England's Public Forest Estate - public ownership now and for future generations
I wrote a report last year for the Scottish Government on the status and conservation of wild land in Europe (1). One of the key findings was confirmation that land with a wilderness characteristic exists in Europe and, contrary to common assumption, I was able to show that it is not just restricted to Nordic or Eastern European countries. The evidence came from a total of 38 out of 45 countries across Europe with national protected area systems that classify protected areas as strict reserves, in which there are restrictions on extractive activity consistent with wilderness, as well as national parks where there is a large measure of restriction of extractive activity combined with compatible recreational opportunities, but which also include core zones where the protection is on a par with the strictly protected areas.
Some explanation is needed as to why the UK is not one of those 38 countries in Europe. It is because our national parks are set up to contain predominantly farmed land in private ownership with no restriction on extractive land use, the basic level of protection given instead by control of development through the planning system. We do not also have a system of strict reserves that are protected by exclusion of extractive activity.
Another key finding for the report was that the national protected area systems of many countries in Europe are based on state ownership of the strict reserves and national parks. Ownership invariably confers rights, and it is understandable in a situation where the aim is to restrict extractive land use in those protected areas, that the implementation of national protected area systems in Europe has relied on having state ownership as the means to ensure that the restrictions are observed. Thus 11 countries in Europe explicitly require state ownership of their strict reserves and national parks in their national protected area legislation. State ownership as a national policy for strict reserves and national parks can be identified in a further 24 European countries, where in some cases their legislation allows for national authorities to buy land that is needed to continue expansion of their national protected area systems.
As you would imagine, state ownership of national protected areas implies that there is a level of state administration and funding through a national protected area system that is responsible at agency, department or ministry level. I gave two examples in the report where I had direct personal experience of their work: the National Parks and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in Ireland (2) and the Agency of Protected Areas in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in Georgia (3).
State owned forestry across Europe
I had intended to review the ownership and protection of Europe’s forests in the report, but it became increasingly obvious that the national protected areas in Europe include significant areas of forest and, depending on location, the strict reserves and national parks could be predominantly forested landscapes anyway, reflecting the uninhibited natural vegetation of the area. Thus because national protected areas with a wildland characteristic in Europe are not based on individual habitats or species, it really wasn’t necessary to separate forests out. However, recent events have cast doubt over the future of the Public Forest Estate (PFE) in England (4) and so I have gone back to the European forests to see what lessons they offer.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation provides extensive global data on forestry through the Forest Resources Assessment 2010 (5). I have calculated that the forest cover of the 45 countries across Europe is 44.3%, with Finland and Sweden having the highest cover at around 70%, and not surprisingly volcanic Iceland hovers at the lower end below 1%. An astonishing 89.7% of forest across Europe is state-owned. Nine countries have 100% state ownership, including Russia and Turkey, with many of the Eastern European states having between 50% and full public ownership. However, it is not all Eastern European states that high have public ownership – Greece has 77%, Switzerland has 68%, Ireland 58%, and Germany has 54%.
While it is reasonably common knowledge that the forest cover in continental Europe is much higher than the 8.7% of England, I think many will be surprised at the high extent of public ownership in Europe compared to the 30.8% in public ownership in England (6). There may even be surprise at that percentage in England, because the figure most bandied about of late is just the 18% that is owned by the Forestry Commission (FC). As I know to my benefit, because they give me great pleasure where I live, 6% of England’s woodlands are owned by local authorities and the balance of the difference is owned by other public bodies.
There is no Forestry Commission woodland near me, and while I have been spoilt by the ancient, semi-natural woodland that is, I did include an FC woodland in my category of “greater provision of often publicly owned, local, close to urban, lightly managed woodland and green space” that was at a mid-point in the continuum or spectrum I proposed of increasing experience and quality of wild places presently available in the UK (Wildness in the literary landscape (7)). The choice of that woodland was fortuitously brought on by the disappointment of walking Castor Hanglands in Cambridgeshire, one of the earliest NNRs designated in England. I had set out to this ancient woodland of ash and oak with great anticipation, only to find it utterly uninspiring – it had relicts of internal fencing, vehicle tracks, and an unusual uniformity with no sense of a woodland interior.
To try to rescue something from the day, I saw that the FC’s Southey Wood was nearby and went for a walk there. Southey is a mixed woodland on a mostly ancient woodland site. As well as mature oaks and large wild cherries around the boundary, the wood has other native deciduous trees, as well as exotics in snake-bark maple, shag-bark hickory, Turkish hazel, and Corsican pine. All my reading since then suggests it is hopping with wildlife (8). It was just such a more enjoyable experience than Castor Hanglands, and judging by the number of people who turned up there for a quick walk, it is much better used by local people as well.
The only woodland that local people have
I have also remarked about the FC’s Grizedale Forest Park in the Lake District, when a walk on the Bogle Crag Trail, one of eight waymarked paths, came out at a high viewpoint that had an uncharacteristically breathtaking panoramic view for Britain: the landscape before me was clothed with trees, from the broadleaf ancient woodland on the lower slopes of the valley, rising up through conifers to the occasional bare ledge of a crag on the saddle tops (Open or closed – what is the natural landscape matrix of a wild Britain? (9). This was far from an ugly view of a large, upland conifer plantation.
Working with Forest Neighbours to defend Gibb Torr from deforestation by the local Wildlife Trust, I came to understand why people liked this conifer plantation woodland awash in a massive sea of moorland in Staffordshire (The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr (10). They could see unambiguously the wildlife value it has, especially birdlife, and which the Wildlife Trust ignores for its own choice of creating even more moorland! I saw the wildlife tracks myself, and stumbled over an astonishing drift of orchids deep in its centre. What would happen to these? It is one of those situations where a conifer plantation is the only woodland that local people have, and thus also the only woodland available for woodland wildlife in the area.
When I wrote about the consequences of the sell-off of Threestoneburn Forest in Northumberland, I could not have foreseen that it would become such a prescient example of the dangers of the Governments proposals (Threestoneburn Forest - a lost opportunity for a new wildwood (11)). Lilburn Estates bought the 712ha of Threestoneburn Forest from the FC in 2007. As it had done with its prior purchase in 1999 of Wooler Common/Commonburn Forestry Plantation from the FC, the Lilburn Estate wants to clear fell Threestoneburn Forest and convert it to grouse moorland, reducing even further the very low woodland cover in the immediate area. The application to deforest, putting at risk a red squirrel population, nesting goshawks, and much other wild nature, is still being considered by the FC after more and more impact reports were rightly demanded.
Ten years before selling Threestoneburn Forest, the FC had put forward a Forest Design Plan that sought to reduce the visual impact on the landscape as well as look to the future of the wild nature that undoubtedly associates with the forest. It would have been a gradual restructuring and transformation, with the sharp edges of the plantation reduced, a bar on replanting on the upper slopes and around rock outcrops, a widening of riparian zones and their planting with broadleaves, and clearing some open space on the northern boundary for Black grouse habitat.
The Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) blocked that Forest Design Plan, and instead demanded a plan with a clear cut and no replanting, so that the whole site would be deforested to moorland. In effect, the NNPA blighted Threestoneburn Forest, as they probably also did Wooler Common/Commonburn Forestry Plantation such that, in the absence of any other remit for this publicly owned land, they became a liability for the FC. This goes to the question of whose interests the NNPA served? My concern was that the publicly owned Threestoneburn Forest should not have been sold, as the forest transformed could have been the forerunner for our public land delivering on an agenda for recreation, education and spiritual renewal on a large scale - of an upland wild woodland, linked to the route of a number of long-distance circular walks in the National Park.
