Will the Coalition government protect the UK’s forests?

As a keen walker who spends many weekends walking and enjoying the UK’s network of public footpaths, many of which pass through woodland, I’ve been following with interest discussion of the Coalition government’s proposals to sell off 150,000 hectares of publicly owned land to the private sector as part of its plans to reduce the country’s budget deficit.

Woodland Trust bluebell woods on Offa's Dyke Path
Woodland Trust bluebell woods on Offa’s Dyke Path

The land is owned by the Forestry Commission, a public body which owns and manages about 18% of Britain’s woodland for both recreational and commercial purposes. Since the proposals were first put forward, a number of campaigns such as Save Our Forests and Save Our Woods have emerged in opposition to any sell off, and a recent petition by YouGov for the 38 Degrees pressure group has revealed that three quarters of people are opposed to the plan. Perhaps more surprisingly, it seems opinions are not simply divided along political allegiances. This morning the Daily Telegraph also published an article voicing its concerns.

As a lover of the outdoors you would imagine I would also instinctively oppose any sell off, but it’s not quite as simple as that. I’m not opposed to private ownership per se. Many organisations, such as the Woodland Trust and the RSPB, are private organisations owning many hectares of woodland, but they manage them in a way in which I heartily approve. As a member of the Woodland Trust I frequently chip in a few quid when I receive an appeal from them saying a certain wood is being sold and they would like to raise the money to buy it.

The issue then is not so much private ownership, but ensuring the forests are managed in a responsible way after they have been sold (if, as it seems, the government is determined to sell them). The land should not simply be sold off to the highest bidder. For me this boils down to two main issues: public access and environmental responsibility. Let’s examine these in more detail.

Public access

Beech woods near Henley-on-Thames
Beech woods near Henley-on-Thames

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, introduced by the previous government and known as the Right to Roam, opened up over a million hectares of land to public use and has been a huge success. It’s important that any sell off of public land doesn’t become a step backwards in this respect.

While the Forestry Commission owns a great deal of land which is used for commercial forestry, it also owns land containing thousands of waymarked walks and trails, cycle routes and bridle paths, open every day and free of charge. The government should ensure that any such land sold to private ownership should remain publicly accessible. Moreover, they should look at ways to make more of the land accessible. The safest way to do this would be to ensure it is sold to an owner or organisation whose aims support this.

Environmental responsibility

Broadly this means managing the forests in a way which encourages wildlife, and more specifically native species, to flourish. The 20th century saw the destruction of a great deal of native woodland not just to towns and cities, but to intensive farming. This latter activity resulted in trees and hedges being ripped up for fields which were ploughed and ploughed until any nutrients vanished from the soil, making it infertile. The only solution was to use commercial fertilisers which were produced by burning fossil fuels.

More recently this trend has been reversed. Farmers now receive incentives for managing their land more responsibly, such as by creating ‘wildlife borders’ of land which is left wild for species to return. More grasses and wild flowers mean more insects, which in turn mean more birds and small mammals, which in turn mean more larger mammals. All of this increases the chances of trees being pollinated and returning naturally. 9% of Britain is now forest again, the highest figure since 1750.

Native species are important because British wildlife has evolved to live together over many centuries of isolation. By encouraging native species as opposed to foreign ones, the wildlife which depends upon it for food and reproduction gets given a greater chance to increase in numbers.

The Gloucestershire Way through Nagshead RSPB reserve
The Gloucestershire Way through Nagshead RSPB reserve

It is important that Forestry Commission land is therefore sold to owners and organisations with environmental credentials.

What can be done to ensure this?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will be launching a consultation next week on the proposals to sell Forestry Commission land. If you have an interest in how the land is sold, even if you’re just an individual who loves the great outdoors as I do, you can respond to the consultation and make your voice heard.

Some organisations have set up petitions in response to the proposals. Not all of them have the same aims and objectives – some oppose the sell off period, while others simply want to ensure the land is sold to the right people – but depending on your own point of view you can respond to some or all of these. They include the Woodland Trust petition and the 38 Degrees Save Our Forests petition.

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