Sunday, 6 February 2011

Future of the public forest estate

I have started this blog to add my voice, and that of friends, to condemn the appalling idea of selling off England's woods and forests. More will follow quite quickly, but first here is a quote from the Financial Times on 3 February 2011: "...over the long term there is no obvious fiscal benefit. Selling off the woods is an emotive subject and going ahead is already proving politically costly"

Here are also some matters that do not seem to me to have been properly considered or explained:

There seems to be a focus on 'heritage' forests, but I think many small FC properties are equally important because they are near the places where people live. In Sedlescombe, where I live for example, it is a long way to a 'heritage' forest, but we have Battle Great Wood, Beckly Woods, Footland Wood, Barnes Wood and many others within a close radius and these give a nice selection of FC places to walk - they do not need to cover square miles of land.

Access. The Government says that access will be conserved. Does this mean that new owners will be under an obligation to maintain car parks and footpaths and, in particular, any open glades or heathy areas that are so important for biodiversity? Will rides have to be maintained at an appropriate width for optimum ecological benefit? Will there be 'close seasons' when shooting takes place, or the birds to be shot are breeding? Will 'access' mean the freedom to go anywhere in the wood or forest, or will it be confined to set paths and routes?

Identification. How will we know if a wood or forest has public access or not? Currently Forestry Commission Woods are clearly marked on the popular Ordnance Survey Explorer and Pathfinder maps. If these woods are sold and the Forestry Commission marking removed, how will people know which woods are accessible? Perhaps the Government could consider continuing to mark them on maps somehow or other. "Former public wood sold to a private owner by the Coalition Government in 2011."

If all the Ordnance Survey and other Government maps have to be changed, I wonder if the cost has been taken into account.

Many Forestry Commission properties have a sign at the entrance(s) so that people know there is access. Will the new owners have to erect signs saying that the wood/forest is one of the free access ones?

Is there the quite interesting danger that, in the absence of any positive information, people will assume that most or all woods have access? If challenged when walking, could the appropriate response be "Oh, I thought this was one of the public woods you had bought from the Government."

Is this a good moment to press for the 'Right to Roam' to be extended to all woods and forests?

Shooting. I mentioned shooting above and, unless shooting for sport is absolutely forbidden in any sold off woods/forests, it seems likely to escalate. Apart from the dislike of this pursuit by so many who use the countryside, it is likely to represent both a danger and a reason to deny access to woods. Many who have been in France know the tyranny in the French countryside of 'La Chasse' and its powerful lobby.

There is also the question of noise. The countryside where I live has been relatively peaceful for the last several years, but this could change with the dismal sound of organised shotgun fire reverberating around during the shooting season. This unpleasant effect extends, of course, far beyond the woods and forests where it is taking place.

Management. There has been much talk of management. It may be possible for an experienced woodland/forest manager to be employed on the larger properties. Most of the smaller ones are too small to justify such an expense. Organisations like county wildlife trusts, the RSPB or the Woodland Trust have managers that cover a number, often a large number, of woodland properties spread over a wide area. The input of experienced people from the Forestry Commission who cover large areas will, presumably, no longer be available and the management of small woods will suffer as the new owners are unlikely to have the time or money to invest in the long learning curve and multiple skills needed to know how best to deal with a wood. There is also the question of continuity. Most people who buy woods are quite old and they may be enthusiastic for 10 or 20 years and then give up managing or sell the wood. The FC, Natural England and NGOs usually have long term policies so that there is the essential continuity of planned management down the generations.

Countryside stewardship. If the scheme continues, many of the sold off woods could be eligible for Entry Level or Higher Level Stewardship. Among other things this means they will receive payment from the Government provided they stick to the agreed management plan. I wonder if the cost of this has been taken into account in considering the 'profit' from woodland/forest sales.

Deer control. In many places deer, and also wild boar, are increasing. Their control via fencing and culling are complicated operations requiring cooperation over large areas if they are to be effective. Many of the animals are using smaller woods and increasingly coming into gardens as different, and often only partially successful, strategies are used to control them. If they are not controlled (and some new woodland owners might not want this) some woods may, in the long run, turn into wood pasture and, ultimately overgrazed grassland with starving animals and not much else.

No comments:

Post a Comment