Conflict in the woods: can public access and private ownership coexist?

People love to get close to trees. A recent MORI poll found that more than five million Britons will have hugged a tree in their lifetime, and six and a half million will have spoken to one. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) estimates that around 210 million leisure visits are made to woodlands annually. This year the trust aims to plant 10,000 commemorative trees, each one dedicated to a friend or relative, thereby creating 20 new woodlands to be planted and managed by some of its 85,000 volunteers.

So trees are in. But should our pockets of forest be privately owned and maintained with right of access at the owner's discretion or should access be freely available, albeit at public expense? The Ramblers' Association added to the debate recently with its first Atlas of Public Forests, drawn up after a 10-year campaign. The aim, says Ramblers chairman Kate Ashbrook, is to enable the public once again to enjoy their publicly-owned forests.

Almost all of the Forestry Commission's two million acres can be roamed over - if you know where they are. In the mid-1980s all information about FC land was dropped from Ordnance Survey maps to avoid confusion as the Government sold off land. And where woods had been sold, right of access was usually lost.

Less than a tenth of Britain's land surface is now wooded and a quarter of that consists of money-spinning plantations of the North American Sitka spruce. With industrialisation and intensive farming, woods were ignored or axed; more woodland has been lost in the last 40 years than in the previous millennium.

Helping to redress the balance, the Government's embryonic 200-square- mile National Forest, linking Staffordshire with Leicestershire, promises to be a "people's landscape" with ready access, largely funded with existing grants to farmers willing to add afforestation to their diversification plans. But, because Britain still imports 90 per cent of its timber, around 40 per cent of the trees will be commercial conifers. Given the choice between walking through stiff, dark rows of pine or a sized woodland with a sunlit canopy, most of us would choose the latter. (Nature does: the oak supports around 400 species of wildlife.)

The bulk of mixed woodland is on farmland where the owner may not realise the commercial and conservation value of something that has "always been there". A measly (by comparison) 300,000 hectares is ancient, or primary, woodland, such as can be seen in Hatfield Forest in Essex, whose 1,000 acres of former Royal forest are owned by the National Trust. Roaming NT woods and land is free; funding comes largely from membership and house, garden and car park fees.

However, a growing number of people are adopting a more hands-on approach. The FC has given grants to help establish 800 new woods whose owners are expected to offer free public access. Its Community Woodlands grant is in addition to its Woodland Improvement grant, which is only given where public access is granted. The latter is being taken up by members of the The National Small Woods Association, a network of owners and managers whose aim is to promote good management. Members are keen on buying up small woods considered "worthless" by their owners. These small woods are a huge and largely neglected resource: half of Britain's 1.8 million acres of broadleaf trees grow in parcels of 2.5 acres or less. According to botanist and author Dr Oliver Rackham, "the value of small woods to wildlife is not necessarily reduced in proportion to their size, especially if they are ancient woods".

Amanda Giles, NSWA development director, says that uneconomic woodland is where demand is strongest, with the preferred size being between 10 and 30 acres. Values have doubled in the last 10 years with the average cost now about pounds l,000 per acre, rising to pounds 2,500 for the best small woods in the South.

In partnership with the Green Wood Trust and sponsored by the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Commission, the NSWA runs Saturday courses in Shropshire, Kent and soon in East Anglia, designed to help new owners get the most from their woodland, environmentally and financially. "It's quite a tangible thing to put your money into and it meets all the green credentials," says Mrs Giles. "Most people don't expect to make much out of it and are prepared to make a loss, at least for the first few years."

The attraction, it seems, is more personal: "As well as providing a private escape, caring for a wood can lead to new interests or fulfil ambitions, such as charcoal burning, learning about wildlife, working with wood and fencing. And many owners report that it has brought them closer to the seasons."

The NSWA leaves the question of access to the individual. Mrs Giles admits that the old-style landowner still guards his privacy jealously. "But a new breed of landowner is being encouraged by the Woodland Improvement grant. Our members are keen on it because there isn't much money in timber. Also, owners used to be afraid of liability for people injured in their wood. Now we offer our own insurance scheme."

