Beware of a monster in the woods: Privatisation of the Forestry Commission would be a national disaster, argues Duff Hart-Davis

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT's decision to abandon plans for building a dual carriageway through Oxleas Wood in south-east London was a triumph for the various pressure groups that campaigned to save the ancient forest. But let everyone in Britain who loves wandering in woods beware, for a threat immensely greater than any mere bypass is looming.

In its desperate search for assets to sell, the Treasury has been casting hungry eyes on the Forestry Commission, the state organisation that, with more than 2.5 million acres, is by far the largest owner and manager of land in Great Britain. This is the moment, therefore, for a clear statement of the belief that privatisation of the commission would be a national disaster.

The simplest argument against a sale is purely financial. Estimates of what the commission's woodlands are worth have varied sharply. An early figure of pounds 2.7bn is now thought to have been a wild exaggeration; the latest suggestions range from pounds 1.4bn down to pounds 700m. At this rate the gain to the Treasury would be derisory: it would staunch the current budget deficit for three or four days.

Not only that: a sale now would lose the Government very considerable revenue in the future, for, after a slow build-up during the 70 years of its existence, the commission is scheduled to break even for the first time in 1995. Its timber production is rising fast as woods planted in the Thirties and Forties come to maturity, and output will double by the year 2022, with only small extra production or administrative costs.

Finance, however, is only one consideration. More important to ordinary people is the fact that the commission's forests have become a recreational asset beyond value, offering a general freedom to roam not available on private land. Simply because access is so open, nobody knows precisely how many people enjoy the state forests, but the commission's own estimate is that they receive more than 50 million visits a year from walkers, joggers, picnickers, campers, caravaners, bird- watchers, orienteers, riders, mountain- bikers, scientific researchers and others, not to mention hordes of schoolchildren in field-study groups.

The Forest of Dean, which extends to 30,000 acres on the borders of England and Wales, is alone thought to entertain a million visitors a year. On any fine summer weekend at least 20,000 lose themselves among the splendid oaks and beeches.

Besides all these outsiders, who make special trips for recreational purposes, a substantial number of people live on the fringes of the forests and walk in them every day as a matter of course, very often with their dogs. Local research suggests that these edge-dwellers value their freedom of movement more highly than anyone else, and would be devastated if they lost it.

One of the strongest arguments against the sale of commission forests is that no individual landowner would stand mass invasion on this present scale, and that if privatisation went ahead, it would entail a huge loss of recreational facilities.

A crucial fact, which I think escapes the Treasury, is that over the past 20 years the Forestry Commission has changed its spots entirely. Until a couple of decades ago it was regarded - not without reason - as a vast and philistine bureaucracy that smothered the uplands with blankets of conifers and cared as little about conservation as it did about the public. I myself became so infuriated by its surly incompetence that I wrote a thriller in which the central figure - only slightly deranged - began setting fire to conifer plantations in the Highlands as a protest.

Things are very different now. Only last week, during a day spent in Mortimer Forest, a glorious, 3,000-acre upland block above Ludlow, Shropshire, I witnessed the care with which operations are planned and executed. Before mature trees are felled, for instance, a ranger makes a survey of the site, noting unusual trees, plants, animals or birds on a pocket tape recorder, and later feeding the information into the master plan.

In the bad old days every square yard of ground had to be planted with commercial species. Now policy is to leave generous amounts of space open, both because it enhances the look of the forest and encourages a diversity of plants and wildlife.

This policy is readily apparent in Mortimer. Trees have been cut back from the sides of roads and streams, and existing stands of broadleaved trees such as alder and oak are being allowed to spread outwards from the river banks which they already occupy. Lawns, or feeding grounds, are created and maintained for the resident herd of 400 fallow deer. Birds of prey are protected, and special efforts are being made to encourage dormice, which, with the decline of dense hazel thickets, have retreated towards the south, and here are at the northernmost point of their range.

Far from having one or two small patches devoted to conservation, the whole of Mortimer is, in effect, one huge conservation area. Yet, at the same time, it is a profitable commercial forest, producing more than 60,000 cubic metres of timber, worth pounds 1m, every year, and entertaining several hundred thousand visitors on excellent tracks and footpaths, with ample car parks and picnic sites.

Here and elsewhere, those in charge of the commission's woodlands are skilled foresters, many of whom have risen through the ranks; but they are also skilled managers, charged with the difficult task of weighing demands for profit from their accountants against the needs of conservation and public entertainment. After much debate and experimentation, they have achieved an admirably balanced position in which all these separate elements are accorded due recognition.

The Forestry Commission, in other words, has come through a major, self- generated revolution of policy and practice. Its own members are the first to admit that there is still an immense amount to be done: the best progress has been achieved in the South, and any number of improvements remain to be made, especially in the North. Yet among the foresters themselves there is a tremendous feeling of achievement, backed by an equally strong determination to see things through.

To break up the Forestry Commission now would disable an enterprise that has begun to run particularly well. No wonder three of the countryside's most active guardians - the Ramblers' Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - have all declared themselves strongly against the idea.

Indeed, so alarmed are the Ramblers that in September they will hold their 'Forbidden Britain' day in commission forests all over the country. Normally this widespread protest takes place on land to which the public has been denied access. This year, the aim is the reverse: to draw attention to what citizens would lose if privatisation went ahead.

(Photograph omitted)