Our recently launched campaign urges Government to increase protection for our irreplaceable ancient woodland. It is aimed at David Cameron and identifies eight low or no cost measures that could quickly be put in place to set this in motion. We are not asking for something that the Government are opposed to, we are simply asking them to deliver the goods on their own stated policy positions.
The eight key asks include these two:
- Government (Defra) to complete and extend the Natural England Ancient Woodland Inventory
- Government (Defra) to address the information gap, as there is currently no central database and no recent analysis of the amount of ancient woodland being lost year on year
The whole issue of destruction of our ancient woods was catapulted into the public spotlight again recently through the controversy sparked by media reports that Owen Paterson (Secretary of State for the Environment) appeared content to see ancient woodland felled and built on as long as some new trees were planted somewhere else!
This issue was picked up again last week by the BBC, highlighting how the gradual whittling away of our finite and irreplaceable ancient woodlands remained ignored and unaccounted for in statistics put out by the Forestry Commission implying that having lots more woodland overall (much of it comprising plantations created in the 20th century) means everything is OK. The piece included the proposition that, if asked, the Government would be unable to tell us how much ancient woodland has been damaged or destroyed by development in the last 10 years.
Now, seeing democracy and accountability in action can be a beautiful sight. Within hours of the piece going live on the BBC, a Parliamentary Question on ancient woodland had been tabled by Caroline Lucas (MP for Brighton and Hove) including a request to know “how many hectares of ancient woodland have been damaged or destroyed in the last 10 years”.
Yesterday, in Defra Minister Dan Rogerson’s response, it appears that efforts continue to dodge the key issue. He states:
Natural England’s Ancient Woodland Inventory records the distribution of ancient woodland. Its records show that there are 364,308 ha of ancient woodland in England. The inventory splits ancient woodlands into two distinct types: ancient semi-natural woodland and plantations on ancient woodland sites. These are:
Total number of distinct ancient woodland areas-34,669
Total number over 2ha in size-22,247
Total number of 2ha and less in size-12,422.
The information on damaged and destroyed ancient woodland is not available and to attempt to gather this data would incur a disproportionate cost for the Department. However, the Woodland Trust estimates that, since 1998, 275 ha of ancient woodland has been lost to development. Figures suggest that less than 0.25% of ancient woodland has been built on since 1998.
We know that Natural England hold an Ancient Woodland Inventory – but clearly it is not kept up to date, indeed it appears not to have been fully updated in the last ten years at least. But it is his final paragraph that is the most telling here. It once again reveals the inconsistency at the centre of the Government’s position. On the one hand they state that ancient woodland is important, and appear to believe that it is somehow already enjoying protection from destruction. Yet, on the other, they remain completely unable or perhaps unwilling to answer basic questions about how much survives and what is being lost, year on year.
Dan Rogerson is quoting data supplied by the Woodland Trust. Perhaps this is an attempt to deflect his critics, or to suggest that he and his Department have some idea what is going on. However, they are completely in the dark on this one. The figures he quotes are merely the tip of much larger and still unquantified iceberg. The figures are based only on the limited data and information compiled by the Woodland Trust – from only the cases that we are aware of, that communities have reported to us, or that we ourselves have challenged through the planning system. There has been no effort to ask planning authorities to report their figures to the Government, nor to undertake the much needed updating of the Ancient Woodland Inventory.
We have supplied our figures directly to Natural England (and hence to Defra) in the recent past, complete with the caveat that the data should only be viewed as a very small part of what is going on and cannot be relied upon to indicate or estimate the total scale of the problem. So it is disappointing to see our own figures quoted back at us – when we know full well that this is only a small proportion of the much bigger scale of losses under way. What Mr Rogerson seems to be saying is that it would be possible for Government to gather the data, but they are not prepared to do it as it would cost too much – how can you protect what you don’t measure?
What we do know is that some local detailed revisions of the Ancient Woodland Inventory have thrown up clear figures about the likely scale of real losses. For example Ancient Woodland revisions in Wealden District in East Sussex confirmed at least 250 hectares ancient woodland were lost in the past 20 years in this district alone. In Ashford Borough ancient woodland loss was shown to be at least 100 ha. With losses like these, a true estimate of the scale of ancient woodland destruction in recent times could run to thousands of hectares since the original National Ancient Woodland Inventories were produced. Having our own figures quoted back at us by the Minister just underlines the need to press on with our campaign.
Austin Brady, Director of Conservation