Thursday 28 June 2012

We await the report of the Independent Forest Panel, due to be published on 4th July

Earlier in 2011 the government announced its consultation to look into the disposal of the Public Forest Estate – the land managed by the Forestry Commission (FC).  This was an ill-considered move and it led to a predictable public outcry.  Disposal of the Public forest Estate has been considered at various times in the past, the environmental NGOs have opposed it each time, and each time the government has pulled back and the estate is safe for a bit longer.  (Except for the fact that FC have had to continue to sell individual forests in order to try to balance the books).

Two things were different this time.  First was the level of public outcry – heartfelt and well-organised, coming as a welcome surprise to NGOs and as a shock to government.  See, for instance "Save Our Woods"

Second was the government response – to set up an independent panel to look at the future of the Forestry Commission and the Public Forest Estate.  My link to the panel is remote, and opinions vary as to whether this is either a put up job or a valuable independent review.  We will discover which next week when the report is published.

The response of some organisations is to set out criteria against which they will measure the panel report.  The Wildlife Trusts have produced their view here.

 The Public Forest Estate represents the single biggest opportunity to implement the commitments made in last year’s Natural Environment White Paper and the recommendations made in the independent “Making Space for Nature Review”.  It is critical that this opportunity is taken.  The Public Forest Estate (and the body managing it) must have a clear purpose that focuses on excellence in environmental management.  It should be given the responsibility and resources to work in partnership across all sectors, from local communities to wood-based industries to enhance England’s ecological network and deliver ecosystem services (including such key public benefits as access).

The Wildlife Trusts have been working with the Forestry Commission for decades.  About 30 years ago this was often from the perspective of conflict – we saw the Commission as largely damaging to nature.  The FC of today is a very different organisation to the FC of the past – I have been on their various meetings and committees for about 20 years (from the perspective of a critical ecologist – I do not come from the perspective of automatic support) and whilst we may have had some lively discussions, criticisms of the organisation has been extremely rare.

But – coming from the perspective of two decades of critical questioning of FC, from a perspective of not automatically supporting anyone and having no political ideal about land ownership – I feel that FC has an excellent history of delivery and now has a very strong role to play in delivering environmental and other public benefits in an outstandingly cost effective way.  It could do more with an improved remit and in order to do more it must have the resources and responsibility to deliver.

I hope that the panel report will recommend a new remit for the FC, focussing on nature and the delivery of public benefit and acting as an exemplar of sustainable management:  
  • It should promote forestry as part of a coherent strategy for the natural environment with woods being one part of a diverse and resilient ecological network.
  • Woods, especially ancient woods should be better protected and better managed.
  • It should promote a reconnection of people with nature through good access to forests.
  • It should encourage a “right tree in the right place” principle reconnecting woods through appropriate woodland expansion at a landscape scale.
  • It should restore existing woodlands, continuing an already active programme of woodland restructuring in order to better deliver public benefit.
  • Furthermore it should look after all habitats in its care, not just the wooded areas – areas of lowland heathland, meadows and other open habitats, currently planted with conifers should be restored with urgency.

To fulfil this remit the FC will have to be bigger and be better resourced.  Is this likely at a time of austerity?  Well maybe.  If you count the benefits of a public forest estate, not just the cost, then investment in the FC is possibly one of the greatest returns on investment you can make!


CliveC said...

I am a resident of East Anglia, but whilst I can support many of the points raised in your blog ,I would take issue with you over the question of the urgent need for heathland restoration.

It seems there are some within the conservation world who regard plantation forests as a blot on the landscape ~ something that wasn’t there in the 1800’s when much of East Anglia was heathland. In those days the wool trade was of higher importance so the lowland heaths were used as sheep walks. Rabbits were also farmed in warrens.

But times and needs changed, East Anglia is now intensively farmed for root and cereal crops. And of course the Government of the day recognised the need to produce timber. So many areas of lowland heath were indeed turned over to farmers to produce the food our nation requires and the Thetford and Sandlings Forests were created. The loss of the lowland heaths is not therefore a recent change ~ so why the urgent need to reverse this process ?

The forests of East Anglia may not be ancient forests but they are a much loved public amenity asset. In counties where farming is the predominant industry and access is restricted, these forests form our green lung. The Forestry Commission, by operating an open access policy, support a multiplicity of recreational pursuits as well as developing and managing wildlife habitat and running a commercial forestry enterprise. That is why there was a public outcry last year when the Government tried to reinforce it’s powers to sell off (or lease) the Public Forest Estate. They feared the loss of their forests and woodlands. Those risks have not gone away.

Many of us await the publication of the Forestry panel’s report with keen interest.

CliveC said...

The Forestry Commission manages the public forests for the nation. It balances the needs of people and has an increasing commitment in providing a haven for wildlife. Indeed many of the reasons folk come to the forests is because of the wildlife. In East Anglia the local Authorities, conservation agencies and the Forestry Commission work in partnership to enhance habitat and develop our natural landscape. Heathland regeneration is part of this programme.

