Moving soon – come join us

WT websiteWe’re moving from WordPress soon

Soon we will be blogging exclusively on the new Woodland Trust website. Woodland Matters will remain live but will no longer be updated or maintained.

Why are we moving?

We want to offer a more personalised experience for you, our wonderful readers. You will still be able to follow your favourite blogs and authors, but will also be able to create your own ‘scrap book’ of favourite content (including publications and citizen science news). You can still join in the conversation too, of course! Plus, our new website has the most up-to-date woodland news and conservation views from across the Trust, and the many ways that people can get involved in protecting, restoring and creating UK woods and trees – like taking part in our campaigns or applying for free community tree packs.

We’d like to say a big thank you to all of our subscribers and readers for joining us on our blogging journey over the last four years. The enthusiasm and comments we’ve received from you have been stimulating and thought provoking, and the blog has really evolved over time.

We hope you will join us in our new blogging home where we will continue to discuss the matters important to us and you. Once we are fully moved over we will let you know how you can sign up and follow us (Woodland Matters will continue in the interim).

Beautiful Appleton Jan,Feb 08 - Steven Highfield WTPL thanks

Posted in Campaigning, Conservation, Government Affairs | 8 Comments

School Wood Saved!! (for the moment)

Nearly four hectares of ancient woodland in the Cairngorms National Park have been saved (Whoop – Whoop!)Scots Pine at Cairngorms

In May 2013 we were alerted to a planning application that could cause the direct loss of almost four hectares of ancient woodland. If it was approved, two areas of irreplaceable ancient woodland in School Wood near Nethy Bridge would be cleared to make way for 58 houses.

Nethy Bridge is surrounded by woodland, and unsurprisingly it’s a village that prides itself on its connection to nature. School Wood is a popular place for recreation and especially wildlife watching, as it provides a home to red squirrels, pine martens and green shield moss, all endangered woodland species. The wood has been subject to many planning applications over the years and local residents and conservation charities alike are always quick to come to its defence.

We’re glad to be able to report that our objection taken alongside others such as Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, Buglife Scotland and the Ancient Tree Forum led to the refusal of the latest planning application, meaning nearly four hectares of ancient woodland is safe, barring an appeal from the developer which must be made within six months.

To defeat this particular threat we had to fight two age old arguments. Namely:

Argument 1: The application implied that the wood isn’t ancient at all and therefore it was open to be cleared for development.
This is a tricky argument to have at times as Scotland’s Ancient Woodland Inventory is provisional and the data that was used to create it means it will remain this way for the foreseeable future.

However information from local ecologists provided us with confidence that the wood should be on the Inventory and Scottish Natural Heritage’s response to the application did not dispute its status.

Argument 2: If one area of ancient woodland is lost then this is a good thing as it means the remaining area of ancient woodland will be better managed.

At no time should this argument be used as a mitigation measure for ancient woodland, which is irreplaceable habitat. It can only be deemed to be compensation and should not be viewed in a positive light.

When it came to light that the wood was most likely an area of plantation on ancient woodland (PAWS), we provided a further response continuing our objection and pointing out that the Cairngorms National Park Forest and Woodland Framework states that one of the priorities for the Park is to:

“Protect all ancient and semi-natural woodlands from further damage and fragmentation and restore them all in plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS);”

But we do have concerns over a decision made to only exclude part of the planned development from the local plan. While a big positive result from the committee’s decision was to remove the northern part of the site from the local plan, giving it protection from future applications, the committee convenor indicated a clear desire to see the southern part of the wood at Craigmore Road developed “as soon as possible”, ignoring its special importance.

red squirrel at School Wood in the CairngormsThis part of the wood has high ecological valuable, for example containing more red squirrel drays than at School Road, so any new application in this area will be fiercely opposed, It’s possible that Scotland’s new environment minister Aileen McLeod MSP, who is species champion for red squirrel, may even take an interest.

Watch This Space…

This case was managed by Katharine Rist – Campaigner, Ancient Woodland and Rory Syme – PR & Communications Officer, Scotland

Posted in Campaigning, Scotland | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Lords, Ladies and the Infrastructure Bill

This week the House of Lords ended its deliberations on the Infrastructure Bill – a curious mishmash of proposed legislation addressing everything from roads to non-native species and town and country planning, and plenty of concern to environmentalists. Having debated and amended the Bill in detail over the last 5 months, the Bill was passed by the House and now heads over to the Commons, where MPs will deliberate over the amended version over the course of the next few months. You can find the Bill, and accompanying Explanatory Notes, here.

The Public Forest Estate: disposal row re-visited?

Where woods and trees are concerned, the Lords have made a number of welcome changes to the Bill. The most important of these is a clarification that the clause allowing for transfer of so-called ‘surplus’ government-held land to the Homes and Communities Agency (for possible onward sell-off) will not apply to the Public Forest Estate. This commitment and clarifying amendment, which followed a recent Written Ministerial Statement from Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis, is welcome. It reflects lobbying by the Woodland Trust and a whole range of groups to amend the Bill in this way.

However, and as Baroness Royall, the Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, articulated during Wednesday’s ‘Third Reading’ debate, such clarifications would not have been necessary had the Government not reneged on its promise to bring forward legislation for the PFE in a Forestry Bill in the first place. It’s clear that these clarifications are in no way a substitute for such a Bill, which we are lobbying all parties hard to bring forward as soon as possible after the election.

Quoting from a briefing from the Woodland Trust ahead of the debate, Baroness Royall told the House:

We hope that the Third Reading debate, any subsequent further amendment—and scrutiny in the Commons—will ensure that protection is as strong as possible. Whatever the outcome of the Bill’s passage, however, it has to be said that this is a row of the Government’s own making through not bringing forward a Forestry Bill as promised. Indeed, this assurance within the Infrastructure Bill cannot be deemed a substitute for the bringing forward of legislation for the Public Forest Estate; a specific Forestry Bill is still needed to settle the future of the PFE and for the avoidance of any future doubt or confusion as to its status. We want to see that legislation brought forward at the earliest opportunity after the election”.

Other welcome amendments to the Bill include a specification that the Highways Agency – which under the Bill will become a government-owned company tasked with managing and operating England’s motorway and strategic road network – will be obliged to “have regard to the effect of the exercise of” its functions on the environment. Likewise, the draft licence for this strategic highways company, as separate to the Bill itself, also now makes welcome reference to the environment, reflecting some of our further recent work at Whitehall – though there is still work to do on this.

Blog pic

 Martinshaw Wood, Leicester M1

So it’s fair to say that from the perspective of safeguarding the Public Forest Estate, and the environment more generally, the Infrastructure Bill has emerged from its progress through the House of Lords in better shape than when it first went in.

But it’s far from bells and roses. There remain some important issues with the Bill, which will now fall to MPs in the House of Commons to address.

Issues to watch

First of all, there are questions over the watchdog and the monitor that will be appointed to oversee the strategic highways company, such as how these will hold the body to account regarding any obligations towards the environment; the role of the Government in the running of the company and therefore of parliament and the public; and the role of local authorities, Network Rail and others to integrate the planning and management of local road networks, and associated concerns about the Government’s ability to lead a truly strategic transport policy that respects the natural environment.

We also have reservations about the Government’s commitment to the eradication and control of invasive non-native species (INNS), which are among the biggest global threats to biodiversity, as well as having serious negative consequences for ecosystem services, the economy and public health. The Infrastructure Bill sets out welcome proposed species control provisions, and the Lords made welcome amendments to the designation of species clauses, but here at the Woodland Trust we would like to see environmental authorities given sufficient funding to carry out these provisions at a time when many environmental authority budgets are already stretched.

Finally (for now), we also remain anxious to ensure that the proposed changes to the mainstream planning system within the Bill, concerning procedures associated with discharging planning conditions, are not carried out at the expense of the natural environment. You can read more of the detail about this issue here.

What next?

