Please mind the gap

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.

The full scale of threats are unknown, but what records there are paint a shocking picture of loss
The full scale of threats are unknown, but what records there are paint a shocking picture of loss

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.

Local revisions

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.

Unrecorded losses

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


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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6 Responses to Please mind the gap

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  3. jpeggytaylor says:

    It really seems incredible that, despite all of the talking that is done about our irreplaceable ancient woodland, we don’t have any mechanism for recording its destruction. It speaks volumes about the underlying attitude of all the main political parties on this issue – no-one has seen it as sufficiently important to be bothered to actually do something about it. We don’t just need political promises (we know what they’re worth!) … we need to see prompt action.

  4. matt derrington says:

    While taking some time to untangle from the insanity that is a lot of modern western life (by having a nice lie-in and letting alpha waves do the thinking), I realised this is indeed too ridiculous to be true. Yet another false dichotomy. A what? I mean another argument that deliberately, or accidentally misses the point.

    What is the point? Well, excuse me, but we have a pretty reliable record right now. Those dark green bits on satellite maps. They’re nearly all woodland, aren’t they? Isn’t it time we all wake up and accept that we need all of the trees we have left? Whether the woods they’re in are over 300 years old, or exactly how many species they contain, should surely be secondary? That painstaking and valuable surveying should be done as an permanently ongoing monitoring effort. Part of cherishing 1 of the most valuable things we have. It should no longer determine whether we care about some woods, and not others. Only how much. Let us not forget that 1 of our most loved native animals survives almost only in supposedly 2nd class, artificial conifer plantations. Not forgetting a whole host of conifer-oriented birds. There should be a blanket ban on the felling of any tree, without specific permission. “Why?”, “when?”, “how?”, etc. Is it genuinely the only option? Or, in the case of forestry, is it genuinely sustainable? Our whole mental approach needs to change. And when another huge area of the Amazon goes missing off those satellite maps, although we are right to cry out that the planet’s life support is being destroyed, isn’t it imperative we sort out the gross hypocrisy under our noses, whereby, having destroyed our own glorious coast-to-coast temperate forest, we are still removing the last tiny traces?!

    I suggest a country with large parts of itself under water for months, appreciates this event as final fair warning. It’s not the dredging. It’s everything that is derelict. The psyche, the culture, and the entire ecosystem that is at the mercy of the 1st 2. We have to stop trying to pretend we live in an unluckily and unusually rain-soaked, off season Mediterranean holiday resort. Concreting everything and painting it white will never put you in Ibiza, or wherever it is you think you want to be. This is a North Sea island and it will be- probably for quite a long time. And if you can’t appreciate its unique beauties, including loads of rain and ‘horrid, damp, dingey vegetation’, then please do the whole planet a favour and emigrate to the centre of Australia, or somewhere like that. If you want to roast yourself, do it properly. If you want to lead a wonderful, rich, varied life, start the fight back against Ibiza Syndrome now! Calm yourself. Take time. Walk, don’t drive. Buy as little as possible. Buy local. Holiday here. Plant things. Make the place around you undeniably beautiful. Thereby either return your misguided neighbours to sanity, or turn them off so much they go get that Australian visa. Enough silly games, people. The planet can’t take it any more.

  5. matt derrington says:

    Where is this gap exactly? Between our ears?

    This is too ridiculous to be true. In 1 of the most densely populated countries in the world, with so much money and technology and so called know-how, and with so many proclaimed lovers of collecting and scientific method, as well as of animals and Nature, in the 21st Century we’re still without even an accurate record of where our most valuable terrestrial habitat is. Staggering!

    Shame on all of us. Especially the people supposedly ‘running the country’. Also the people claiming to represent Ancient Woodland. Woodland Trust why the hell haven’t you done this by now? And why should anyone take you seriously if you can’t get done what our despicable shams of governments should have got done ages ago?

    If I were the Intergalactic Tribunal, I’d say “Guilty. Not even the basic paperwork. Send them down”.

  6. Derek West says:

    Under the present goverment the protection of nature will take a low priority,big buisness rules.

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