The FC's Technical Development Branch is currently advising owners of woodland that one of the best sources of income is firewood, thanks to advances in the design of wood-fuelled boilers. A study is underway into the possibility of creating new woodlands specifically for fuelwood. One NSWA member used to spend pounds 750 a year on oil. Now her 11-hectare wood provides all her power.

One forester in particular is working hard at increasing access and raising the FC's public profile. In the Mortimer Forest outside Ludlow, in Shropshire, warden Jeremy Gissop made friends with the "enemy" by organising the first 4x4 tracking on FC land last summer. More than 200 off-roaders took part in the event, raising pounds 4,500 for conservation projects such as dormouse boxes.

Perhaps access is the key to survival. Like our coastline, which once harboured ships and fisherman and now entertains holidaymakers, woods are going back to work.

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (01491 839766); for information on commemorative tree planting ask for Jackie Gamble. The Forestry Commission (0131-334 0303). The National Small Woods Association (01327 361387) has produced a Woodland Purchase information sheet. The Ramblers' Association (0171-582 6878).

How to plant a community wood

If all goes according to plan, a small group of people from the north Oxfordshire village of Deddington will walk, spades in hands, down the half-mile long track to the banks of the little river Swere later this year and plant the first saplings in what will eventually become a 10-acre wood.

It will be the first of 200 new "millennium woods" planned by The Woodland Trust to be planted and tended by local communities in England and Wales. The aim is to complete the pounds 19m project, which is backed by grants of more than pounds 6.5m from the Millennium Commission, by the year 2000. By then The Woodland Trust, now in its 25th year, hopes to be the owner of 1,000 woods.

"For the past few years we have been acquiring woods at the rate of about one a week," said Trust spokeswoman Noelle Fletcher. "The figure is now 745 woods, totalling more than 25,000 acres. The plan is now to encourage local communities to plant woods on land bought with local funds, backed by grants from the Millennium Commission and administered by The Woodland Trust."

At Deddington the communityzq has been set a target of pounds 9,000 by the Trust. The remainder of the pounds 28,000 needed to buy and plant the land will come from the Trust and a pounds 12,500 grant from Cherwell District Council, which is dependent on the village raising the pounds 9,000. To date the 600 households in the community have raised about half the required amount, mainly by gift pledges from pounds 10 to pounds 250.

At Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire, which is competing with Deddington to have the first of the 200 new woods, progress has been slower. There the initial target of pounds 43,000 to create 17.5 acres of woodland on land just to the north of the village proved too high. The plan now is to purchase eight acres of the land and put the pounds 5,500 pledged so far towards the new target figure of pounds 16,000.

Other likely sites for the new woods include 20 acres on the site of a former coal mine in Derbyshire, two parcels of land in Suffolk and two gifts of land, one in Essex and one in Cumbria.

"All these sites have to be examined by our staff to assess the potential," said Ms Fletcher. "When a site is eventually chosen and the wood planted there is emphasis on broad-leaved trees native to the area. We also try to create a range of habitats where wildlife can flourish. We encourage local people to design features such as seats, wildflower meadows in clearings and perhaps a commemorative stone, or a wooden sculpture to give local distinctiveness.

"The important thing is to make people aware that we are looking for suitable sites and for communities keen to establish a wood that will be open to all and that they will be able to maintain with the help of The Woodland Trust."

More than 95 per cent of existing woods owned by the Trust are open for the public to walk in and explore. The only ones that are not are woods where it would be considered dangerous to roam - for example woods on the edge of a gorge - or where there are good conservation reasons for keeping people away.

"About a third of our 745 woods were originally gifts, and over the years we have raised nearly pounds 30m to buy and care for woods," Ms Fletcher said. "At the beginning of the Nineties we started planting small-scale community woodlands in Cambridgeshire - England's least wooded county - and the current project to plant 200 fresh woods arose from this."

For more information call the trust's hotline on 01476 591691 and ask for a Woods on Your Doorstep pack. Prospective sites should ideally be between one and 20 acres and within easy walking distance of a town or village.

Clive Fewins

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