Friday, 18 February 2011

Woodlands or wildlands?

Within a mile or so of my house there are many fields that have been lost to cultivation during my lifetime. Most of them are now semi-mature secondary woodlands with a wide range of tree and shrub species all of which have arrived of their own accord. Why, I often wonder, is there a growing obsession with planting trees. Why not just buy a field and let nature fill it up?

Associated with this thought is a concern I have that woodlands take a disproportionate amount of conservation attention. We also need un-treed, open wildlands – meadows and pastures, heaths and moors, fens and marshes and the boundaries between them. If I had a choice of home I would go for a place where woodland, grassland and wetland meet, where there is a synergy between different habitats. Much as I love them, I would not choose to live in a woodland, ancient or modern, unless it was in a very large glade. I sometimes think it is a shame that the Woodland Trust did not set itself up as the Wildland Trust, thereby not constraining itself to look after woodlands alone (though, in fairness, they do look after many non-woodland acres).

We seem to have forgotten about the spaces in between the woods. Hopkins & Kirby (2007) wrote that George Peterken and Oliver Rackham both point out that prior to 1940 woods were closely linked to the rest of the landscape.

"Semi-natural habitats comprised a higher proportion of the landscape between the woods. Trees spread out into the surrounding countryside through hedges and areas of wood pasture. Grassland and heath came into the wood along rides and glades or at the boundaries.

During the 20th century much of the semi-natural habitat around and in between the woods was lost, particularly in the lowlands of Britain. Even where semi-natural vegetation survives between the woods its quality may have declined. Therefore, despite the increase in woodland area since 1947 changes in the nature of the landscape matrix may have affected the population dynamics of species within woods through an increase in their ecological isolation."

A forest, of course, has never been an area of closed canopy trees but a wildland with many different habitats, a fact that only seems occasionally acknowledged in the current woodland and forest debate. Robert Pogue Harrison (2007) in his book Forests. The Shadow of Civilization had some thought provoking ideas that seem particularly relevant in the light of the recently abandoned sell-off proposals:

“... who can put his impress on the forest? Who can impose a human or political will upon the will of nature? Who can force the forest into one’s service? .... Humankind is always “impressing” the forest in one way or another, stripping it, conquering it, cultivating it, conscripting it. Likewise the forest is always impressing those who lose their way in its labyrinth.” (Mrs Spelman please note).

“One of the ways in which this dream of mastery and possession becomes reality in the post-Christian era is through the rise of forest management during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Forests become the object of a new science of forestry, with the State assuming the role of Descartes’s thinking subject. Predictably enough, modern forestry reduces forests to their most literal of “objective” status: timber. A new “forest mathematics” goes so far as to measure them in terms of their volume of disposable wood. Method thus conspires with the laws of economy to reappropriate forests under the general concept of “utility”, even in those cases where utility is conceived in aesthetic terms: forests as recreational parks, for example, or as “museums” of original nature.”

“Recently we have come to learn a great deal about the ecology of forests. .... Given our increased knowledge of the many interdependencies that constitute such ecosystems, forests have come to assume a powerful symbolic status in the cultural imagination to the degree that they provide a compelling paradigm for the notion of the earth as a single, complex, integrated ecosystem. Ecological concern over forests goes beyond just the forests insofar as forests have now become metonymies for the earth as a whole. What is true for a particular forest’s ecosystem is true for the totality of the biosphere. Humanity begins to appear in a new light: as a species caught in the delicate and diverse web of a forestlike planetary environment. More precisely, we are beginning to appear to ourselves as a species of parasite which threatens to destroy the hosting organism as a whole.”

There is also a general misconception that all woods and forests need to be 'managed'. There are, in fact, many woodlands in England that now have minimum intervention or non-intervention policies and, of course, they are likely to remain wooded for the foreseeable future. Management, it seems to me, is largely to do with the production of wood/timber and sometimes to conserve species that need conditions that were once widespread in the countryside. But generally, woodland will look after itself as it did under the very different conditions prevailing before our own species arrived on these islands.


Harrison, Robert Pogue (1992) Forests. The Shadow of Civilization. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.

Hopkins, J. J. & Kirby, K. J. (2007) Ecological change in British broadleaved woodland since 1947. Natural England, Peterborough

Post U-tern future

Some thoughtful material on the future of woods and forests from John Vidal in The Guardian:

'England's forests are not quite out of the woods yet':

Also an interesting new Woodland Trust website here which enables you to locate any woods with public access within a radius of where you live or work:

Monday, 14 February 2011

Woods, forests & Open Spaces Society

The Open Spaces Society have come out very solidly against the proposed sell-off of our woods and forests.

Kate Ashbrook, their general secretary, says, among other things: "We have said that we are opposed to any sale of public forests and woods unless the prospective purchaser has signed an agreement, legally-binding in perpetuity, to protect the woodland; maintain and create new rights for walkers, riders and cyclists; convert any pre-existing permissive access into legal access, and welcome informal access, free of charge, at all times. We have no evidence that the government intends to insist on these requirements."

See here:

A Scottish view

Today The Herald, Scotland have come out with an article in favour of the proposed forest and woodland sell-off. I have said I would give links to the pro as well as the anti, so here it is (you have to register to read all of it):

One interesting comment is that "in 90 years of existence, the Forestry Commissions have never made a profit, despite being the single largest suppliers of timber in the UK. If you take into account the capital costs as well as the cashflow, public forests lose between £200m and £250m annually. Whereas if they were all sold off at market rates, they could bring in almost £5 billion, which is the total reduction in debt interest payments over the course of the spending review, or the saving made by raising the pension age to 66."

That makes me wonder why any private individual would want to buy them other than to own a personal fiefdom. If it is true it also makes me wonder why many of the FC properties that we know and love are described as 'small commercial woodlands'. The 'commercial' bit would seem to be a misnomer, but I am sure potential buyers would not be fooled into thinking they had invested in a money spinner.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Bid for the woods?

Watching a TV debate about The Big Society this morning I wandered off into what mathematicians call a 'thought experiment'.

In my area Rother Guardians is a well-established group of volunteers with a good track record on the Rother Woods project dealing with the conservation of butterflies and moths in the Rother and Brede Valleys of East Sussex. Supposing this group wrote to Defra and said it was willing to manage the Forestry Commission's woods within the Rother Woods area on a voluntary basis. I know this would raise all sorts of probably insoluble issues, but it would be interesting to see what the Government's response was. Apparently they are enthusiastic to encourage this kind of initiative and it is conceivable, but unlikely, that they would be keen to help the group from thought experiment to reality.

If groups like this don't come forward, I suspect there will be very few others prepared to step up to the plate and tackle the time consuming tasks of finance, management, insurance and liaison with other bodies and so forth that would be required to do the job properly. However, it would be rather splendid if Rother Guardians were given enough money to buy or lease the woods and employ a small team of professionals to manage them with the volunteers remaining as trustees of the enterprise.

Perhaps if voluntary groups ventured into these waters, without any obligation, it would be better than simply standing on the sidelines and watching the wealthy gobble up our precious woodlands.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Are they weakening?

The Government has put on hold the sell-off of 15 % of publicly owned forests to consult further on issues like access and biodiversity.

The announcement refers to the 15 percent of English woodland already earmarked for the sale in last October's spending review and is separate from a continuing consultation over the remaining 85 percent of public forests that are the subject of the current controversy.

Only 28 days

Interesting article from Geoffrey Lean, environmental correspondent for the Daily Telegraph

The Big Society' won't be able to pay for England's forests. And here's why.
He highlights how impossible it will be for local groups to buy the forests and woodlands that the government proposes to sell off: