Biodiversity Offsetting – create, restore, manage; what is acceptable as compensation?

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?

Restoration in progress at Clanger Wood, Wiltshire (this is not a photo-shopped image!)

Restoration in progress at Clanger Wood, Wiltshire (this is not a photo-shopped image!)

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.

btn-involvedDo 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

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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6 Responses to Biodiversity Offsetting – create, restore, manage; what is acceptable as compensation?

  1. Pingback: Biodiversity Offsetting - create, restore, mana...

  2. Christine says:

    Where woodland is being unavoidably destroyed to allow development then it certainly makes sense to off set in this way. Woodland of any age is on the way to becoming a valuable and diverse environment, if an equivalent or greater area of existing woodland were to be bought under responsible management by a body such as The Woodland Trust then this would seem to be a step in the right direction. If this area were also conenanted to be immune from future development then so much the better.
    I think developments are inevitable and biodiversity off setting should be welcomed, in the right guise ofcourse.

  3. Andy Norfolk says:

    Biodiversity offsetting is a con and won’t work. Ecosystems have developed over hundreds of years in response to precise and local conditions such as soil type and micro-climate. You might be able to bung in a few of the plant species from a habitat to be “offset” on a different site with different conditions, but you cannot replicate the complex web of interrelationships between all the biological components even if you know precisely what they all are. Of course if all the conditons are right then the ecosystem would already be there. Biodiversity off-setting that trashes an existing habitat to construct a new one would be nonsense too. I don’t believe that biodiversity offsetting is practical eitther. I know from bitter personal experience that even well-laid plans to relocate vegetation within a site is unlikely to succeed due to a failure by contractors to appreciate what has to be done or to properly cost the necessary construction operations, let alone long-term management.

    • I agree with Andy Norfolk. Rare plants do not take kindly to being moved as their soil type and moisture levels and water chemistry cannot be faithfully replicated. I don’t know what happened to some bog plants which were moved to the Rising Sun CP in order build houses at West Moor in North Tyneside 20+ years ago. The Lapwings which nested in the field have certainly vanished from this area. The said Country Park is due to be closely surrounded by new houses after Minister Eric Pickles overturned local resident’s and North Tyneside Council’s objections to the builder’s plans. These high-powered people don’t seem to realize how much wild land and farmland is needed for our flora and fauna to flourish in a suburban environment.

  4. Steve Hallam says:

    I presume that the practical application of the concept of ‘additionality’ requires a credible, adequately sensitive and flexible mechanism to measure the biodiversity value of a given site. Otherwise how can you meaningfully compare two sites, or changes in a site over time. Does such a mechanism exist?

  5. Surely there has to be identifiable NEW habitats otherwise it give the government of the day wriggle room and the chance to interpret which will not be good.

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