The debate on ownership of the public forest estate has touched a nerve. As the government abandons its plans to sell off forests, Sue Holden FRSA argues that there are greater issues at stake.
It is great that so many people feel so passionately about our forests, that the government has decided to rethink: more people signed petitions about the government’s proposed changes than any other issue in the past. However, it is a shame that the debate has been so simplified and politicised.
The arguments about whether public ownership is right for forests is important but there are many more factors that will determine whether woods are looked after well, protected and made accessible to the public. The public forests deliver huge public benefits now and these must be guaranteed whatever the future structure of the estate.
A comprehensive and constructive debate is now needed. This needs to consider how society might get more from the public forest estate and what is best for trees and woods. More attention needs to be given to protecting ancient woods and restoring damaged ancient woods: the status quo is not satisfactory.
Trees and woods bring immense benefit to the public and to the environment, providing places for healthy recreation, air quality improvements, flood alleviation, carbon storage and fantastic habitats for wildlife, to name a few. We need to protect the woodland we have, and ensure that more is created: the UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe and yet planting rates have been declining over the past ten years (5100ha in 2010 compared to 17000ha in 2000).
Ancient woodland is our richest wildlife habitat – our rainforest – yet it is still being destroyed. The Woodland Trust has fought cases involving 850 ancient woods in the last decade. Ancient woodland, no matter who owns it, needs better protection. There is very little ancient woodland left and the only way to recreate it is to restore ancient woods which were planted with conifers, called Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS). Restoring these is one of the most significant contributions we could make to the natural environment. The Forestry Commission has around 30000ha of PAWS which it has not restored despite a 2005 government commitment to do so.
Every community should have an accessible wood within walking distance and this means that much more is needed. It would be fantastic to see more communities creating a wood, managing it and benefitting from it, whether as a classroom, a green gym or a source of firewood. Whether David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ narrative survives the current criticism, expanding public involvement in increasing our woodlands and maintaining them speaks to the notion that we should all do more in tackling global changes to our climate and improving local wellbeing.
Yet, few communities have the resources, knowledge and capacity to take on woodland ownership and management overnight; the motivation and skill needs building and facilitating.
Sue Holden FRSA is chief executive of the Woodland Trust.