Hardknott Forest, at the top end of the Duddon Valley in the Lake District, is a 600ha FC conifer plantation dating from the 1930s, in which many areas are reaching the end of rotation (Duddon valley - woodland now and into the future (12)). Clear felling of sections has occurred annually since the late 1990's and the intent is to allow natural regeneration from the remnant stands of native woodland within the plantation. It will not be replanted with conifers. In addition, I found that the FC had planted up 40ha of open fell to the south of the plantation with patches of juniper, oak, holly, hawthorn and birch, and there are stands of natural regeneration already there. This is Grassguards Native Woodland and it links in Hardknott Forest to the ancient woodland below Wallowbarrow Crags, and thus into the band of 22 ancient woodland sites that follow the course of the Duddon River 12km or so down to Duddon Bridge. In future years, this will be a remarkable example of interlinked native woodland rising from sea level up to just below Hardknott Pass at 400m – an irresistible prospect. Hardknott Forest will eventually be the upland wild woodland that Threestoneburn could also have been if it had not been sold off.
A marvellous 'wild forest'
During the shifting sands of the development of the Governments proposals on the sell-off/lease-off of the PFE (13) I came across two examples of local public support for FC woodlands that predate those developments, and which clearly demonstrate the importance of retaining their public ownership within the PFE.
Chopwelll Wood is a 360ha mixture of conifer and broadleaves on an ancient woodland site nestled on the northern slopes of the Derwent Valley, about 10 miles from Gateshead. It is Tyne & Wear's largest woodland. The wood has been owned and managed by the Forestry Commission for over 87 years. The Friends of Chopwell Wood were a voluntary community group that formed in 1991 when there was much concern about small public woodland areas being sold off by the then Government (14). They saw that some of the privatised woods were clear-felled so that the land could to be used for other purposes. To give greater protection for the long-term continuation of Chopwell Wood, the Friends supported a plan for Woodland Park status, and this was achieved towards the end of l993.
Since that designation, a much greater emphasis has been placed upon conservation and recreation within the woodland, with the commercial forestry carried out in a sympathetic manner to those aims. The wood's wildlife value thus lies not in one or two rare species, a driver of so much orthodox nature conservation, but in the wide range of plant and animal life that make it their home (15).The River Derwent winds along the southern edge, through a sandstone gorge that has oak woods that clothe to the water’s edge. Otters have returned to this stretch of the river, inhabiting holts on the banks. For the bulk of the forest, its status as a Plantation on an Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS) brings to bear a national policy to gradually remove conifers in a return to native trees. The Forest Design Plan for Chopwell Wood, to which the Friends contribute, specifies natural regeneration of species after any felling, or planting with native species only.
The Friends became a local charity and have contributed significantly to the public use and enjoyment of the wood, raising funds for conservation and restoration, organising projects, and carrying out Recreational/Educational programs and events. When news broke last October of the potential sell-off of the PFE, the Friends were the first group in the country to order a printed version of Save Our Forest, the online petition of 38 Degrees (16). Through their local effort, 1,000 people were signed up to the petition through this printed version to add to the over half million that have done so online (17). Recently, the Friends organized a second day of action to protest against the Governments plans to sell off the Public Forest Estate. More than 1,200 protesters turned up to hear from groups who use Chopwell Wood and are against the loss of the wood from the PFE, including horse riders, cyclists, walkers, and runners, and from Dave Anderson the local MP, and Michael McNestry the local Gateshead councillor. Terry Meadows has multiple sclerosis and visits Chopwell Wood most days. He was interviewed at that protest, saying "It's going to hit the disabled and vulnerable people. Mothers with bairns also come through the wood with their prams and pushchairs" (18)
Liz Searle for the
Friends said (17):
I came across the support
that Hurn Parish Council and the people of the parish in Dorset give to
their local FC forests in their recently published Parish Plan (19). The
Parish of Hurn has a wealth of open space, but it is the areas with open
access that are highly valued, such as the FCs Hurn Forest, Ramsdown
Plantation and Sopley and Avon Common. This is Hurn’s woodland – they have
no ancient woodland sites. The Parish Plan says this:
Thus they recognize that even in these working forests, there is a diversity of habitat niches from the different age classes of the trees, the diversity of conifers including native pine, the elements of broadleaf woodland and bog woodland, temporarily open spaces as successional woodland develops, and the permanent open spaces of the forest rides. It is not surprising therefore that the Forests are home to very many species – from deer and badger; songbirds to birds of prey; small mammals such as mice and voles in the ground cover; deadwood for bat roosts; the many insects that visit the ride edges in summer; the rides themselves being avenues of heathland vegetation that link through the forest to small areas of open heath. As the Parish Plan says “The forest is an ever-evolving eco-system in itself providing a habitat for an enormous amount of wildlife”
There is the potential to develop more heathland in the forests, but the parish community is very protective of their trees and is firmly opposed to such expansion. In a poll for the Parish Plan, 81% said that trees should not be felled in order to increase the amount of heathland in the Parish. In light of this, one of the agreed actions in the Parish Plan is for the Parish Council to ensure that the residents' views regarding retention of forest and woodland in the Parish are made known in relevant consultations, and the Parish Council does this through its contribution to the Forest Design Plan for Hurn’s forests (20) the Dorset Heathlands Joint Development Plan Document (21) the consultation on deforestation to open habitat (22) and in the recent consultation on the Christchurch and East Dorset Core Strategy (23).
The Governments proposals
for the PFE have been seen as a threat to Hurn’s Forests, and highlighted
to the community how much it valued their public forests for recreation
and wildlife. The setting up of a Friends of Hurn’s Forests group was
discussed at a Parish Council Meeting on 14th February, and the Parish
Council was unanimously supportive. The formation of the Friends also has
the support of local Christchurch MP, Chris Chope. As a first task, the
Friends started a petition, which very quickly attracted 100 signatures
(24). Its premise is (25):
Even with the setting
aside a few days later of the consultation on the Governments proposals,
and the removal of the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill (26)
the Friends believe the threat to the forests has not gone away because
there is still a possibility of 15% of the PFE being sold under existing
legislation. Founding member of the Friends Margaret Phipps, who is also
Chairman of the Parish Council, said (24):
Thus the Friends are still collecting signatures to their petition, which will be presented to the Christchurch MP on 20th March, the day before World Forestry Day, when a membership launch day will take place. The petition will also be presented to the “independent” Panel that is being set up in the wake of the ending of the public consultation, and which will consider forestry policy in England and advise Government by September (26).
Environmental organisations and the "independent" panel
The membership and terms
of reference of the “independent” Panel have yet to be announced, but the
DEFRA News release said it will include ”representatives of key
environmental and access organisations alongside representatives of the
forestry industry”. It has to be said that the environmental organisations
have not acquitted themselves very well since the news broke of the
Governments intentions for the PFE. Writing on the day that the
consultation was halted, Save Our Woods, one of the many national campaign
groups that have blossomed, pointed to the lack of integration across the
broad spectrum of land based interests by those that were meant to be
representative of the public voice (27):
I would just highlight a few as they relate to Hurn’s forests, and Chopwell Wood.
Mark Avery, the RSPB's
Conservation Director, wrote in the Guardian (28):
Many of those "ugly industrial conifer forests” that Avery would sell off (29) are what local people are attached to, because that is what is in many cases the local woodland with open access that they have come to enjoy, and it is often the only woodland in the landscape for woodland species. They don't want to be patronised by Avery or the RSPB in what they should value about their woodland, especially when the prejudice against them is mostly about their undoubted wildlife not being what is valued by organisations like RSPB or Avery. Moreover, the RSPB/Avery would exert their usual pressure for deforestation to open heathland habitat if there was the slightest chance of just one more Dartford warbler (30). This is not what the people of Hurn want to hear.
Then there is the cherry
picking of issues such as ancient woodland by the Woodland Trust, just one
component of the PFE, and whose news release last December showed that
they too were out of touch (31):
It goes on to say that
the Trust’s main concern is the restoration of PAWS, fearing for their
future if they were sold off without guarantees of restoration from
private owners, but without giving any recognition to the commitment for
restoration of PAWS already initiated by the FC, such as at Chopwell Wood.
Grandstanding as ever, Sue
Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust,
is reported as staying:
Oddly, this news release is not listed for December, and has disappeared off the Trust’s website. While it does appear reformatted as “Public forest sales” there doesn’t appear to be any way to navigate to that on the Woodland Trust website. It is thus easy to entertain the suspicion that the Woodland Trust are repositioning themselves, especially considering the level of contact they have had with Government over the months "We have told Ministers and senior civil servants directly that the Trust intends to have a twin-track approach of a public campaign combined with private discussions" (32) and evidenced by their membership of the recently set up Forestry Regulation Task Force (33) and their increasing criticism of the FC and its restoration of PAWS (34) but as I pointed out over the disposal of England’s publicly owned National Nature Reserves (The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland (35)) it is not just the Woodland Trust that appears to be in talks with the Government.
It is disturbing to hear from a Chief Executive of one of the Wildlife Trusts that the independent panel will only have five members, and that “obviously I feel that someone from the Wildlife Trusts should be there” (36). How does he know there are only going to be five panel members? Moreover, in terms of an understanding of the issues, this Wildlife Trust Chief Executive admitted that he hadn’t even read the consultation responses from 2009 (37) when the FC sought the views of the public on The Long-term Role of the Forestry Commission Public Forest Estate in England.
Save Our Forests, another of the national campaign groups, has also
identified the importance of that earlier consultation (38):
It certainly does contain
those messages, as many of the 2,239 respondents showed support for the
FC, wanting the PFE increased rather than reduced, and saw that it is
more than just land with trees on since, at 2% of England, it represents a
significant public resource that should fulfil the public will. Thus one
of its main findings was (39):
Public ownership for future generations
It just seems very unlikely that any of the local supportive interests like the Friends of Chopwell Wood or the Friends of Hurn's Forests, or the national campaign groups, will be given the opportunity of a place on the "independent" panel to consider the future of forestry in England. Should it be the usual suspects of the conservation industry who have shown themselves so badly wanting in their support of public opinion, or even their ability to represent anything other than the narrow vested interests of their members? There is uncertainty now that will rumble on for at least another 6-8 months, especially over areas of current native rewilding in the PFE like Hardknott Forest and Grassguards Native Woodland, and there may be other areas of ecological restoration in the PFE that I am unaware of (other than PAWS). I am not optimistic that their future will be safeguarded, as there is unlikely to be anyone on that panel who could be an informed advocate for the importance of this ecological restoration in the PFE, or who could provide it with an unthreatening home. Its most fundamental protection – as it should be for all the FC woodlands – will be retention in the PFE, and thus in public ownership for future generations. This is the view of 84% in a national poll in January, with only 2% disagreeing (40).
This was also the view I
gave earlier to the FC consultation in 2009 on the future of the PFE (41):
I have an example of the opportunities that public ownership can confer, and which I learnt about at a meeting in Brussels (Wild Europe (42)). I met Bill Murphy, a manager with Coillte, the state-owned forest enterprise company in Ireland, which has over half its woodland in public ownership (see earlier) and at 11% has a higher woodland cover than England (5). Coillte itself owns over 445,000 hectares of land, which represents about 7% of the land cover of Ireland (43) and thus a greater proportion than is represented by the PFE in England. As well as commercial forestry, Coillte has a role in outdoor recreation (44) and Bill saw an opportunity to work on linking Nephin, one of their publicly owned forest areas, with the adjacent publicly owned Ballycroy National Park (2) and with an area of publicly owned Bord Na Móna spent peatland bog in need of reclamation (45) the two state enterprises working together with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Wilderness it won’t be, but that’s not the point. This will fulfil a vision of a large area of wilder landscape that people can enjoy walking in, camping out on trail walks, and experiencing a thrill of being immersed in a natural freedom that has gone from the overwhelmingly farmed landscapes in England, and which many of us can only get near to in the publicly owned ‘wild forests’ of the PFE.
