Whilst following the media reports and subsequent response from Caroline Spelman has been interesting it is also disturbing. It has displayed a very poor understanding of the history, present position and practice of land management by both the media and government PR and thus reflects many feelings of those within the industry with regards the perception of their chosen profession.
There is no real reason to be nervous about selling UK woodland to the private sector at face value. There is at present a very large amount of woodland for sale to the private sector and a great deal of woodland
with high conservation value exists in private hands with no signs of a lower conservation value – indeed sometimes the management in public owned forest or woodland can be argued as detrimental to conservation values. Potential purchasers are thin on the ground in any case due to the constraints of woodland ownership and the reality that the planning laws and constraints make an owner feel more like a custodian will be unattractive to the ‘golf course and tourist industry barons’ for whom it is easier to start from scratch and thus actually expand woodland cover.
Who is going to be tempted by yet more ‘For Sale’ signs placed at the roadside when a woodland borders it. In the Westcountry of England there have been signposts such as this pinned to trees for several years now.
There is a potential risk that public pressure will lead to an ‘all or nothing’ position – as has recently been reported the ‘green’ lobby through a lack of knowledge with regards the real scenario have actually
created political decisions that can cause real harm in the long term and even allow for the worst case scenario via the back door. A sell off with absolute priority to UK charities is not the best route to take as demonstrated below.
Another example to be aware of is the situation that occurred before the foxhunting ban; although regulation was clearly needed, hunting was proven to be a necessary evil – however the campaign by the ‘Countryside
Alliance’ played right into the hands of the opposing lobby. If a radical opposition group, (and any such group would instantly fit on the outer reaches of the right wing), in favour of the change of policy for woodlands gained the media spotlight, the results could be catastrophic.
A perspective from within the industry -
As far as purchasing as an investment, there is little difference in the felling schedules and management between the public and private sector at present and many would argue the regulations placed upon the private sector means they are far more responsible in their management. It has been assured that regulations would not be slackened as a result of any sell off and this would be difficult to change given the current publicity, let alone the plethora of new regulations on the back of ongoing environmental and landscape protection initiatives coming into force.
Caroline Spelman’s speech came across as a not so subtle attempt to suggest the NT and Woodland Trust amongst others will find it easy to purchase large areas of woodland. Can they afford to do so? I doubt it and despite proven good management by both these groups and other NGO’s is this really a secure future for conserving large tracts of UK woodland? I would say not and what would be particularly disastrous is to see the end of the regional identity of woodlands. These NGO’s rely on access to members to encourage ongoing funding and subsequent to the previous labour governments enforcement on the FC to emphasis public access as the primary issue for woodland and forest management, (in grant aided private woodland as well as FC land), the resulting signage, cycle tracks and unhindered tramping in natural areas which has been seen in UK woodland will surely increase and combined with ownership heavily reliant on volunteers for management this is a scary future. It is thus very important prior to any ‘sell off’ to also revise public access within the grant system if it is to remain. A new scheme is thus needed in tune with the excellent Environmental Stewardship schemes, allowing public access with no emphasis on having to prove it by garish presentation to ensure grant income. It would also encourage the use of professional practitioners rather than a gang of weekend volunteers and thus bolster the industry as well as maintain landscapes as they should be.
The previous paragraph could be read as a damnation of public access, but in terms of actually discovering woodland as it should be the over emphasis of the last 20 years on ‘leisure’ activity has led to a ‘dumbing
down’ of the actual ecological and conservational value of these woodlands. The obligatory interpretation panels are planted almost as grave stones with an epitaph for the wildlife that once lived there. The enforcement of simple rights of way, without fluorescent waymarkers, picnic benches and the occasional heritage centre will allow us all and our children to regain our lost connection with our natural world.
The current access the public have to forests and woodland could be increased and enhanced by private ownership.
It is very interesting that Scotland is not included in the current commentary. Scotland has vast tracts of forest
and woodland in private hands. Often owned by foreign groups or individuals, (like the Danish landowners - Aage V Jensen Foundation), and the philanthropy of these owners is often disguised by the media. The reality is that such ownership is exceedingly beneficial to the ongoing conservation of the wildlife and preservation of the landscape.
The one huge factor that is necessary to allow the proposals to succeed as per Caroline Spelmans comments is that the FC must remain with its powers intact. The FC can over ride local government decisions, (when
Caroline Spelman started to talk about planning departments in her speech – I was more than a little wary considering the fact that some local or regional governments have a very poor track record in terms of anything to do with trees), when they are in conflict with one of the best established, scientific yet practical, published systems of forest and woodland management in the world.
Also I am personally very scared that the preservation of the best resource for practical land management in the world, the FC publications and Website as well as the best ongoing research into trees and woodlands may be at risk of cuts. The sale of woodland in the UK to anybody can only be achieved if the research and resources of the FC remains.
There was a large choice of potential titles for this blog – ‘The Only Quango worth saving’ – ‘If all Quangos were like the FC, what a utopia it would be’ etc. I personally have never really felt that the FC was a quango. It is of course an institution of national importance. I give you free of charge the superb FC website: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/
As of 28th / 01 / 2011.
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