Now we have the government’s response to the Forests Report, I thought I’d add a policy perspective to my colleague Nikki’s thought-provoking blog and share why I’d hoped it would go further than the IPF’s recommendations on protection of ancient woodland.
What ancient woodland have we got left?
The Lawton Review suggests there are 27,724 ancient woodland sites greater than 2 hectares (ha) in England, covering 354,583ha (2.7% of England’s land area). Most of the ancient woodland left is fragmented; eight out of 10 ancient woods are less than 20ha, and nearly 50% of ancient woods are less than 5ha (hence the importance of woodland expansion to connect and buffer these remaining fragments).
What are we losing (officially)?
The area of confirmed woodland loss (of all types, from the National Forest Inventory) to development for England in the past decade is 275ha. This is derived from individual cases of loss exceeding 5ha; individual losses under 5ha are not included. Other communication from the Forestry Commission (FC) indicates the overall losses of woodland (including the smaller bits) will be about 3,000ha (600ha ancient). The Trust’s Woods under Threat database reports a loss of 213ha of ancient woodland alone for England (540 ha for the UK as a whole). The FC has also indicated that approximately 1,500 ha of deforestation has occurred annually over the past decade, some of which has been for open habitat restoration.
Is it worse??
The Weald and Downs ancient woodland survey (2006-11) of the Wealden District shows a real loss of 250ha of ancient woodland in the last 20 years in this small area alone. 75% was to agriculture, and 25% to development. It doesn’t show how much of this is recent loss, or whether this is typical of other parts of England too, but it indicates the official figures for loss of ancient woodland are clearly underestimates. But it’s not just the habitat we’re losing – in the last 100 years, 46 species associated with broadleaved woodland have become extinct in the UK.
What the Independent Panel on Forestry (IPF) said:
These lines are taken directly from their report: “We are losing ancient woodland in England… The majority is not protected by statute for its biodiversity value… SSSI protection only applies to 15% of our ancient woodlands, and as a habitat it is under represented compared to others… The current internal review of SSSI designations by Natural England may improve this, but in the meantime some of our most precious woodlands remain vulnerable.” The Panel recommendations on protection are as follows:
Planning: “Reflect the value of ancient woodlands, trees of special interest, for example veteran trees, and other priority habitats in Local Plans, and refuse planning permission for developments that would have an adverse impact on them”.
Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs), Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Forest Services “should identify: woodland habitats that warrant greater protection, and work with Natural England to secure these as Sites of Special Scientific Interest”.
The NFI should “complement annual woodland planting statistics by recording actual progress towards net increase in woodland cover, and: include a report on extent of woodland habitats, including specifically ancient woodland, which should inform reviews of policy, such as SSSI designation”.
What the government response lacks:
The Government response talks about threats to ancient woodland, but skirts around any discussion on the threats from development through the planning system, or historic fragmentation, let alone proposing a national agenda to tackle that. The response has missed an opportunity for a national drive to increase the protection of ancient woodland, which is a useful hook on which to hang the local policies suggested. LNPs are still setting themselves up and awaiting leadership (and funding for delivery!) from Defra, and the LEPs are supposed to be curing the country’s economic ills and so far have taken little interest in involving LNPs (exceptions in Somerset and East Anglia).
The repetition of the qualified protection in the NPPF does not move us on. In the short term the government should produce guidance for local authorities about the circumstances under which they should refuse planning applications, in lieu of Local Plans being refreshed after the NPPF, let alone after this government response nearly a year later.
The response also repeats the new Local Green Space designation in the NPPF, and the neighbourhood planning and new community rights introduced by the Localism Act 2011, noting “These could include woodlands”. The implementation of this new right is still very unclear and is likely only to be used by the most proactive communities – we have not yet heard of it being used (please tell us if you have!), so are pushing for guidance to make it more user-friendly.
The government should explicitly restate the target of no loss of ancient woodland – it’s part of the vision in Keepers of Time, but it needs to be drawn out and used to spearhead some simple but viable initiatives:
1. Create a national system to capture annual forest losses from: Applications approved by planning authorities; FC felling licences granted; felling licence breaches; Plant Health Orders to address sanitation felling; open habitat restoration; windfarms.
2. Report figures for forest loss at the same time as those for woodland creation to provide a figure for net forest gain/loss on an annual basis.
3. The Forestry Commission should be a statutory consultee on all planning applications affecting ancient woodland and should have powers to object as well as comment on them.
4. Natural England should have a target to significantly increase (double to 30%?) the percentage of ancient woodland under SSSI designation, in a set timescale.
These suggestions are affordable within the existing organisations, though it would take some re-prioritisation of work, and no further cuts. However, it would give a vital national reporting and action framework for the Local Plan and LNP work suggested by the IPF and welcomed by the government.
If we can’t demonstrably protect ancient woodland, the drive for a new woodland culture has no chance.
*Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series: https://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/category/forests-report-2/