Exciting times, as a new chapter may be about to open in our understanding of ancient woodland – leading to better protection for this most precious resource. On Wednesday last week the Woodland Trust attended a workshop organised by Natural England to discuss potential for updating the Ancient Woodland Inventory (AWI): this is one of the steps we have called for in our current campaign on ancient woodland protection.
The Ancient Woodland Inventory, produced in the 1980s, was an incredible achievement, a map-based record of all ancient woodland in England and Wales over 2 ha in area, arrived at through manual comparison of current and old maps and a certain amount of ground truthing by surveyors.
No other habitat had this kind of detailed spatial record, and there is no doubt its existence has helped underpin the policy recognition of ancient woodland’s value, and its protection, in the years since.
But the AWI was produced rapidly, with limited resources, at a time when even computers were not in mainstream use, let alone Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The hand-drawn maps and scanty pages of hand-written notes on which this record was based now look quaint, to say the least. Despite a number of overhauls through digitisation, then alignment with more recent datasets such as the National Inventory of Woodland and Trees, the AWI for England is no longer fit for purpose – partly because the purposes have also changed.
There is much greater scrutiny of the inventory than could have been envisaged when it was produced, because of the key role it plays in protection of ancient woodland from development. The AWI is an integral part of the work that the Woodland Trust does. Last year alone we responded to more than 70 threats to ancient woodland. We check the Ancient Woodland Inventory hundreds of times a year to check planning applications, site allocations and respond to your enquiries.
This is why we were excited to be invited to this workshop to discuss potential for revision of the AWI. Some participants had actually been involved in production of the original AWI, whilst others had experience of updating the AWI in the south east.
Wales has updated its inventory recently, using better map sources and the benefits of GIS technology. In Northern Ireland, the Woodland Trust’s Back on the Map project produced an AWI some 20 years later than those produced for the rest of the UK, benefiting from lessons learnt elsewhere. England now lags behind, though many counties and districts in the south east of England have done the same, building up like a jigsaw a more accurate and comprehensive inventory of ancient woodland across much of the region that holds a higher density of ancient woodland, under greater development pressure, than any other. Other areas have done their own revisions, but there is a real need to develop a standard and transparent methodology for researching woods and classifying them on the inventory.
While it is the responsibility of Natural England to ensure that an accurate record of ancient woodland exists, a project to update it could involve a whole range of people – including anyone who has an interest or passion for ancient woodland and woodland history. Researching the history and ecology of local woods might be a really inspirational way for communities, including woodland owners, to understand their woods better, and to build the “woodland culture” that was the vision of the Independent Panel on Forestry.
In the next post in this series, Mike Townsend will discuss how adressing the information gap can improve protection for ancient woodland. You can help us keep up the pressure by sending your message to the Prime Minister now.
Let us hope that in the coming months the update of the AWI can continue, watch this space for more news….