We know Ancient woodland is irreplaceable. Is it still being lost? Yes – despite recognition of the importance of ancient woodland it continues to be threatened by development, infrastructure projects and a gradual attrition.
From the potential catastrophic losses to the HS2 rail link and the crushing losses at quarries such as Oaken Wood to smaller but also significant losses to road improvements, housing and commercial developments.
How much is being lost? Nobody knows. While annual figures are provided for the amount of new woodland planted, there is no systematic recording of ancient woodland loss.
Ancient Woodland Inventory
The area of ancient woodland first began to be recorded in 1981 and is held on the Ancient Woodland Inventory (provisional). The inventory is classed as ‘provisional’ because it is subject to review and update.
A significant shortcoming of the inventory is that it only recorded areas of ancient woodland greater than 2 ha. As a result smaller areas were unrecorded and are subject to greater threat than those within the inventory with very limited protection under the planning system. Furthermore inaccuracies in the original inventory mean that some areas of ancient woodland over 2 ha are not included.
At a local level some attempts have been made to revise the ancient woodland inventory and to accurately record losses. In several cases these suggest that woodland losses may be significant. The Weald and Downs Ancient Woodland Survey between 2006 and 2012 revised the ancient woodland inventory and recorded changes in 12 districts across the AONB in South East England. The revision included ancient woodland of less than 2 ha, so in most cases there was an increase in the total ancient woodland area recorded. However this masked an underlying loss in those woodland blocks over 2 ha which appeared on the original inventory.
For example Ancient Woodland revisions in Wealden District in East Sussex confirmed at least 250 hectares ancient woodland lost in the past 20 years in this district alone. And in Ashford Borough ancient woodland removed from the inventory in blocks greater than 2 hectares showed that 100 ha was actually lost. There is of course no way of knowing how much of the ancient woodland in smaller blocks might also have been lost.
Assuming the same percentage of actual loss across the other areas, the actual area of ancient woodland lost could run to thousands of hectares since the original National Ancient Woodland Inventories (provisional) were produced.
There is a lack of adequate recording of woodland lost as a result of development. The majority of woodland and tree losses arising from development are consented through the planning system. However, there is no comprehensive recording of losses on either a local or national basis. Even within Local Authorities, records are rarely kept of the outcome of individual applications or attempts made to collate the impact on trees and woodland. It is therefore almost impossible to know how much ancient woodland has been lost and is being lost to development.
The Woodland Trust’s Woods Under Threat database records reported threats to ancient woodland. But the database relies on reports of threats and cannot comprehensively record all woods threatened or lost.
It seems unlikely that updates to National Forest Inventory (NFI) will enable accurate regular reporting of ancient woodland losses. Although permanent losses to specific types of development are included in the NFI, the cause of loss can only be confirmed by specific investigation and will not be generated automatically by NFI updates. Furthermore the methodology for the NFI includes a 10 year delay from the point of a woodland showing up as potentially ‘lost’ and the actual recording of that loss, to allow for the possibility that the area will be restocked with trees.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
It might be a management cliché but unless there is a robust and open system of recording losses the scale of the problem cannot be known and the measures to tackle it will remain elusive. There is currently no systematic and accurate recording of ancient woodland loss despite the recognition that this is an irreplaceable habitat of great importance. The pressure from development and infrastructure projects and the inclinations of the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggest that the threat to ancient woodland is unlikely to ease.
If the government is serious about wanting to protect the natural environment, if recognition of the importance of ancient woodland is anything more than hollow rhetoric, then they must find a way to record and report losses when they occur. The planning system is intended to regulate development and use of land in the public interest. The public interest is not served when we continue to lose that which is irreplaceable.
In the next post in this series, Richard Barnes will discuss how completing Natural England’s overdue revision of standing guidance to local authorities on ancient woodland can also improve protection for ancient woodland. You can help us keep up the pressure by sending your message to the Prime Minister now.
Mike Townsend, Senior Conservation Adviser