Now that the Bill has passed through the House of Lords, it now passes to the House of Commons, where MPs will begin by debating its principles at ‘Second Reading’ (in December or early January), commencing more detailed scrutiny at Committee Stage (late Jan), Report Stage, and finally a Third Reading (Feb?). Final amendments are then considered by both the Lords and the Commons (estimated to be in early March), before the Bill is presented for Royal Assent.

As the Bill enters its Commons phase we’ll be busy engaging MPs, particularly those on the Bill Committee, to ensure it – and also its accompanying documents – pays sufficient regard to the potential impact on our country’s precious woods and trees. Watch this space.

Lorraine Mullally – Lead Government Affairs Officer

Posted in Campaigning, Government Affairs | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Is better protection for ancient woodland more than just a pipe dream?

The Woodland Trust has long championed better protection for the irreplaceable habitat of ancient woodland. It’s one of the core aims of our public advocacy work.

Ancient woodland is one of the few remaining living links to our ecological and archaeological past. It’s the richest, most valuable land habitat for wildlife that we still have, covering only about 2% of the land area, with unique ecosystems providing a home to hundreds of rare and vulnerable species. It can never be replanted, recreated or replaced.

Image: WTPL

Our current Enough is enough’ campaign reinforces the critical importance of protecting ancient woodland absolutely, with more than 450 ancient woods under threat across the UK at this very moment.

Despite resolute national campaigning over the years, ancient woodland still remains without the full protection it so desperately needs. National planning guidance, as set out in paragraph 118 of National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPF), continues to render ancient woodland a hostage to fortune by way of the ‘get out’ caveats attached to its protection wording. Natural England’s excellent Standing Advice should help, but the caveat in paragraph 118 is proving to be a real burr in ancient woodland’s side.

But maybe – just maybe – something is stirring in the dusty corridors of local authority planning policy. This year has seen the appearance of some unexpectedly helpful local policy wording.

Tucked away in Policy DM17 (Development involving Existing Green Infrastructure – Trees) of Bristol City Council’s adopted Site Allocations and Development Management Policies (July 2014) is the bald stand-alone sentence that “Development which would result in the loss of Ancient Woodland, Aged trees or Veteran trees will not be permitted”. No weasly qualification or caveat attached.

Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s proposed submission Core Strategy (June 2014) states in Policy CS.5 on Landscape that “Due to the quality of ancient semi-natural woodland and aged/veteran trees, particularly in the Forest of Arden, and their relative scarcity elsewhere in the District, no development will be permitted that would lead to their loss or damage”. Again, a stand-alone sentence with no apparent caveat.

Torridge District Council and North Devon Council have also weighed in with the statement in paragraph 12.59 of their Joint Local Plan publication draft (June 20214) that “Critical environmental assets such as ancient woodland and veteran trees cannot be relocated or replaced so must be retained and enhanced on site”. 

Finally Dudley Borough’s Development Strategy preferred options (July 2014) proposes a dedicated Policy S22 specifically for Mature Trees, Woodland and Ancient Woodland to read: Development which would adversely affect Ancient Woodland will not be permitted, and measures will be taken to restore these areas, and where appropriate, expand them with new complementary planting, particularly to encourage linked woodland areas”.

Whilst one swallow does not necessarily make a summer, when you get a flock of good policies, it’s a sign that welcome change could be coming. True, some of this new policy has yet to undergo the trauma of public examination but hope springs eternal in the undisturbed soils of ancient woodland that the wording will be duly confirmed.

Perhaps this flurry of local policy activity might now embolden other local authorities to provide their ancient woodland with the absolute protection for which the Woodland Trust, and its supporters, have campaigned for so long.

We therefore issue a challenge to all our readers – please check that your local ancient woodland sites are protected in your local council’s planning documents (Core Strategies, or Local Plans for example) too, with strong policy commitments like these! Let us know below, or contact us at campaigning@woodlandtrust.org.uk.

Justin Milward, Lead Government Affairs Officer

Posted in Climate Change, Government Affairs, Protection | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Bees, Trees and Infrastructure: Having it all?

Walking into the ‘Ideas Space’ lecture area at Policy Exchange Think Tank to hear Liz Truss deliver her first set piece speech on the natural environment, it struck me that it really wasn’t that long since Owen Paterson had delivered his own speech, setting out his vision for the natural environment, in the same place. Something I blogged on around this time last year.

Tuesday’s speech showed, as you would expect, a good deal of continuity. Owen Paterson’s speech was themed around ‘having it all’ and Liz Truss began by talking about the need to move away from the environment being seen as about ‘having less’ but instead being about ‘having more.’ Her central thesis being the belief that environmental and economic progresses depend on one another.

Something that came through very strongly, as has been highlighted by various commentators – was the importance of science and evidence. Given the emphasis the Woodland Trust places upon this aspect of its work – not least through the ObservaTree and Nature’s Calendar projects, where we engage the public (another important theme of Ms Truss’ early remarks on where the environment agenda needs to go) – we hope that our work in this area will be a key resource in underpinning future government policy.

Readers of this blog will also be interested to know that trees featured as prominently as any theme. Indeed Ms Truss stated that ‘trees have a unique place in British history, landscape and culture’ and went on to refer to some of the finest examples – inspired hopefully by recent political interest in the Tree of the Year competition.

We’d like to see this lead to dialogue around our V.I.Trees campaign, which has seen the Woodland Trust and Country Living magazine come together to call for a register to classify, celebrate and protect the UK’s nationally important trees. Good dialogue is underway already in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but as yet there has been no response from Defra – despite it receiving by far the largest number of messages of support from the public.

The most coverage for the speech has focused upon the announcement of a new National Pollinator Strategy. This is certainly something to be welcomed, but the decline in bees and other pollinators is a sign of a much wider underlying problem. A whole range of habitats and species contribute to a healthy environment and these ongoing losses need to be addressed. A diverse and well-connected environment is needed to support the natural services we are losing as a society such as pollination.

But… as ever when you find yourself nodding in agreement at something Defra ministers say about the importance of the natural environment and the desire to improve it, your mind starts wandering to what other members of ‘the greenest government ever’ (this aspiration was re-stated yesterday) are up to. So it was that yesterday my mind turned to the Infrastructure Bill currently at Report Stage in the Lords.

In fact, if there is one word which has dominated political vocabulary in recent years, perhaps even more than ‘deficit’, it is ‘infrastructure’. The Oxford Dictionary describes it as ‘the basic physical and organisational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.’

Infrastructure was a major preoccupation of the Brown government and the amount of words from the present Treasury team – let alone Transport ministers – leaves no one in any doubt that this is one of the most central preoccupations of the present regime.

Plenty has been said about HS2, and as far as the Woodland Trust is concerned one of the hallmarks of world-class modern infrastructure should be the extent to which it respects natural heritage, such as ancient woodland. HS2 doesn’t pay sufficient respect at present and we look forward to sharing that view in person with the Hybrid Bill committee in due course.

In the meantime however, the journey of the Infrastructure Bill through Parliament (the title of the Bill alone is designed to send out a signal) continues to preoccupy minds and is proving a source of concern to environmentalists as it heads towards the Commons.

A good deal of focus recently has been upon its potential implications for the Public Forest Estate and the issue of the transfer of so called ‘surplus’ public land to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). We raised this concern directly with the Forestry Minister at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity on 21 October and have been lobbying hard behind the scenes about this for some time. We were pleased to hear Dan Rogerson’s reassurance that the Government has absolutely no intention of transferring or selling any part of the Estate to the HCA, and he suggested that an amendment to the Bill was not necessary.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon

Since then further reassurance, in writing, has come in the form of a strong written ministerial statement issued on Tuesday seeking to make the intention to exempt the PFE ‘crystal clear’. This and any further spelling out Government is prepared to give is naturally welcome. Therefore we were pleased that last night Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon promised to bring forward an amendment to the Bill at Third Reading making this even more plain.

However this isn’t a substitute for the bringing forward of legislation for the Public Forest Estate. We do still believe that a specific Forestry Bill to settle the future of the PFE – something we have long campaigned for – is the way to truly clear up any confusion on this and other issues. This remains a promise Government made but has still not delivered.

Nor should it lead people to think that wider environmental concerns around the Infrastructure Bill are all addressed. It’s important to remember that the Infrastructure Bill raises a whole series of issues for the natural environment that go beyond this possible risk to the Public Forest Estate. Identifying hidden pitfalls where the Bill could have a wider impact on the natural environment is where we will now be concentrating our efforts.

As colleagues have previously blogged, we are anxious to ensure that any proposed changes to speed up the system do not take place at the expense of the environment. Current concerns for us centre around changes to the so called ‘deemed discharge’ of planning conditions – the situations where when planning permission is granted it is subject to a number of conditions (we think that conditions relating to the natural environment should be exempt from such changes).

We also want to see the Bill’s plans to make the Highways Agency a government-owned company tasked with managing and operating England’s motorway and road network, accompanied by very clear responsibilities around protection of the environment.
If, as Ms Truss concluded her speech yesterday, ‘a healthy economy and a healthy environment go hand in hand in securing Britain’s future’ then these changes to the Infrastructure Bill are perfectly reasonable. It also begs the question of whatever happened to ‘green infrastructure’? –something it would be good to hear ministers talking about far more. But that’s one of the themes we will return to as the Bill moves to the Commons.

Dr James Cooper, head of government affairs

Posted in Climate Change, Government Affairs | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

First aid for pollinators but what about the rest?

Broad-bordered bee hawk-moth pollinating red campion - Jean-pierre Hamon, Wikimedia Commons

Broad-bordered bee hawk-moth pollinating red campion – Jean-pierre Hamon, Wikimedia Commons

This week the Government produced their long awaited National Pollinator Strategy.

It’s surprisingly good; collaborative and informative – although if you really want just a quick guide to what you can do for pollinators can I recommend the Bees’ Needs webpage, which is much more fun!

Unfortunately the press coverage was nowhere like as good and mainly seemed to consist of suggesting that you should mow your lawn less. There are two problems with this; firstly, if you subscribe to the “green carpet” attitude to lawn maintenance with copious amounts of fertiliser and weedkiller, no amount of relaxation in mowing regime is going to compensate for the fact that you have already obliterated any biodiversity interest in the lawn. Secondly, while the majority of the population live in urban areas and thus can have greatest impact on gardens, 70% of the country is actually covered by farmed land and it is the management of the wider countryside which has caused most of the concern.

My other major problem with the strategy has always been that it is trying to deal with the symptoms while ignoring the underlying disease. There is a lack of recognition that the decrease in numbers of bees and other nectar and pollen feeders is an indicator of a much greater, underlying problem with loss of habitat, loss of connectivity and the eventual loss of the ability to resist threats.

We only notice things are going wrong when the services we care about – in this case pollination – are threatened, and, while we think we understand pollination as an ecosystem service, one of the good bits about the pollination strategy is the acknowledgement that we only have data on a very limited number of species and still don’t fully understand what is driving population fluctuations.

The latest wild bird indicator, published last month, shows ongoing declines in species that have been studied for years, and for which large amounts of money have been spent trying to reverse the problems.  If this can happen for species that are easy to see and understand, what about the less visible species or the more complex and hidden ecosystems? Our understanding about the structure and function of soil ecosystems is still woeful! And really, in a mature, prosperous and settled society, should we not take action for all species and habitats, not just care about what they are doing for us?

We need to redevelop a resilient landscape, where resilience is the ability of habitats and species to respond to disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. The last fifty years has seen a drift towards uniformity of structure and function of habitats across the country, with the loss of the unique and different. A diverse landscape system with mixed species and structure and connections between habitats for all species is far better at resisting threats.

Maintaining and developing resilient landscapes requires consideration of all semi-natural habitats and associated species, protecting what we have, creating new versions of what we have lost and connecting it all to allow species to flourish and provide the much needed services that we are losing – such as pollination.

At this point many people will start shouting at me to climb out of my Utopian bubble and rejoin the 21st Century, where land has to provide food not just be a pretty landscape. But long term restoration of a resilient landscape is not in conflict with a thriving rural economy. We are working with farmers and producers across the country to try and solve problems using natural solutions.

