Britain's forests are being sold off - and nature lovers are up in arms

Peter Marren meets the people whose livelihoods may face the axe

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The Government intends to privatise the forests. Ever since 1919, the forest industry has been run by the state. The Forestry Commission (FC) is one of the largest landowners in the country. It also regulates the way woods are managed through the usual combination of carrot and stick: rules and grants. The FC has been around for so long that we take it for granted. We appreciate the open-access policy of the forests it owns in our name, and, increasingly, we like what it is doing. Forests are no longer run for timber objectives alone, as in the past, but for a variety of purposes: recreation, carbon storage and wildlife conservation among them. They have become, in a sense, people's forests.

No wonder we are alarmed at the Secretary of State for Environment Caroline Spelman's proposals, spelt out in the "Consultation Document" published on 27 January – quickly and universally known as the "ConDoc". A clutch of well-known people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, put their names to an indignant letter published in The Times. There have been online petitions and a poll suggesting that most of us would rather things stayed as they were. Indeed, in 2009, another poll concluded that we members of the Big Society want more state forests, not fewer. And yesterday, MPs were debating an opposition motion calling on the Government to halt its plans to sell off England's forests to the private sector.

As it happened, I was able to test what the foresters themselves think of the proposal to sell off 15 per cent of the state-owned forests now, and the rest later. I was at a private party to celebrate 10 years of achievement in the state-owned forests. As one might expect, they were critical of the proposals. But they were also in a good position to predict what may happen if the forest estate is returned en bloc to the private sector. We are not at the start of a process of selling forests, but in the middle of one. By looking at recent experience of transferring forests to the private sector, we can see where we might be going. And it may not be where we want to go.

What vexed my partying foresters most is that no one asked whether the forests should be sold in the first place. "They forgot to ask question one," one of them said. "The Government is asking us how we should dispose of the forests. They didn't bother asking whether we should dispose of them. This is a huge decision." She was certain that the Government's strategy is based on political dogma, not on a rational examination of pros and cons. "They have boxed themselves in right from the start."

Since the 1980s, the Forestry Commission has been able to sell woods as well as buy them. This has not always been in the best interests of woodland conservation. Take Pasture Wood, near the village of Holmbury St Mary in Surrey. The FC says it sold this historic wood on the North Downs "in good faith". However, the new owner passed it on to a specialist land company, which divided it up into numerous garden-sized parcels and advertised them temptingly as "beautiful woodland plots in the heart of the Surrey hills with amassing [sic] views." The long lease offered, it added, "provides permission for Dwellings subject to satisfying the planning requirements".

A hundred owners instead of one could be one model for the Big Society in action, but it will make holistic planning virtually impossible. Without management, the tree canopy will shade over and the open glades on which so much woodland wildlife depends will be lost. It is also, of course, an open invitation to suburbanisation: "dwellings", daffodils, gates, gardens. And it may, if enough proud new owners apply for grants, even cost us more in the long run.

Then there is the curious case of a fine wood on the Isle of Wight which the FC decided to dispose of because it was losing them money. It had proved impossible to "modernise" the wood because a new access road was needed for forest operations and they did not have the money to build it. The wood was sold for £60,000. And the first thing the new owner did was to apply for – and receive – a maintenance grant for £70,000. With which he built an access road.

This sort of anomaly arises, my foresters say, because the FC is divided into two watertight departments. One deals with estate management, and the other with grants. The former is strapped for cash, while the latter is awash with Euro-money. Any cash resulting from a land sale is paid straight out again in maintenance grants.

Caroline Spelman has promised to protect public access. But look at the small print. The FC allows horse riders and bikers on forest trails, and provides car parks, picnic sites and other facilities. New owners are not obliged to maintain them. They can, if they wish, put the picnic tables on a bonfire, close the car park and ban horses, mountain bikes and any other form of transport other than a pair of legs.

Moreover, it is possible to discourage access while staying within the law. In the widely reported case of Rigg Wood in the Lake District, visitors were confronted with a locked gate erected in short order by the new owner. Yes, they can still walk there, but first they have to find somewhere else to park the car.

This is only one example. In East Sussex, access to one wood is "physically restricted through lack of maintenance", meaning the new owner has let the paths turn into bramble thickets. At another in the same county, "discouraging notices" hang over the entrance. At a wood in Kent popular with walkers, "access is now very difficult to gain". At yet another, in Herefordshire, freshly painted signs "discourage" horse riders and are "no longer welcoming". The Forestry Commission is under a legal obligation to deliver public benefit. Private owners can only be encouraged to deliver such benefits. There is no compulsion on them to do so.

Spelman hopes that those designated as "heritage forests" (once she gets around to defining what they are) will be bought by conservation charities. These bodies have cautiously indicated their willingness to take over woods of appropriate quality. "We are willing to play our part in giving them a secure future," said Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust. "We are ready to step in."

The idea of the National Trust or any other conservation charity taking over, say, the Crown woods of the New Forest, caused a ripple of wry amusement among my foresters. From their perspective, the National Trust and others like it are well-intentioned amateurs. "When they took on Workman's Wood in the Cotswolds," said Rod Leslie, a former head of policy at the Forestry Commission, "it was in wonderful condition. The previous owner had lovingly maintained glades and coppice plots, creating a varied mixture of light and shade that was wonderful for wildlife, and appropriate to its history and character. Since then, the canopy has shaded over, and the wood has become duller in every sense. The Trust lacks experience and infrastructure for holistic planning in forestry matters."

This is not the only wildlife issue. In recent years, the FC has recreated significant acreages of lost habitats on its properties, from heathland in Dorset and East Anglia to peat bogs in Northumberland. Open spaces in its managed woods hold many of our breeding woodlarks and nightjars, not to mention rare butterflies such as wood whites and fritillaries. Creating habitats on this scale is beyond the resources of private bodies – unless the FC pays them.

"FC land is the main habitat for breeding goshawks in England," a forester told me, "because we tolerate them." Surely the goshawk is a protected species and must be tolerated? Yes, he said, but over much of England there are no goshawks in private woods, even when the habitat is suitable. As they say, go figure. Similarly, the majority of England's honey buzzards have found they prefer state-owned forests to private land, as do the ospreys that are now colonising the Lake District.

What is it to be? A model of the Big Society in action or locked gates, frozen welcomes and a mysterious absence of hawks? Whatever the future of our forests, the Forestry Commission will still be needed to turn policy into practice. Every one of my partying foresters was certain about one thing. The FC may lose its land, but it will not lose its human estate. "Throughout the EU," my informant said, "fragmentation of the forest ownership has always led to a commensurate increase in the size of the regulatory body. Soon, we will be twice as big." Put simply, the more woodland owners, the greater the bureaucracy needed to administer grants and voluntary agreements. Has Caroline Spelman seen the thorny wood behind the tempting trees?

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