Strategy for England Trees, Woods and Forests

- a commentary, June 2007


Is anyone else disappointed with this vacuous strategy, albeit that it hits all the current policy buttons? An action plan is supposed to follow on from the strategy, written by Natural England and the Forestry Commision, but the strategy itself so lacks leadership, or any big idea. Even if we accept that the Regional Forestry Frameworks and the Regional Spatial Strategies will be where the battle for the reality of woodland will take place, why could there not have been some clearer national goals? Where is the encouragement for Continuous Forest Cover management of commercial woodland, recognised in a Parliamentray Office for Science and Technology briefing note as being undeveloped in this country? What happened to the potential for landscape scale linkages through Forest Habitat Networks? Where is the widespread education to re-integrate woodland into the common psyche? Why is it so rare in England to be able to observe the longterm dynamics of natural woodland? (Well, we know why, don't we!)

My response to the consultation was not registered last year, in spite of DEFRA officials apologising for the failing of their dedicated email address for responses, and assuring me that my response would be passed on. It would not have changed the outcome since the 220 odd responses they did receive did not knock them off the course for the strategy that was laid out in the consultation document. The mediocre safety of recieved opinion holds sway over anything exceptional or radical.

I take great exception that trees - as usual - are not truly regarded as wildlife. Things happen under them, around them, in them, and they are used as product (the yearly growth capacity must be used, we are told in the strategy), but there is no intrinsic natural value attached to them. No interest in that trees form dynamic communities and have lives longer than humans.

I also take great exception to the often repeated assertion that woodlands in neglect of human management are thus "incapable .......of delivering the full benefits we want for people, places, wildlife and the environment". The mantra as always is that human management enhances biodiversity and habitat quality and, as usual, there is no attempt to defend or even explain this assertion. Worse still, measures to monitor trends in characteristic woodland wildlife and habitats will rely on assessment of the "proportion of woodland Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in favourable condition". The tight management criteria set for the SSSI - and thus in effect a measure of our intervention - will be the standard. Since few SSSI are wholly woodland, the woodland element of an SSSI is always under constraint lest it "jeopardise" the other, often artificial habitats for which the SSSI is also designated.

Secondly, the increasingly derided woodland bird indicator is offered in addition to assessment of SSSI. The use of birds as apex indicators is testimony to the lobbying power of the RSPB and is just a real bore for non-birdists. The blackbird was once a woodland bird - what lessons from its contemporary habitat should we draw about woodland? Only under "other possibilities" for monitoring does woodland flora get a mention, but it is qualified by the admission that the monitoring of ancient woodland indicator plants is currently undeveloped.

The other mantra is adaptation to climate change, except that the strategy offers us the gem that one woodland site in the south - Alice Holt in the New Forest (Hampshire) - is one of the seven terrestrial Environmental Change Network sites in England and five of the others have "some woodland or coppice." That's alright, then.

The strategy was released during the week that I was walking once more in the southern alps in Slovenia. While it may be unfair to make a comparison - there is 60% tree coverage nationally, the woodland flora is exceptionally more varied, the wild fauna more extensive (many chamois in the alpine area), the population much lower - I refuse not to translate the obvious lessons for English woodland. Pro Silva Europe - an organisation promoting natural woodland regeneration, extraction and management through continuous forest cover - originated in Slovenia in 1989. It is just such a rare sight for someone living in England to see such an extent of woodland, and where natural forces rather than human are so key in shaping the communities that it forms.

There are antecedents to Pro Silva everywhere there is tree coverage that makes woodland more than an incidental aspect of the landscape. Thus New Hampshire is also over 60%, and the US National Forest Service use mimicry of natural woodland disturbance for their extractive management in the White Mountain National Forest, but even then retain six substantial areas of the forest as fabulous, unmanaged wilderness.

Our National Forest is a regeneration project, located across a central band of the English Midlands that has low wildlife value, and which has the aim of ratcheting up woodland coverage to 33%, a level seen in few areas of England (one is Waverly in the SE). It started out ten years ago at a low base of 6%, has reached 17% and should make its target. At that coverage, the landscape acts ecologically as functional woodland, but are we preparing ourselves for our existence in this new landscape? Can we have the mindshift to give value to that woodland, not using it as a dumping ground or other illicit activity? Will we welcome rather than persecute the increase in woodland fauna that will find a home in it? Will we still harvest woodland as an industrial process for so many cords of timber, or will we redevelop, or develop new, natural and humanscale approaches to management and uses for woodland products? Will we leave some of that woodland alone, shaped only by natural phenomena and which is our gift to wild nature?

The new Strategy for England Trees, Woods and Forests goes nowhere near to the heart and soul of woodland. To adapt a phrase from Aldo Leopold, we needed to "think like a tree" for the vision for 2050 in the strategy to have had any worth.

Mark Fisher 25th June 2007