Carefully sighted shelter belts will protect valuable top soils from water and wind erosion, improve yields by improving crop water efficiency and improve water infiltration rates by 60 times within just three years of planting. In the process, all these trees provide the habitats and connectivity that restore networks and allow biodiversity to thrive.

It’s not impossible, we just need to be realistic about what it will take to make a difference – and it is more than just mowing your lawn slightly less often!

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Lead

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Our forgotten wildlife haunt

Our hedgerow network tells a rich story of the UK’s rural past. Many hedges are ancient and might have existed for thousands of years: some simply mark the former woodland edge where a field was cleared from the “waste” for agriculture. These premedieval hedges tend to follow contours and often have a characteristic “S” shape that resulted from the necessary turns made by the horse-drawn plough. As a very general rule, the number of species in a hedge indicates its age, with more species suggesting greater age.

In some parts of the country, the Midlands in particular, hedges tend to be arrow straight and comprised largely, if not entirely, of hawthorn (also known as “quickset” for its ability to rapidly form a stock-proof boundary). These were planted during the Parliamentary Enclosures, which heralded the start of the Agricultural Revolution and marked a period of profound social change. Entire villages were abandoned as inhabitants left to seek a living in the rapidly expanding towns and cities. Sophisticated forms of crop rotation were developed that allowed more food to be produced from less land worked by fewer people. Sheep farming reached its zenith and the fortunes of those lucky enough to have been on the right side of the Enclosures were made.

The intensification of agriculture has continued unabated, but our hedgerows have been sadly neglected along the way. Hundreds of thousands of kilometres have been destroyed in the last 60 years, with the nadir of the 1980s and 1990s marked by the grubbing up of around 185,000 kilometres before the introduction of the Hedgerow Regulations in 1997. Things have recovered a little in recent years, but losses are still happening due to infrequent or inappropriate management.

Neglected hedgerows become gappy and tall, eventually turning into broken lines of mature trees, often bearing evidence of their former management, or pleaching. These “ghosts” can be good for wildlife but they tend not to persist. A more valuable option is to maintain them as dense, stock-proof barriers, cut at the right time of year and relaid on a regular cycle. This allows them to maintain their function; in terms of wildlife habitat (hedgerows support 11% of all Biodiversity Action Plan priority species) and the many additional, often overlooked benefits they deliver.

Hedges are a haven for pollinating insects and the birds that feed on them. They limit soil erosion and runoff, store carbon, and can even act as a barrier to crop diseases such as potato blight. Hedgerow trees, or standards, are particularly important. In the past they were usually maintained as pollards for fuel and winter forage for livestock.

Hedgerow trees are seldom replaced when they fall because they are not perceived as having a value that justifies their sustenance. Ash trees are common in hedges, but with the country in the grip of ash dieback (caused by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus – the “correct” name for Chalara Ash Dieback) these now look set to be lost on an unprecedented scale. This will have a significant impact on the resilience of the landscape – its ability to absorb, recover and adapt to change – yet hedgerows’ vulnerability to loss is seldom considered in the debate around the national response to tree disease.

With hedgerow management forming part of the next round of the Rural Development Programme, there is a real opportunity for farmers to maximise the benefits they get from their hedges. This would include restocking gappy areas, planting successor standards and wildlife sensitive management. Keeping our hedgerow network alive will benefit everyone: let’s not allow our chapter in the history of the UK’s hedged landscape turn into a ghost story.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Advisor

Posted in Conservation, Protection | 9 Comments

Wood Wise: birds in focus

Image: northeastwildlife.co.uk

Image: northeastwildlife.co.uk

The UK’s iconic woodland birds have suffered declines in recent years – particularly woodland specialists…

This edition focuses on the issues affecting them and work being done to support and better understand their needs. Woodland management requirements for birds and the effects of deer are discussed alongside adaptability to climate change, the loss of wood warblers, and the impacts of habitat creation.

Click here to read more. If you would like to subscribe to future Wood Wise issues, please email Conservation@woodlandtrust.org.uk

Kay Haw, Conservation Team

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