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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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