Ancient woodland vs dual carriageway: A21 in Kent is the latest test of Government's development policy

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The future of large swathes of Britain's ancient woodland is hanging in the balance, as the government nears a landmark ruling on whether to turn a tree-surrounded road to Pembury in Kent into a dual carriageway.

The public inquiry into the development wrapped up early this month with the ruling expected any time in the next few weeks. It will determine whether nine hectares of ancient woodland will survive or perish to make way for the road development.

But the decision will also have implications for threatened ancient woodlands covering an area of 12,700 football pitches across the country, the largest area at risk since the Woodland Trust starting keeping score 15 years ago. It is being seen as a "second test case" of whether the government's recent policy planning overhaul will favour environmental concerns over commercial ones as vast areas of Britain's ancient woodland face destruction to make way for a massive government development drive that includes the HS2 high speed rail link and huge green belt building programmes.

The prospect of saving these 350 threatened areas of woodland – stretching back anywhere from four centuries to the last ice age 11,000 years ago - decreased significantly last month when the first test case of the government’s recent policy planning overhaul dashed hopes that the environment would now take precedence over commerce.

In the first legal ruling on the planning reforms, local government secretary Eric Pickles found in favour of the proposed quarry extension into Oaken Wood in Kent, arguing that the economic considerations “clearly outweigh” the physical damage.

The decision was widely regarded as a harbinger of doom for large swathes of Britain’s ancient woodlands, a trend which many fear could be confirmed by what is being billed as the “second test case” of the reforms  – the plan to turn a 2.5 mile section of the A21 between Pembury and Tonbridge in Kent into a dual carriageway.

“If you run the clock back six months I would have said things were pretty safe. Suddenly we’re under different pressures and something that looked safe isn’t safe after all. When a decision like Oaken Wood sets a precedent, things that we thought were protected are not as protected as we thought,” said Adrian Colston, the National Trust’s general manager for Dartmoor, looking back to the first test case.

Looking forward to the forthcoming decision, Oliver Newham, senior campaigner at the Woodland Trust, said: “The A21 is also an important test case of the revised planning laws and their weakness in protecting ancient woodland. It could be the start of a worrying trend.”

The A21 ruling will be made by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the other main arbiter of development projects, and could give an indication of whether he has a similar stance on these issues to Mr Pickles.

A second government decision in favour of development will confirm for many that the die is truly cast leaving large areas of ancient woodlands in a precarious position. By contrast, a decision against the dualling of the A21 would raise hopes that the government is more open to environmental concerns than previously feared and that is likely to consider each of the developments referred to it on a case-by-case basis.

The threat to ancient woodland comes as people flock to Britain’s forests in ever greater numbers.

British woods hosted 356.6bn visits in the year to March 2013, a jump of 12.5 per cent in just three years, according to Natural England, as continuing austerity prompts people to look for free activities and the creeping impingement of the digital world into our lives makes them seek out “natural” experiences, such as a trip to the woods.

There is, it seems, also an element of not knowing what you’re missing until it is taken away – or nearly taken away.

“When the government tried to sell off the public forest estate [in 2010] that was a real turning point and I don’t think it expected such a huge outcry,” muses the Woodland Trust’s site manager for Devon, Dave Rickwood, as he gave the Independent on Sunday a tour last week of Fingle Woods, about 15 miles west of Exeter on the North East fringe of Dartmoor.

The government eventually climbed down on its proposal in the face of widespread opposition, which has since translated into a growing appreciation of both ancient and “secondary” woodland, Rickwood says.

“Communities often take things for granted and it’s only when people threaten to take them away that people suddenly appreciate them – the proposed forest-sell off was just a much bigger version of that,” Rickwood said.

Warming to his theme, Rickwood added: “It’s nice to step out of the Internet. We live in this digital world and we need to get out of it. I think people have a craving for peace and tranquillity that has increased in the past five or ten years – people are trying to get to a point of remoteness.”

“I can remember doing that as a child, when we just took that as part of what we used to do. Whereas actually that’s an experience now that people are actively going out to seek,” he said.

Rickwood is flanked by the National Trust’s Adrian Colston and the pair are examining the vast area of Fingle Woods that the trusts have just bought for £5m in their first joint acquisition.

Rickwood and Colston have big plans for their recently-acquired 825 acre – 300 football pitch-sized – tract of Fingle Woods, as they embark upon what is thought to be biggest restoration of ancient woodland seen in the UK. They will begin by opening up 30 miles of footpaths in the Teign Valley to the public in March next year which have been closed to the public for decades and hope that the woods will soon be attracting 100,000 visitors a year.

They will then set about stripping out the densely-planted pine-laden conifer trees that have largely replaced the spaced-out native oak trees – mostly Sessile with some Pedunculate. The project will take up to twenty years to complete, while the full results will not show through for about 70 years.

Standing in front of the “great divide” in Fingle Woods, Colston explains how they want to make the dense, dark, relatively-spartan mud-floored conifer-riddled swathe of woodland on the left hand side look like the light, green-carpeted, life-teeming right hand side of the original.

“On the right we have the original oak woods, and the number of trees per hectare is much lower than in the conifer plantation on the right. So there is an awful lot more light coming in and as a result a lot more vegetation on the ground. A carpet of bilberries, with ivy, common corn weed, great woodrush, wood mellick and bracken,” Colston says.

“When you clear the conifers you let more light in – gradually so as not to shock the system – then you will start to see all the species reappear and the green carpet will march up the hill,” said Colston, pointing out that even after all these years the ground is full of seeds ready to grow at the first sign of light.

Despite their evident differences, both sides of the forest are technically regarded as ancient – defined as having existed when forestry records began in 1600 – because each has been continually wooded ever since.

The conifer portion of Fingle wood is a victim of a government drive starting at the end of the first world war and running right through to the 1980s to plant as many fast-growing pine trees as possible for timber. While many were planted on virgin sites or among newer forests – known as ‘secondary’ woods – a good number were also planted in ancient woodland, often at the expense of the existing trees which were chopped down. The densely-plant trees have cones all the year around and have spoilt much of the ancient woodlands by blocking out light, which has killed many of the species living there.

Just over half of Britain’s ancient woodland has been spoilt in this way – a figure that is all the more serious when you consider that ancient woodland comprises 2 per cent of the country’s total land area - or about a sixth of the remaining woodland.

As a result, the National Trust and Woodland Trust are keen to restore Fingle Woods. They want to use it to educate the public and landowners about the benefits of such restoration – and of ancient woods in general – in the hope of fostering more restoration.

Ancient woodland is so valuable because it has evolved over long periods of time, meaning that it supports far more species than any other habitat on British land.

“Ancient woodland is crucial to protecting a wide diversity of species and creates a huge buffer against climate change,” said Rickwood.

Colston elaborates: “Take an oak tree, it has about 500 species of insect associated with it, some of which will be winners and some losers. If you have something like conifers with only 20 species of insects, one of those might be a winner, but none might be.”

Not only is pure ancient woodland a thing of majestic beauty, a natural time-machine that harks back to Robin Hood and the Medieval period. But it is apparently one of our best hopes of surviving the future – as a defence against climate change. The more horses – or species – you back, the better the chance of protecting the eco-system when climate change picks its winners and losers.

* A seven-hectare tract of Smithy Wood near Sheffield became the latest area of ancient woodland to come under threat this week, as plans for a motorway service station just off junction 36 of the M1 were announced and put up for public consultation.

The latest proposal could deal a third construction blow to the woods, which are situated between the south Yorkshire villages of Thorpe Hesley and Chapeltown.

The first blow saw the woods cleaved in two by the M1, while the second looks set to come from the HS2 high speed rail link between Birmingham and Leeds which cuts through the far west side of the wood.

The latest proposal threatens a further 7 hectares – equivalent to 14 football pitches – of the west side, which the Woodland Trust says it will oppose.

Oliver Newham, Woodland Trust campaigner, said: “Smithy Wood is a prime example of where ancient woodland is getting gradually chipped away and fragmented until eventually nothing will be left.”