Our ancient woodlands have scant protection from development – whether it’s roads, quarries, housing or major infrastructure. We are losing ancient woods year-on-year. We know this because we are contacted by individuals and communities up and down the country, many of whom are amazed at the lack of protection for their cherished local landscapes.
The recent media coverage on biodiversity offsetting, reporting on comments by the Secretary of State for the Environment, has once again put this issue before the wider public. The outcry in response to these reports has been enormous. Which is why we have launched a campaign to channel those concerns right to the top – asking the Prime Minister to rectify the Government’s failure to protect our ancient woods.
Thanks to almost 20,000 messages landing in the PM’s inbox in around 20 days, I think we have got his attention! Now, it is nice to get a letter from the Secretary of State for the Environment, especially if you haven’t written to him first! And just such a letter recently arrived at the Woodland Trust – it was clearly triggered by the issue of ancient woodland getting onto No.10’s radar. It’s an attempt to try and take some of the heat out of our campaign – a campaign sparked mainly by media reports of the Secretary of State’s own words.
Unfortunately, the letter serves only to ring further alarm bells, offering the supposed reassurance that “there are no plans to change the current protections for ancient woodland”.
The Secretary of State is clearly under the mistaken impression that ancient woodland is already well protected. He is in good company; with the author of the lead article in The Times of 4th January assuming that there is currently some kind of ‘moratorium’ preventing development on ancient woodland. In fact, most people are really surprised when they hear that hundreds of ancient woods are currently at risk of damage or destruction from development across the country right now – 78 are at risk along the route of the proposed High Speed 2 railway alone. Planning consents continue to be granted approving the destruction of ancient woodland, with one case (which we opposed and took to a public inquiry) resulting in the loss of over 30 hectares (75 acres) of ancient woodland to quarrying.
But the campaign is just getting started!
We know what needs to be done to safeguard our ancient woods; exclude ancient woodland from biodiversity offsetting schemes; designate more ancient woods as Sites of Special Scientific Interest; review & extend the Ancient Woodland Inventory; deliver Natural England’s overdue revision of Standing Guidance on ancient woodland and planning; monitor and report annual woodland destruction and loss; review the failings of the National Planning Policy Framework and the impact that statutory consultees have on planning decisions; and deliver new voluntary legal mechanisms to protect important habitats.
The biodiversity offsetting debate has simply thrown the spotlight back on to a whole series of wider unresolved issues leading to the continued erosion of our irreplaceable ancient woods. The Government itself appears to have no reliable information about the scale and rate of loss of ancient woodland in recent years.
Over the coming weeks we will be posting a series of blogs that will explain how the protection for ancient woodland can be improved, and what the Government can do to deliver these improvements – in some cases by simply living up to promises it has already made!
You can add your voice to the call to Government to deliver better protection for our ancient woodland now.
Austin Brady, Director of Conservation