There have been some successes, particularly around Dunwich where the Forestry Commission are stakeholders, but there have also been some significant failures where the area is managed by our local authority. Here even the heather that was established 15 years ago is now being swamped with bracken. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust flock of sheep have been withdrawn (as they were found to be ineffective particularly in established heather) and replaced by a small group of Exmore ponies. The regeneration of heather however has slowed and in some areas has gone into reverse. The grazing regimes have failed and we are left with a problem especially now that the chemical spray (the use of which I never liked) has been withdrawn from the market. They have created a bracken and bramble covered wasteland.

I believe where regeneration is failing the landowners should be concentrating on repairing the damage they have done over the last 20 years. Plans should be put in place to replace the woodlands and copses that have been destroyed. It was particularly sad to see the removal of broadleaf species.

In the quest to provide habitat for species such as Woodlark and Nightjar the agencies have also destroyed a food chain that supported species such as the Nightingale and Song Thrush. Again the word urgency comes to the fore ~ in some instances they haven't even conducted an Environmental Impact analysis before felling woodland areas. This was unprofessional, carried out in a hurry with minimal Public consultation whilst HLS and other Government grant aid funding was on offer.

The Woodlark and Nightjar do however nest in recently replanted coniferous forests such as Rendleshan and Tunstall. With cyclical harvesting and replanting this habitat is always available In fact these species are doing rather well. They do not rely solely on heather heathland to successfully nest on the ground to produce their fledglings. So why are the Conservation agencies spending all this grant aid in the pursuit of what I regard as being ill conceived "vision" to return the landscape to as it was 100 years ago. By all means manage the existing areas of heathland, extend and broaden the margins but they need to spend time getting the spread of bracken and bramble under control. So please no more land clearance until the environmentalists have worked out how to control existing programmes in a sustainable way.

The Suffolk Sandlings is an Area of Outstanding Beauty ~ it offers visitors a diverse landscape, which is rich in wildlife. We have a mixed landscape of farmland, open grassland, heather heathland, broadleaf woodland and plantation forest that has changed little for the last 100 years. Why therefore are the Wildlife Trusts advocating the removal of our plantation forests (with urgency) to create a landscape of a different age ?.

Time has moved on, certain wildlife species have also moved to new habitats as a result of global warming and changes in farming practices.

All landscapes evolve over time. I am supportive of evolution and the enhancement of habitat. But the current zeal of some conservationists to remove conifers at all costs is worrying. Perhaps when access to grant aid is curtailed ( as looks likely) they will back away from these sorts of transformation programmes. This I suspect is why they are advocating urgent action at this stage ~ they fear a reduction in available funding.

We should surely now be refocusing on conserving and developing our diverse habitats for the species they currently support.

ImogenRadford said...

The support for the Forestry Commission, the praise for its delivery of environmental and other public benefits cost effectively and the understanding of importance of it being properly resourced is very welcome, and I agree with several of these points.

Tony Whitbread was one of the few representatives of NGOs supporting FC and public ownership during the campaign to save our public forests from being sold off, and I don’t remember him ever criticising the FC during that period, unlike other conservationists.

That makes it particularly disappointing to see the lack of understanding of the multipurpose sustainable nature of the Forestry Commission’s exemplary management of the public forest estate that the call for the FC to focus on nature implies.

True sustainable management follows internationally agreed criteria of multipurpose forestry, delivering economic, social and environmental benefits – all three are crucial and all three are admirably balanced by the FC.

All the FC’s freehold forests are dedicated for public access, and all of their forests are managed under forest district plans on which local communities and stakeholders are consulted. Their management of all of their forests balances environmental work including all the different sorts of habitat within those forests, with timber production which provides valuable revenue to run the forests and has an important contribution to the economy of this country, with enabling and encouraging access by a wide variety of uses.

It is extremely unfair to suggest that the FC does not look after all habitats in its care, including heathland, meadows and other open habitats. The FC looks after these very well, even though it has to forego revenue from timber for those areas and is not eligible for grants that other organisations can claim and do claim for managing heathland.

And to suggest that all areas that were heathland at some point in the past and have been planted with conifers should be urgently ‘restored’ is a slap in the face to everyone who campaigned in East Anglia to save our much loved forests from sell-off and transfer. We don’t want our forests to be removed, we want to use them, we want to see them run well, we want to see all the important wildlife they contain and which relies on them, we want the benefits of forests in mitigating climate change to continue, and we certainly don’t want our forests to be removed ‘urgently’.

Creation of some heathland and meadow habitat is fine, but it should be done only where it is beneficial to the environment, where it is sustainable, where it is appropriate and beneficial locally and nationally and where it is based on proper consultation of forest users and everyone else who is affected.