The Future of England's Forests: How we got lost in the woods

After plans to sell off England's forests were dramatically shelved, The Independent launched a prize for the best writing on their future. Here, Michael McCarthy introduces the winning article

Tuesday 10 May 2011 00:00 BST

It provoked a sudden swell of public outrage and the biggest climbdown in the Coalition Government's first year – the proposal to sell off the 18 per cent of the woodlands of England that are state-owned and maintained by the Forestry Commission.

Did anyone realise that as a nation we were quite so attached to our public woodlands? The hostility to the sell-off idea was so intense that in February it led to the unprecedented sight of David Cameron openly disowning one of his own Government's initiatives in the House of Commons; to the complete abandonment of the public consultation on the forests sale; and to an extraordinary public apology for the whole business from the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman. The Government dropped its plans and appointed a panel of the environmental great and good to consider the future of our state-owned forests, which will report in the autumn.

But before the U-turn, we had posed the question ourselves. In cooperation with the Cambridge-based wildlife charity, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), we launched an essay competition on "The Future of England's Forests" with a £5,000 prize put forward by an anonymous (and very generous) FFI supporter.

The response was substantial and we received more than 150 essays of nearly 2,000 words each. Assessing them has been a mammoth exercise and the winner was picked from a final shortlist of 13 on Wednesday 3 May by the judges: the environmentalist and former head of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper; the academic and expert on the history of the countryside in general, and woodlands in particular, Dr Oliver Rackham, of the University of Cambridge; and the present writer.

Clearly, we wanted people to think about policy. What is the purpose of publicly owned forests: wood production? Recreation? Wildlife protection? New environmental purposes, such as carbon storage, or the production of wood chip fuel? What are the problems they face now? What problems are on the horizon? How should they be run? And of course, who should run them?

But we were also looking for other things: a sense that the collapse of the Government's sale plans actually presents an enormous opportunity for a new future, if ministers are wise enough to take it; a sense of what forests mean to us on a deeper level; and importantly, an essay which might have a sound grasp of policy, but was also a pleasure to read.

The shortlist entry which best met these requirements, we felt unanimously, was essay 15601 (all were judged anonymously). The author turned out to be botanist and conservationist, Andy Byfield, landscape conservation manager of the wildflower conservation charity Plantlife. To him goes the £5,000 prize; and to everyone who took part go the thanks of Fauna and Flora International, and The Independent.

The future of England's forests by Andy Byfield

I am sorry, we got this one wrong." In a rare display of political contrition, Caroline Spelman apologised on behalf of the Coalition Government for proposing the sale of England's public forests, and brought a deeply unpopular consultation to an abrupt end. To the dispassionate observer, the announcement ended a fascinating three-week period, in which more questions were raised than answered. Did the Conservatives wish to sell the land to "big forestry" and their shooting cronies for ideological reasons, as much as they wished to fill Treasury coffers? Did the environmental pressure groups remain so surprisingly mute – a fact that didn't go unnoticed by the godfather of environmentalism, Jonathan Porritt – because they struggled to find a common voice? Or like some magpie collecting baubles, did the prospects of decorating their own nests with the very best fragments of the forest estate keep them silent? In the end, it was half a million signatures from the general public and an outcry from the Tory broadsheets and tabloids that forced the Environment Secretary to make her U-turn. As Ms Spelman acknowledged: "If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring." As a conservationist and botanist, I can remember few proposals that have caused me more concern.

At stake was the Public Forest Estate, managed by the Forestry Commission for England, covering some 257,000 hectares, roughly equivalent to the size of Oxfordshire. The consultation document acknowledged the importance of this land both to conservation and recreation. Over a quarter of this area receives formal recognition of its outstanding biological importance through designation as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Roughly 50,000 hectares of the estate is ancient woodland, 15 per cent of the national total. And this land abounds in rare and beautiful wildlife, from red squirrels to lady orchids. Additionally, the public are free to roam over much of this land: 40 per cent of all woodlands open to the public are managed by the Forestry Commission, even though they oversee just 18 per cent of our forested lands, hence the public's deep attachment to this land.

At the heart of the consultation was the proposal to break up the estate into four categories: heritage and community; multi-purpose and both small commercial and large commercial forests. The Government suggested that the heritage sites might be transferred at no cost to conservation organisations to manage, via a trust arrangement or lease, whilst environmental pressure groups and local community groups would additionally have first refusal to buy or take a long lease over additional small parts of the estate. This might total up to 106,000 hectares, although quite why these groups should have to buy land already in public ownership was never explained. The bulk of the remainder – up to 130,000 hectares – could be leased to commercial and other private interests for up to 150 years.

As commentators identified, ancient woodlands are close to most people's hearts: these are mystical areas that have supported natural tree cover since at least 1600. At their best, they are enormously rich in wildlife. We are still fortunate enough to witness the coming of spring as bluebell woods metamorphose into sheets of blue. However, other displays of stunning woodland flowers are largely a thing of the past: the muted, colour-coordinated whites and greens of sword-leaved helleborine, lily-of-the valley and Solomon's seal have gone from our limestone ashwoods, while the multi-coloured blend of anemone, primrose and violet of our lowland hazel copses remains but a distant memory. And, of course, as the diversity of plant life has declined, so richness of insects, birds and mammals has followed suit.