It is very likely that I will be returning to this issue of public ownership over the coming year.
Mark Fisher 25 February 2011
(1) Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government
(2) National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Ireland
(3) Agency of Protected Areas, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Georgia
(4) England's forest sell-off, Guardian compilation of articles and letters
(5) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, FAO
(6) Area of woodland in GB by ownership type, Forestry Statistics 2010, Forestry Commission
(7) Wildness in the literary landscape, Self-willed land July 2007
(8) Wildlife at Southey Wood, Forestry Commission
(9) Open or closed – what is the natural landscape matrix of a wild Britain? Self-willed land June 2009
(10) The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr, Self-willed land January 2010
(11) Threestoneburn Forest - a lost opportunity for a new wildwood, Self-willed land December 2008
(12) Duddon valley - woodland now and into the future, Self-willed land February 2007
(13) Ministers keep changing their stories on forest privatisation, Geoffrey Lean, daily Telegraph 6 February 2011
(14) Friends of Chopwell Wood
(15) Wildlife at Chopwell Woodland Park, Forestry Commission
(16) Save our Forests, 38 degrees
(17) Chopwell Wood protest a 'huge success', Tony Henderson, The Journal 14 February 2011
(18) Chopwell Wood protest over sell-off plans, BBC News Tyne 14 February 2011
(19) Hurn Parish Plan: Where village life is valued, Hurn Parish Plan Steering Group 2010
(20) East Dorset Forest Design Plan Review, April 2009
(21) Hurn Parish Hurn Parish Council consultation response, Dorset Heathlands Joint Development Plan Document: Issues and Options September 2007
(22) Hurn Parish Council consultation response, Restoring and expanding open habitats from woods and forests in England, Forestry Commission June 2009
(23) Core Strategy Options, Christchurch and East Dorset Core Strategy, Consultation Portal, Christchurch BC January 2011
(24) Hurn forest campaign group continue their fight, Katie Clark, Thisisdorset 18th February 2011
(25) Friends of Hurn’s Forests leaflet – contact them via email@example.com
(26) The future of forestry in England, DEFRA News 17 February 2011
(27) Never try to separate the people from their landscape, Save Our Woods 17 February 2011
(28) The real battle for our forests, Mark Avery, Guardian 7 February 2011
(29) A Forest and Wildlife Service - let's have one please, Mark Avery’s Blog 14 February 2011.
(30) RSPB makes call to restore nation's heathland, BBC News 6 February 2011
(31) Latest Press Statement RE: Forestry Commission Disposals, Woodland Trust 22 Dec 2010 – Now reformatted as “Public forest sales”
(32) Campaigning Statement: Proposed disposals of the public forest estate, Woodland Trust December 2010
(33) Forestry Regulation Task Force Membership, FC 18 January 2011
(34) Save England's ancient forests! Woodland Trust News 24 January 2011
(35) The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland, Self-willed land January 2011
(36) The Forestry Commission – still a shaky future? Tony Whitbread 23 February 2011
(37) Forestry Commission Sell-off: A Government Change of Heart, Tony Whitbread, Wild Comment, Sussex Wildlife Trust 17 February 2011
(38) Government announce “U-turn” on forest proposal – “We got this one wrong”, Imogen Radford, Save our Forests 17 February 2011
(39) The long-term role of the Public Forest Estate in England: consultation Part 1 Main Report, FC England December 2009
(40) 'Keep our forests public', Katie Anderson, YouGov 17 January 2011
(41) The long-term role of the Public Forest Estate in England: consultation Part 3: What respondents had to say - a collection of illustrative quotations, FC England December 2009
(42) “Rebuilding the Natural Heart of Europe”, EC Presidency Conference on Restoration of Large Wild Areas, Brussels 16, 17 November 2010, in Wild Europe, Self-willed-land December 2010www.self-willed-land.org.uk/wild_europe.htm
(43) About Coillte
(44) Environment, Coillte
(45) About Us, Bord Na Móna