Legislation would enable all of us to do more.

Ancient woodland is our richest, terrestrial biodiversity habitat; there are more threatened and protected species found in ancient woods than any other habitat outside the sea. So if they are so special, why is it so difficult to ensure that they are all protected for future generations?

Ancient coppice (Image: Fran Hitchinson)

Ancient coppice (Image: Fran Hitchinson)

Protection can take many forms and although it’s government that tends to be associated with as being the main source for protection (such as SSSIs), there are other options. Anyone can enter into an informal agreement with a landowner whereby with the agreement of both parties, a specific parcel of land is protected from development or inappropriate management. But as with all thing woodland, for this to be meaningful it has to be long-term which brings in problems with land law. We are asking the Government to deliver new voluntary legal mechanisms to protect important habitats.

Last year the Law Commission carried out a consultation on the interest in and use of conservation covenants.

“A conservation covenant is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and responsible body (charity, public body or local/central Government) to do or not do something on their land for a conservation purpose. This might be, for example, an agreement to maintain a woodland and allow public access to it, or to refrain from using certain pesticides on native vegetation. These agreements are long lasting and continue after the landowner has parted with the land, ensuring that its conservation value is protected for the public benefit.”

The Woodland Trust submitted evidence to the Commission on its own attempts to secure the protection of land of conservation quality without having to own and manage it itself. We have attempted to do this through the use of long leases and/or sub-leases which are cumbersome, expensive to set up and off-putting to landowners wishing to protect their land: this is because the leases need to include terms which are necessary for the proper operation of the lease, but which appear to be intrusive and overly restricting to lay persons. Conservation covenants could be far more focussed in their drafting and application.

There is a steady stream of private individuals wishing to protect their woods in the long term and there is currently no satisfactory way of helping them, short of taking the wood into Trust ownership or using leases.

We are awaiting news on whether there will be a Bill introduced to the House of Commons on conservation covenants, unfortunately the introduction of covenants has become tied up in the ongoing debate on biodiversity offsetting. Conservation covenants are a key mechanism to ensure the success of offsetting as there needs to be a means by which offsets are protected. The Law Commission is currently drafting a Bill but Defra need to ensure that this is put forward in the Queen’s Speech rather than waiting for a decision about offsetting; covenants are more than just a means to enable offsetting to happen.

The Government consulted on biodiversity offsets last year and we were expecting a response to the consultation laying out the proposed next steps at some point this spring, but this appears to have been delayed. One of our key issues with the consultation was that ancient woodland is irreplaceable and should never be part of an offsetting scheme, a point that many of you also made. We thought this was something that Defra had listened to and understood and were reasonably sure that ancient woodland and other irreplaceable habitats would be listed as not suitable for offsetting. It was, therefore, extremely alarming to see the Secretary of State make comments that ancient woodland could be developed, as long as for every one tree taken out 100 trees were planted elsewhere. And thus we are back to our starting point all over again and another of the keys demands for this campaign – confirm that ancient woodland is excluded from biodiversity offsetting schemes.

In the next post in this series, Richard will explain how Natural England’s ‘Standing Advice’ can also make a difference to ancient woodland’s long-term protection. You can help us keep up the pressure in our campaign by adding your voice to 40,000 others, and sending your message to the Prime Minister today: www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/actnow.

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Lead

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
This entry was posted in Campaigning, Climate Change, Conservation, Protection and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Legislation would enable all of us to do more.

  1. Rwthless says:

    We need to sack Owen Paterson and give his job to a baby. Or even a fertilised egg to be kept in a test tube until an office is made ready for him. Ridiculous, yes but so is felling ancient forest to plant little baby trees elsewhere. Even if they grow to do a useful job, what happens in the meantime?

    An SSSI has its advantages, but there are wildlife tasks that cannot be carried out in an SSSI. I believe a SINC is often more useful if it doesn’t give the same protection. It enables professional Ecologists to get on with their job of protecting the whole area and not just the immediate surroundings of a few trees. A few wild orchids can make an excellent SSSI, but a larger area so designated can prevent valuable ecological work being done. The appropriate desgnation needs to be carefully chosen.

  2. Roderick Leslie says:

    In reality, Owen Paterson has done Aw a service by highlighting the fact that whilst some habitats can be re-created quite satisfactorily (eg reedbed) others (AW, Heathland) simply cannot. The ignorance of his comment undermined the wafer thin confidence in biodiversity offsetting – will this, like the future of our national forests, be one of those issues left hanging as we enter the next election ?

    In the meantime, I feel increasingly strongly that we need to stop shilly shallying and simply go for designation of AW. Whilst that is being argued, on a shorter timescale because the powers are already there, we should be pushing for those woods excluded from SSSI status because they had been converted to non natives but are now restored to be made SSSIs – in many cases, those areas are part of woods where the surviving native element is already designated so it is not difficult to identify prime candidates for SSSI.

  3. Maureen Hart says:

    We really have to find a way to make the Government realise that Ancient Woodland cannot just be replaced with a few hundred new trees.
    Is there no – one that they will listen to before it is too late?

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