see the resulting mess.
    This is a beautiful part of the country and we wish you well in your fight.
    Also, this comes at a time that we find mass destruction of trees alongside railways and roads across the land. Vital highways, not only for us but for our wildlife.

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  3. I'd support you, but you are allied with the cyclists and they do so much damage to woodlands themselves -sometimes even vandalising cars of walkers- and are hostile to every other woodland user. I've been knocked in a ditch by cyclists more than once because they were either not looking, or they have decided that rather than slow down for the woman with a cane and mobility problems, they have the right of way and mow you down from behind. So, if cyclists are agin it, then I'm for it (and vice versa). No to woodland access for cyclists.

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  4. Depressing, isn't it! Before long the government will, no doubt, be renting out parts of our national nature reserves to be used for money making recreational activities by privately run companies. The mind-set is already moving in that direction. Good luck to all those fighting these forest proposals but we really need a national campaign, the piecemeal approach is too easy to defeat. It all gives the lie once again to government green-wash.

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  5. Mortimer Forest.
    The decision making of the Forestry commission seems scientifically and financially inept.
    To treat all their forest assets as the same is not in keeping with the scientific thinking.
    Forests based on ancient woodland need to be treated with respect for their ecological value.
    There are plenty of pure pine plantations on farmland (or heathland another bone of contention) where the ecological damage would be less.
    From a financial point of view, no wonder Center Parcs wanted to buy Forest Holidays, they realise the value of the exclusivity cause even if the Forestry commission negotiators did not.

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  6. I was involved in the launch of the second FC cabin site at Keldy in 1978. What surprised is was the level of interest in the forest and its environment from visitors from the very beginning. They've been completely left outof this debate - yet are FCs core constituency, and the reason ahead of money and politics for the forest cabin sites - and also the reason the NGOs wereso wrong footed over privatisation, because they are invisible to the neat sectional order of NGO land. Yet more contact with nature is trumpeted by nature NGOs.whatever else is going on here, enabling engagement with the natural world to the widest range of the citizens who own the national forests is central to FC's ethos.

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  7. Mark how about an update 38 Degrees has a petiton up.
    https://speakout.38degrees.org.uk/campaigns/3808?utm_source=email&utm_medium=blast&utm_campaign=1_5_2018_forests_forest_seg&bucket=email-blast-1_5_2018_forests_forest_seg

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  8. I started my working life as a trainee gamekeeper on Gatley Park Estate near Wigmore, on the fringe of Mortimer Forest. Since that time I have lived in Sweden and the USA, and have lived in Scotland since the late 60s. As a wildlife tour operator I have travelled the world and run my tours all over the UK. One of the most popular tours featured in my programme combines the Forest of Dean with the Shropshire/Herefordshire hinterland, with a base by Ludlow for the latter. When I visited those areas of Shropshire with which I was familiar, Mortimer Forest in particular, after many decades after that initial introduction, I was utterly amazed at how unchanged and unspoiled the region remained … it’s wildlife assets seemingly in tact. This inspired the idea of operating wildlife tours to this unbelievably eco-rich and untainted part of the UK. It was therefore not just a reaction of dismay, but one of horror, to learn that a holiday village should be created in the heart of such an outstanding area. As mentioned, my tours also embrace the Forest of Dean, so I’m wholly aware with Forest Holidays developments there and the ruinous impact it represents. I accept that there have to be ‘sacrificial areas’ that cater for the visiting public, and the Forest of Dean has already taken that route. But to let the tourism geni out of the bottle and subject Mortimer Forest and surrounding area to unbridled developments - because this will doubtless be just the beginning - would be utterly criminal, legalized vandalism no less.

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