Friday 6 July 2012

Saving the Forestry Commission is just the start.

Government has now committed to keeping the public forest estate in public hands.  This, however, is not the end of the matter.  There are many good recommendations in the Independent Forest Panel report and we need to ensure that these now get adopted.

The point I’d like to pick up in this blog is about woodland management and restoration.

Woods generally need to be managed in order to keep the whole forest ecosystem in a good state.  This may seem counter-intuitive because surely woods are “natural” and should be able to look after themselves.  This is a big subject and perhaps something I’ll touch on in another blog but for the present I’ll just summarise by saying that woods are not natural, they are semi-natural.  They are the product of centuries of interaction between people and wildlife; their value will generally be best maintained by keeping that interaction going – ie traditional management.

There are exceptions, but generally woods are best when they are managed.  Obviously this is not carte blanche for any management, it has to be appropriate.  But, done well, we are really talking about sustainability, not simple exploitation.

The Forest Panel report does bring this out.  This should provide good support for the forest industry, and in the process should underpin the public benefits gained from woodland (whether public or private).

What does this mean in practice?  Woodland wildlife is under threat – species and habitats are still in decline.  This is not due just to woodland loss (although this will contribute in some areas), indeed woodland area has increased steadily over the last 100 years.  The evidence shows that one main cause of woodland decline is woods becoming dark and overshadowed.  This is linked to lack of management.

For centuries, when woods were managed this provided clearings and openings within woods which then went through regeneration and growth before becoming dense woodland again.  The result was a patchwork within woodland, all at different stages of growth and supporting a diverse range of species.  This, in effect, mimics the natural disturbance that might have taken place in truly natural woods.  If management stops, the diversity goes and woods become dark and overshadowed.

The nightingale provides just one example of a species that has suffered as our woods have dropped out of management.  This is a woodland bird that has declined as woods have increased.  The reason, it actually prefers shrubby regrowth - part of the woodland regrowth cycle.  If woods get dark and overshadowed consisting of tall trees with little shrubby regrowth then nightingales loose habitat.

Today nightingales are often found in blackthorn scrub rather than in woodland.  However where woodlands are managed the nightingales can return.

I’ll stress again that there are exceptions to this rule.  There are woods that are to some extent “re-naturalised” and are maintaining their own diversity without the need for great management input.  These places are special, there should probably be more of them and they need special consideration.

But staying with nightingales, try this link – an incredible recording of nightingales in the second world war, singing as the RAF bombers flew overhead.  It’s a long track – but listen and you can here the birds sing louder as the planes get closer! 

A sign of success for forest policy in the UK will be if southern England once again reverberates to the sound of nightingales every spring.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Forest Panel Report – it’s out and it’s not bad!

The Independent Panel on Forestry’s report was published today and I have now had a chance absorb its contents. 

The headline is that, despite concerns to the contrary, the report clearly states that the forest estate should remain in public ownership.  This is not too much of a surprise.  I am a little remote from the panel itself but I did attend a couple of its events and the whole thrust of any discussion did support the continued role of a public forest estate.

However, just keeping the forests public is not enough by itself.  We asked for a strong Forestry Commission with a renewed remit.  So, if we check the report against the recommendations The Wildlife Trusts made, how does it measures up?

  • The report does propose an enhanced remit for the Forestry Commission, as we recommended, focusing on delivering benefits for people, nature and the economy. 

  • It also does fairly well in promoting forests as integral parts of a coherent and resilient ecological network.  I would have preferred the report to say more – a healthy forest ecosystem within a coherent ecological network is the essential first step to any of the benefits we get.

  • It is less good in improving protection for woodland, especially ancient woodland – it does show a refreshed commitment to protection, which is important, but does not offer anything new. 

  • It is, however, quite strong in promoting the use of forests to improve the connection between people and the environment.  There are many opportunities for FC to be at the centre of re-energised community involvement in woodlands, we know plenty of existing good examples, it just needs to happen more often.

  • Although the report does propose an expansion of woodland, to extend, buffer and link woods it does not go far enough in promoting a “right tree in the right place” principle.  Hopefully the days of poorly designed plantations are over; however the report does promote a huge increase in tree cover.  This could be a good thing, but only if done sensitively. 

  • In the same vein, the report could say more about the restoration of open habitat like heaths and meadows.  Open habitats tend to get forgotten, or even seen as countering forest productivity, but they are some of our most threatened habitats.  Perhaps promoting planting trees in one place to make up for trees lost when open habitats are restored in another may ease any potential tension.

  • Lack of management in woods is a major cause of wildlife decline so it is good that the report is quite strong on restoration of woods.

Overall then, the report is pretty good.  And there are other messages in there that deserve emphasis.

In the body of the report it mentions that if we calculate financial value of all the public benefits that the public forest estate provides (including the easily calculated values like timber, but also the less easily valued benefits from healthy, functioning ecosystems) then we find the estate delivers £400M in public benefit a year.  The report also admits that this is an underestimate – the true value is probably much more.  The cost to the public is only £20M per year.

So – the Public Forest Estate provides a yearly 20:1 return on investment - in perpetuity!  And that’s an underestimate.  Every £1 we don’t spend on forests is £20 wasted.

I doubt that there is any other investment that could match this, indeed even some proposed road schemes struggle to reach a 1:1 return on investment.

This makes a general point.  If we actually calculate the benefits we get from healthy, functioning ecosystems then their value is huge (probably irreplaceable and probably should just be considered a poor approximation of infinity).  The past situation where the FC had to continually sell woods in order to balance its books was a failure in our economic system, not a failure of FC.

Of over-riding importance is the need for our society to gain a better understanding of the whole value of nature (in this case in forests).  This is a point made in the very first recommendation in the report – “We urge society as a whole to value woodlands for the full range of benefits they bring….”.  There is thus a very strong emphasis on really appreciating the ecosystem services provided by forest ecosystems.  The superficial, short-term financial valuing of a few of the most easily measured attributes (such as timber value), although important in themselves, are just one benefit from healthy functioning forests.  Add in the rest and our decisions will be different.

Looking back at the National Ecosystem Assessment last year - and lining it up with statements in this report, the optimist in me says that it will be in forest ecosystems where we at last start to value the natural capital on which we depend and make this value fundamental to our decision making.

Government will respond to the report by next January but already Caroline Spelman, Secretary of Sate for the Environment has committed by saying that “our forests will stay in public hands”.

This is not “job done”, however.  This is the panel’s report not a government report.  The report has a lot of good recommendations in it (plus a few short-falls) so it is important that government are persuaded to pick up the good points (and fill any gaps).  So, we now need to see how government will respond.