430 ancient woodlands under threat from NPPF – how many grasslands?

The Woodland Trust have a piece in yesterday’s Telegraph pointing out that 430 ancient woodlands are under threat.

How do they know? Because they have a fantastic ancient woodland inventory which identifies every single fragment of ancient woodland down to the smallest piece. Sadly we don’t have a decent inventory of valuable grasslands (ancient grasslands is too tricky a concept to have much meaning, as they can’t be identified from old maps in the way ancient woodlands can) – we desperately need a proper grassland inventory.

Ancient woodlands aren’t just wonderful for their wildlife – they are treasure houses of archaeology, history, and their soils are the best preserved mineral soils in the country.

Valuable grasslands hold a similar broad range of features – wildlife, archaeology, history and other cultural values.

The Woodland Trust is absolutely right to highlight the threats the NPPF impose on ancient woodlands. No ancient woodland should be lost to development. That 430 ancient woodlands are threatened by development is appalling. The same is true for our wildlife-rich grasslands and other grasslands with historical cultural or community value.

There are around 330000ha of ancient woodland in England (compared with just 100,000ha of priority unimproved grassland habitat). (source National Ecosystem Assessment). Natural England’s State of the Natural Environment report states that
25% of ancient woodlands occur in SSSIs,  a very low figure.

This doesnt tell the whole story though, as a significant proportion of the rest are in the hands of Forestry Commission, other public bodies (Local Authorities, Health Authorities, Defence Infrastructure Organisation etc) conservation organisations – National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, RSPB etc etc. How many ancient woodlands are in private hands and susceptible to be destroyed by development?

Unhelpfully, ancient woodland and wood-pasture/parkland are all too often lumped together. Wood-pasture/parkland is a mosaic, a combination of woods, veteran trees, open habitats such as heathland or grassland, and the interfaces between these.It is wood-pasture/parkland that has the strongest ties back to the wildwood, because it has the largest number of species associated with dead wood and ancient trees.

The UK’s richest habitats for wildlife are:

  • Grasslands (all types) 206 priority species
  • Heathlands 133 priority species
  • Woodland (all types) 169 species
  • Wood-pasture/parkland 105 species. (source Webb et al NERR 024 Managing Species for Nature)

In the NPPF ancient woodlands are specifically singled out as an “irreplaceable habitat” that cannot be recreated; that is absolutely right. This gives them a slightly  stronger protection than practically every other habitat already identified as being “of principal importance” in the NERC Act.  This includes ancient heathlands, some thousands of years old,  grasslands where it is at least 600 years since they were cultivated, and so on. And it would be interesting to get a CLG view on whether ancient woodland, as described in the NPPF, includes wood-pasture/parkland; I suspect not.

Unfortunately we don’t have figures for the area or number of valuable grasslands threatened by development – but we do know that the resource is incredibly small (just 2% of the wildlife-rich grasslands that occurred in 1940) and extremely vulnerable to development.I suspect that thousands of grasslands will be threatened if the NPPF opens up development in the way it is intended to do. That’s simply because most developments will happen on fields, not in woods. Fields around villages tend to be grasslands. Fields in the open countryside of the East tend to be arable, and in the West tend to be grassland.

Let us know about grasslands threatened in your patch. via twitter or in comments below.


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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2 Responses to 430 ancient woodlands under threat from NPPF – how many grasslands?

  1. Stephen says:

    You write;
    “How many ancient woodlands are in private hands and susceptible to be destroyed by development?”

    You seem to quite explicitly express the view that land in private hands is more susceptibe to being destroyed by development. Many landowners value the land they have in their care far more highly than you realise. I don’t feel your pantomime view of goodies and baddies is very realistic. The only land in my care that’s going to be lost to development over the next few years is that which will come into public ownership via a compulsory land purchase, before being destroyed as part of the A470 improvement. This is one of the most biodiverse pieces of grassland in the area which was bought for significantly more than its agricultural value to preserve it. It was safe in private hands but will now be destroyed in public hands…

    Working with private landowners rather than demonising them would seem to me to be a more useful approach. Painting the world in black and white is an unrealistic and unhelpful model. The risks asscociated with land ownership are grey – trying working to shift the depth of grey. Black and white models are fairy stories for children, and presenting the problems in this way does not help innform the general public or work as a basis to formulate ideas to improve the situation.

  2. milesking says:

    Stephen – thanks very much for your comment.

    You’re quite right – it isn’t a simple picture of “wood in private ownership = threatened” and “wood in public ownership = safe”. That wasn’t really my point though. I could have been clearer – how about “how many ancient woodlands actually are in private hands and how many of these really are susceptible to development?”. I think the answer is “not many”.

    I was trying to make the point that although only 25% of ancient woodlands are in SSSIs, a far larger proportion are in the hands of public and voluntary sectors bodies who either have a legal duty to protect them or are duty bound to do so through their charitable purposes. Add onto that the very large number of private landowners who care passionately about their woodlands, and I would suggest that a large proportion of ancient woodlands are in sympathetic hands, and therefore not susceptible to development. It takes far more effort to destroy a woodland than it does a grassland – and is far more likely to generate a huge local opposition – witness the furore around felling one tree in Irton last week. Meanwhile nationally important grasslands are destroyed or damage with no fuss at all.

    Here’s a list of the 430 ancient woodlands the Woodland Trust has identified as being under threat:


    I would be interested to find out more about your grassland – can you let me have details?

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