In short, Britain's ancient woodlands are in a dire state, for three outstanding reasons. The first problem is our burgeoning deer population: the population of muntjac deer is increasing at 8.2 per cent per annum and will double its population to over 300,000 in just nine years. Increasing numbers of deer are nibbling the ground vegetation and low shrubs to the bone, leaving only a skeleton of woody trunks: rare plants disappear, the food plants of butterflies are reduced to critically low levels, and all important shelter for breeding birds is removed.

Increasing nutrients within woodlands represents another key problem. Valued woodland plants favour soils with low nutrients, but today our woodland soils become ever enriched as industrial – and agricultural-derived nutrients fall from the skies, and further increase with the annual fall of leaf litter and other woodland detritus.

But the biggest problem is lack of management. Plants need light to grow, and management allows this all-important ingredient to reach the woodland floor. In the pas ttrees were coppiced, pollarded and shredded; timber was hauled away; and, in many instances, the woodland floor grazed by domestic stock. Such activities allow in light, remove nutrients, keep coarse vegetation at bay, and create open bare ground for seedling establishment.

And yet, for the past 60 years our woodlands have remained largely unmanaged. In 1947, roughly half our woodland cover comprised coppice or scrub – low, light woodland vegetation – yet today, all but three per cent is high forest with a closed canopy, and a dark, stygian woodland floor. They are devoid of colour, and are ever-increasingly uniform in terms of florisitic and zoological diversity. Our ancient woodlands need a guiding hand if they are to regain some of their former glory.

Ancient woodlands are only half the story. Of equal importance are the tracts of open, unwooded, habitat that came into the hands of the Forestry Commission decades ago. As the First World War drew to a close, the government vowed to make Britain self-sufficient in timber, and in 1919 the Commission came into being. One of its first acts was to aggressively purchase land from cash-starved landowners, acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres at rock-bottom prices within a few years. Across these open landscapes, the Commission planted millions of non-native trees. As they matured and open land became wooded, so we as a society lost, what the writer WG Clarke called: "the memories of its spaciousness, of its peaceful solitudes, of its heath and bracken and lichens and wood sage, of the calls of its birds, and the scent of its air".

It would be fair to assume that most of the rarer plants and doubtless animals on the forest estate are woodlanders, but in reality, some three-quarters of the flowering plants are characteristic of open habitats. These include beautiful species such as marsh gentian, Dorset heath and purple milk-vetch. Such plants are the last survivors of these former commonlands, persisting along ride sides and where mature trees have been felled. To the botanist, they are a reminder of what we have lost. However, there is a faint ray of hope. Once the excesses of tree planting have been completed, forestry soils lie largely undisturbed under the growing trees until the timber is felled. With profile and hydrology intact, they can easily be restored to high-quality heath, bog or downland. Plant seeds can lie dormant for decades, ready to spring into growth when conditions permit: I well remember estimating 36,000 seedlings true of common heather germinating within just one metre square of burnt conifer plantation in the New Forest. New mixed open and wooded landscapes abounding in wildlife could easily be reinstated.

I was surprised by one thing during Ms Spelman's consultation, and that was my increasing support for the Forestry Commission. After all, here is an organisation that conservation bodies have loved to hate for 90 years, and with good reason. It was the Commission that gutted the oaks and ash from its own ancient woodland and replanted dark, dense crops of conifers. It championed the wholesale afforestation of 1.77 million acres of breezy heaths and downs across Britain, changing the iconic landscapes such as the New Forest, the Dorset Heaths, and Breckland, possibly for ever.

But change is taking place within the Commission. Three key strategies have been launched over the past six years that could undo the wrongs perpetrated over the past 90. In 2005, the Commission published its ancient woodland strategy, Keepers of Time, which recognises the values of ancient woodland, and calls for the removal of introduced conifers. A few years later, the Government adopted the Commission's Woodfuel Strategy for England that seeks to encourage sustainable management of woodland to produce woodfuel as a source of low-carbon energy, whilst introducing economic management back into our broadleaved woodlands, thus adding the magic ingredient, light, to bring woodland biodiversity back to life. Finally, in early 2010, came the adoption of the Commission's policy on when to convert woods and forests to open habitats in England, that could reinstate key areas of heath and down from plantation forests.

I believe the public forest estate should remain publicly owned. Yes, a small degree of rationalisation may make sense, but the bulk should remain in public hands, managed by a greatly evolved Forestry Commission, with old wood pruned out and a new remit to listen to the public. At first sight, ideas from Mark Avery, of the RSPB, for a new Forestry and Wildlife Service, don't seem wide of the mark. Through this, we could realise long-held dreams of restoring ancient woodland, and recreating new open landscapes, with free access for all. The evolved organisation could be an exemplar of proactive management, demonstrating a diversity of landscape management techniques to the commercial and private sectors that have been even slower to change their ways.

The newly shaped Commission could promote applied research to investigate everything from control of diseases, to the role of woodland in carbon sequestration and ways of managing woodland both sustainably and economically. And our new Commission would be directly accountable to its paymaster, the taxpayer. Above all, if the public forests are sold to the highest bidder, we lose our last opportunity to achieve landscape conservation on a landscape scale.

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