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.