Win £5,000 in our forest challenge

Sell-off or no sell-off, England's woods face an uncertain future. Michael McCarthy explains how you can help – and win a prize

A A A

What should be the future of England's forests, which the Government said last month it wanted to sell off – much to the anger of the public? Today The Independent, and the Cambridge-based wildlife conservation charity Fauna and Flora International (FFI), launches a £5,000 essay prize to find a serious and substantial answer to one of this year's most controversial questions.

The context, of course, is the Government's wish to dispose of the 18 per cent of the woodlands of England that are state-owned and in the care of the Forestry Commission, to the private sector or to charities.

The hostile and outspoken reaction to this plan – half a million people have signed a petition against it – took ministers entirely by surprise, caused disarray in Whitehall, and culminated in the quite unprecedented sight in the House of Commons yesterday of the Prime Minister openly disowning one of his own Government initiatives – which may mean the plan is killed off.

But that reaction did something else, as well: it displayed a deep-seated public attachment to our forest heritage which perhaps most of us did not realise was there.

Now we want explore this further, and to look forward. We are inviting readers to submit an essay of between 1,500 and 2,000 words on "The Future of England's Forests". The winning entry will be published in The Independent and the author will receive a prize of £5,000, provided through FFI by an anonymous donor.

We hope the competition will have the effect of raising even further the political stakes of the Government's mooted sale, as we hope to publish the winning essay in the week beginning Monday 18 April, the final week of the public consultation exercise about the sell-off proposals (which, for all of David Cameron's evident unease yesterday, was – at least last night – still going ahead).

Clearly, we want people who enter the competition to address the Government's plan. That's where the thinking starts. But the brief is wider than just the forests' administrative future. We would like to see thinking on their ecological future as well, which, as Britain's greatest woodland expert, Oliver Rackham, makes clear, is also hanging in the balance. And, thirdly, we are interested in their cultural future (and, for that matter, their cultural present).

In the past, forests have not played the role in the cultural life of our country that they have in some other European nations, such as Germany, but the public reaction has made us realise that this may be changing. So the idea of "The Future of England's Forests" also very much includes the idea of what they mean to us, as well as how we should run them.

"As an engaged, passionate public, we need to use the Government's consultation process to determine the best way to protect and preserve our wild places," said Mark Rose, Fauna and Flora International's chief executive. "That's why we are running this competition – to find out exactly what you think is the best way forward. Let's plan for the future of our green places and manage our forests even better. We want as many people as possible to discuss and voice their views on their future."

The leading environmentalist Tony Juniper, who has a long history of campaigning for forests and who will be one of our independent judges, said that England's woodlands and forests were among the country's most iconic natural environments. "They harbour wildlife, characterise landscapes and nurture the human spirit," he said. "Yet beautiful and rich as they are, in a fast-changing world their future cannot be taken for granted."

The other independent judge probably knows more about forests and woodlands than anyone else in the land: Oliver Rackham, eminent botanist, author and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who has made a distinguished career out of uncovering how our landscape, and our forests and woods in particular, came to be as they are, in such books as The History of The Countryside (1986), and the encyclopedic Woodlands (2006), the 100th volume in the celebrated New Naturalists series.

Were he setting the essay for his students, Dr Rackham said, he would expect them to look at the ecological aspects of our forests' future – two of which represent particularly disturbing threats.

One is the unchecked growth in the numbers of deer, which are more plentiful now than at any time historically, and are "eating the bottoms out of the woods" – destroying the new tree growth and the ground flora. The other is the spread of introduced tree diseases which are causing havoc in places like Japan and the US and are likely to spread to Britain. The problems of the deer and the diseases made him wonder, he said, what future there would be for our forests 100 years from now.

Dr Rackham has specific views on how these threats should be dealt with. "A public body is better able to cope with these matters than random private landowners," he said. Another key aspect, he added, is continuity in woodland management: "It's important that people who have worked for many years in a place and got to know it, shouldn't be summarily thrown out by some stroke of the pen by a distant bureaucrat."

Let us hope that our rulers listen to him, and to you.

Essay competition details

HOW TO ENTER: Write an essay of between 1,500 and 2,000 words on the subject of "The Future of England's Forests". Email your entry to forestscompetition@independent.co.uk by midnight on 25 March 2011.

THE PRIZE: A prize of £5,000 will be awarded to the writer of the essay which the judging panel considers the best.

THE JUDGES: The judging panel will comprise Michael McCarthy The Independent's environment editor, top), Oliver Rackham OBE (academic and author of such works as The History of the Countryside and Woodlands, centre); and Tony Juniper (former director of Friends of the Earth and Senior Executive at the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, bottom). The judges' decision is final on all matters. No correspondence will be entered into.

NOTIFICATION AND PUBLICATION: The winner will be notified by email before 18 April. The winning entry will be published in The Independent (subject to meeting editorial standards).

TERMS AND CONDITIONS: For general terms and conditions see www.independent. co.uk/legal

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone