In my previous blogs I have talked about compensatory habitat as though it will always be newly created habitat, but that is not the only option. In fact, any conservation activity could be counted towards compensation; but then that raises the issue of where is the additionality.
Additionality: biodiversity offsets should achieve conservation outcomes above and beyond the results that would have occurred without the offset.
If we work on that principle, then there are obvious activities which would not be fundable such as if it had to be done as a condition of planning consent, or you received agri-environment money for it. But what about a Sustainable Urban Drainage system (SUDS) which was built as part of a planning development but had no biodiversity interest and the compensatory element was provided by adding biodiversity aspects? Is this truly ‘additional’ or a grey area?
Closer to home, there are obviously some questions to be asked about what could constitute the additional value of offsetting in woodland. Woodland creation, as with any habitat creation, is easy to fit into this process – unless some other sources of finance are being received or the planting is a condition of planning consent, then this will be an addition to existing resources.
But what about management or restoration of existing woodland? As I said in a previous blog, ancient woodland cannot be compensated for and should not be part of an offsetting scheme. But whilst the legal loophole of “need and benefit” exists then there will be decisions made that will result in the loss of ancient woodland. The Woodland Trust has said that if offsetting is to happen then this should be on a ‘like for like’ basis: the habitat offered in compensation should be of the same type as the habitat to be lost. Would we accept management of existing ancient woodland in compensation if there was loss of woodland?
Every ancient wood is a unique product of its location (geology, soils, climatic factors) and its history over the 1,000 years or more of existence, including its management; the communities of animals and plants that have developed there over centuries cannot be recreated instantly in new woods. There is a history of intervention management in most of England’s woods and the changing economic and social landscape has led to a cessation of these activities. This is resulting in the development of uniformity of woodland structure and the loss of species which prefer light and open woodland. Reinstating a management regime might be a positive step, although there are ecological risks. But a short term (5-10 year) management plan is a drop in the ocean to the lifecycle of an ancient wood and definitely not compensation for ancient woodland loss. Also, there are Government grants in existence to undertake these sort of activities; where is the additionality?
Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) are ancient woodland which were felled and replanted, often with non-native conifer species, due to a Government drive for timber self-sufficiency after the World Wars. These woods have potential to be restored to something like their former glory. Remnant features of the original ancient woodland remain: veteran trees that escaped felling; archaeological sites and features; ancient woodland soils; and “hotspots” of ancient woodland flora in areas where shading is less dense. Restoration of ancient woodland is a target under UK biodiversity policy. Maintaining and enhancing the biodiversity of these woods is a requirement under principles of sustainable forest management and is also a government commitment.
There are grants available for ancient woodland restoration and there is also money to be made from harvesting the timber crop. However, for some of the extreme sites, it can be very costly for landowners to carry out restoration, which is best done through very gradually thinning and felling, altering light levels to secure the ancient woodland remnants, and give them time to recover and expand.
Should ancient woodland restoration be allowable as an offset for woodland loss? We are back to the ‘additionality’ question; if the site is managed by an organisation that has already committed to undertaking restoration then there is no added benefit and the site should not be eligible for offsetting funding. But for private landowners for whom the existing Government grant will not pay for the full costs of restoration, offsetting could be an option.
We have one final post to come this week in our offsetting series, but this is my last blog as I have to get our formal consultation response in on Thursday – you also have till then to take part. Please add to the debate below… and make sure you tell Defra what you think too by getting involved in our campaign.
Do we have a conclusion? Done properly, an offsetting scheme could be a welcome and explicit way of ensuring any developer pays for environmental damage endorsed by the planning system in a way which doesn’t happen now – done badly it could simply provide developers with a ‘licence to trash the environment’. My ongoing fear is that in all too short a time there will an announcement that an offsetting scheme is to be set up, and too little time will be allowed to develop the complexities needed to get it to function effectively.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser