Ash disease and other pests and diseases – Austin Brady, Head of Conservation
The Government response to the panel had its own long established timetable to follow, but this was dramatically cut across by developments on tree disease as the scale and impact of chalara ash disease became apparent late last year. Not surprisingly, the response to the Panel has had to take account of these developments and effectively build on the initial reaction taken by the Government in November. The commitment of extra resources to be focused on tree disease and activities related to monitoring and surveillance of imports and biosecurity is welcome, but uncertainty remains over how this will be delivered and to what extent these resources are in any way ‘new’ or reallocated from other hard pressed areas.
So, while we can welcome the current position and the warm words, it will be the action taken in response to Prof Ian Boyd’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce when it reports to Government at the end of March that will really count. We are working directly with Defra and with a range of other bodies to feed in information, ideas and concerns to shape the response to chalara ash disease and identify the wider pest and disease issues this has brought into the spotlight. In the meantime, the Trust continues to press ahead with the actions we can take now through our own 3-point plan: bringing the public together with scientists to develop a robust early warning and monitoring system for tree pests and disease; exploring new ways of working with tree nurseries to improve sourcing, and forward plan for supply and demand so that all trees we use can be guaranteed UK sourced and grown; and working to bring scientists and woodland experts together to better understand and respond to the impact of ash disease on conservation and the wider landscape.
Biodiversity and the CAP – Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer
The Government response to the IFP report sets out aspirations to value our woodland assets which we would all welcome, restoring PAWS, protecting ancient woodland, restoring open habitats, increasing woodland management, increasing woodland cover. But conserving woodland biodiversity is a complex issue and it will be the details that underpin these strategic aspirations that determine whether we will have the thriving and resilient woods and trees for the future that the response talks about.
Landscape scale, resilience, ecosystem functions, all these concepts need to be built into any future plans. The response talks about the need to implement Biodiversity 2020 by “encouraging woodland management and woodland creation that helps conserve and enhance wildlife” and also talks about encouraging Local Nature Partnerships to identify forestry as a local priority but there is little detail about what this means in reality. (I am also not sure the change of terminology from woodland to forestry is helpful)
The report recognises the importance of the Rural Development Plan (through the Common Agricultural Policy) as an important source of finance for woodland operations. In the recent past almost all environmental forestry activities have been funded through grant schemes such as the England Woodland Grant Scheme. But with a decreasing EU budget we are going to have to start looking past the easy route and into more applied funding and work harder to ensure that the environmental aspirations that we all share are an integral part of the process.
Ecosystem services – Mike Townsend, Senior Conservation Adviser
Trees and woodland provide a broad range of ecosystem services. These were outlined in the National Ecosystem Assessment. Some, such as timber production, are provisioning services which are often represented by conventional markets. Many however, representing the larger part of the broad economic value of trees and woodlands, are non-market benefits reflecting the regulating and supporting services – such as soil conservation, pollination, and nutrient cycling. The Government’s response to the panel’s recommendations identifies these ecosystem services, but it remains unclear in what ways these will be recognised and how woodland owners can be properly rewarded for the benefits which society might reap from increased management and expansion of woodland cover.
Whilst the notion of ‘markets’ for ecosystem services is politically attractive and may be possible in some cases, it is often the case that direct intervention by government, in the form of regulation or incentive, is the best or only approach. Some services lend themselves to the creation of markets, many do not. In pushing for ‘economic growth’ as the overriding principle for policy direction, the government must recognise the broad economic benefits of investment in trees and woodland to deliver ecosystem services, not simply that which can be delivered by the creation of markets. The report from the Ecosystem Markets Task Force, due in March this year, may highlight opportunities for development of payments for ecosystem services from trees and woodland, but it is vital that government also gives full consideration to those which cannot be easily fitted into the paradigm of market mechanisms.
Support for community woods – Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser
We’re glad the Government sees greater community involvement as key to developing a “woodland culture”, and crucially that this must be “based on the needs, interests and enthusiasm of local people.” Meaningful engagement of communities with woods is more likely to succeed if demand comes from within the communities themselves, and if a flexible approach is taken, as communities are all different – some just want to be consulted more, others want active participation or even governance over their local woods.
But the response is light on how this will be resourced. Support for a social enterprise pilot project is welcome, as a handful of thriving projects around the country suggest this model has a lot to offer where it matches community aspirations, but this approach is not for everyone. The new body managing the public forest estate will need sufficient resources to enable the greater community participation the response sets out. It is a little worrying that the Government sees “greater use of voluntary action or community-led contributions” as part of the solution to making the estate as financially self-sustaining as possible. In some cases it might be, but community engagement should not be assumed to be a cheap or cost-saving option. Beyond this, the vague commitment to working with others to seek funding for “possible future initiatives aimed at developing local access, individual potential and community cohesion” lacks substance.
VisitWoods and the value of access – Shona Morton, VisitWoods Volunteering Officer
The Panel recommend provision of ‘a single web gateway for information about access to woodlands open to public visits’ to ‘increase the quantity and quality of access to public and privately owned woodlands’. Government has now specifically committed to “Continue to provide data for the Woodland Trust’s VisitWoods web gateway and work with the Woodland Trust to identify future funding”.
Ongoing funding is essential to ensure that this growing and well-used resource, now in its last funded year, continues improving access in its broadest sense. Paths and proximity aside, research tells us that many people don’t use woods because they’re not sure where they’re allowed to visit or don’t know what to expect. As a partnership between visitors, volunteers and landowners, VisitWoods brings that information together online for the first time to showcase over 11,500 woods. By enabling more people to visit and value woods for leisure, health and play now, I believe we can secure long-term support for access and conservation too.
While we welcome the Government’s commitment to sharing raw data, sustained campaign and volunteer support is vital if we’re to transform this into a user-friendly resource. If Big Society is left to foot the bill Government risk jeopardising what VisitWoods has achieved – and losing a unique opportunity to help ‘build a woodland culture from the ground up’. Last year visitors used visitwoods.org.uk 825,000 times, evidencing a clear demand for better information on woodland access. Thousands of disadvantaged visitors gained access to woods through our innovative outreach work. We look forward to working with government to tap this groundswell of interest in woods and unlock their immense social value.
Planning for Protection – Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Advisor
Yet more soothing words from the government but not promised actions. It is clear that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is not protecting our woods and trees so action needs to be taken to tighten up the loophole within the NPPF which protects ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss. This loophole is so wide it is simply a matter of arguing your case. This means that expensive time consuming legal cases such as Oaken Wood will continue to appear while our ancient woodlands disappear. In its response the Government also raised the issue of the Local Green Space Designation as set out in the NPPF. When this new designation appeared nearly a year ago we were very welcoming, but we are yet to see any guidance produced on how it should be implemented to actually make is a viable local tool. We are not currently aware of any communities that have used this designation, so as such its current value is very limited.
It is good that the government recognised the value of neighbourhood planning for protecting and valuing trees locally, we hope that local communities will see that trees can fit in within their wider plans. They may find our microsite a useful starting point, click here. All in all a little less conversation a little more action please!
Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series: https://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/category/forests-report-2/