Environment: New standard for managing forests

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The Forestry Commission yesterday set a new standard for looking after Britain's woodlands. The 74-page rulebook, intended to cover state- owned and private forests, was given a cautious welcome by conservationists and commercial timber growers.

The document is intended to bring Britain into line with undertakings made at the Rio Earth Summit five years ago. The government thinking behind it is that wealthy nations like Britain have to show they are "greener than green" in looking after their forests before they can persuade developing nations to halt the destruction of tropical rainforests.

In a preface Tony Blair says: "What is at stake is a high proportion of the Earth's species, the equilibrium of the atmosphere and climate, and the lives of millions of people who depend on forests for food and shelter.

Others look to the UK to see whether we are adopting high standards of forest management to match our vital interest in their management and protection of forests in other parts of the world."

The Forestry Commission has plenty of leverage for implementing the standard. Forestry Enterprise, its commercial arm, still owns 36 per cent of United Kingdom woodlands, and 60 per cent of Britain's timber production comes from these.

Before any group of trees is felled the permission of its regulatory arm, the Forestry Authority, is required. Normally, it will not grant a licence until it has been shown satisfactory plan

Furthermore, virtually all tree planting in Britain depends on the pounds 33m of planting grants it gives out each year - without that subsidy there is no hope of ever making any money from growing trees.

The standard covers practices for encouraging a diversity of wildlife in woodlands, and makes it impossible to plant only non-native conifers like Sitka Spruce. The planting of native conifer and broadleaf species is encouraged.

Landowners applying for grants to plant trees will have to show that they have consulted local people and organisations with an interest, such as their county Wildlife Trust, before drawing up their plans.

But while it encourages forest owners to allow public access to their woodlands, it does not insist on it Donald Thompson, the official in charge of drawing up the standard, said: "If we insisted on that, a lot of woodland would not be planted at all."

And that would be a retrograde step at a time when Britain is trying to increase its forest cover from 11 per cent - one of the lowest in Europe.

-- Nicholas Schoon Environment Correspondent