Open Habitats under biggest threat from the Forestry Commission Sell-Off

The Media have finally woken up to the proposals to sell the Public Forestry Estate in England. And quite rightly, there is now an increasing clamour for the proposals to be critically appraised. What has not been emphasised is the very large area of open habitat within the FC estate which will be the most vulnerable to damaging change, thanks to the ineffectual regulations that fail to protect open habitats like grasslands.

Here are some useful statistics from the FC itself .

  • Total area 258000ha
  • Area covered by trees 220,000ha
  • Conifer plantation 151000ha
  • Broadleaved woodland 66000ha
  • Ancient semi-natural woodland (ie woodland for at least 200 years and often much older) 15,400ha
  • Plantation (usually conifer) on ancient woodland sites (PAWS)  35,200ha.
  • 17,800ha of  these PAWS (plantation on ancient woodland) have been restored to semi-natural woodland status, by removing conifers, in the last 15 years.

So the reality is that of the FC estate only 15,400ha are ancient semi-natural woodlands that have never been planted with conifers. Woods that have been damaged in this way in the past are certainly restorable, and the FC has been doing some excellent work on this important project.

There are 2 points to tease out from all this number crunching:

There are 38000ha of open land and it’s not all car parks. Much of it is very high quality wildlife habitat, from upland heathland and blanket bog, to lowland heath and grassland. The FC, after years of encouragement/cajoling, have been doing good work opening up former forestry plantations and restoring these open habitats. Projects such as Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage used lottery funding to pay for the restoration of these incredibly important habitats. The New Forest after all is mostly heathland, bog and grassland – relatively little of it is tree’d and most of those are conifers on former heathland/grassland. Yes of course the ancient and ornamental woodlands (AOWs) are extraordinarily valuable, but no more so than the open habitats there.

That brings me to my next point. If only 51,000ha of the 220,000 ha of  FC land under trees was formerly woodland, what was the rest? Open habitats of course; upland and lowland heathland, blanket (and raised) bog, wood pastures and open grassland of many different kinds. The FC acquired its land in its early days from estates that could make no good profit from it – it was the waste, the marginal land, that was coniferised; although conifers cast dense shade and acidify soils, these plantations have escaped the impacts of modern agriculture – inorganic fertiliser and pesticides.  This makes at least some of them restorable in the same was as PAWS are. THH showed us what could be achieved.

The FC estate holds a significant store (up to 150,000ha) of land that can be restored to high quality wildlife habitat. And the FC has started to do this, not enough of course, but a start.

If this land is sold to commercial forestry operators you can guarantee they will not be in the slightest bit interested in pursuing this course of action. In fact they will be strongly discouraged from doing so by – the FC. They require trees to be planted to replace those that have been chopped down – even if it means clearing a commercial forestry plantation and replacing with the same, on former high quality open habitat like heathland.

What about the protection measures the Government claim they will put in place to ensure that the PFE maintains its wildlife and heritage interest?

Felling licences and requirements for replanting will protect the trees, but what about the open habitats? Could they be at risk of being planted up again – so all that good work (and taxpayers money) is lost?

Thankfully nearly 68000ha of the estate is protected in SSSIs so they should be relatively safe; and 26000ha of this protected area is open habitat.

That leaves 12000ha of open habitat lying outside SSSI protection – a huge area of vulnerable land. The consultation document suggests these will be protected through the planning system (which is being radically overhauled including a “community right to build” which could bypass planning controls) and via the Environmental Impact Assessment procedures, underpinned by the EIA Directive, a very old piece of EU legislation.

The EIA does not protect open habitats from agriculture or other land-use change – we ought to know, we’ve been running a campaign about it for 5 years and have complained to the EC about how poorly implemented the directive is in England for precisely this sort of land.

Whether this sell-off is about saving money or more ideologically driven, the most places where the most change may come are not those where trees grow, but the interesting places in between.

About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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3 Responses to Open Habitats under biggest threat from the Forestry Commission Sell-Off

  1. Paul Beevers says:

    Hi Miles,

    Your blog makes interesting reading, the question in my mind is how can you capitalise on it? Have you tried to get a Guardian or D Tele reporter to take it up, or Caroline Lucas for example? I think you should. I happened to see this twitter (below) on save Our Forests and wondered if it is an avenue worth you exploring?

    Just as an aside, like Jonathon Porritt and Geoffery Lean in the D Tele I simply do not understand why the conservation groups are giving the Government such an easy ride instead of representing their members. I have been writing to them myself, more than once, because they have been so silent and so circumspect and it is maddening!

    The sale of public forest and a weakened FC will be a breach of COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 92/43/EEC 1992 #saveourforests

    • milesking says:

      Thanks for your comment Paul. I have been in touch with Caroline Lucas about the EIA issue yes. At the moment I am waiting to hear back from the European Commission as to whether they are going to take any further action against Defra on the EIA for agriculture issue. I have just heard about an interesting case down in Devon where EIA regs failed to prevent tree planting funded by the FC on an unimproved grassland. I will post the details when I get them.

      I can’t speak for the other NGOs but I think there is a great deal going on behind the scenes at the moment, of which Messrs Porritt and Lean may be unaware. There are certainly times to make a big public fuss and I think if there hadnt been the u-turn on the NNRs I was reading about this morning, then that one would have raised many hackles. Though probably not as many as the FC proposals.

      I’d like to know more about the suggestion that the FC sell-off would be in breach of the Habitats Directive.

  2. Paul Beevers says:

    Hi Miles, I sent you the tweet so don’t have it. I can’t flipping find it again either. One other thing, would you consider a version of what you have written so it could be posted on the Save Our Woods Site ? I do thing the points you make should be more widely read.

    Best wishes,


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