All change on forests - or no change on forests?

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

All change on forests - or no change on forests?

  • Comments 26
  • Likes

How dramatic!  The Prime Minister kills off his own policy in a brutal and public manner (BBC, Guardian, Independent). 

The RSPB is quoted as follows in the Independent: "If the Government abandons the policy, that is fine by us. This whole debate has shown the public care about forests and how we are going to have better ones in the future.".

The consultation on the future of forests will be scrapped (does that mean government is not interested in our views on the subject any more?), some of the clauses from the Public Bodies Bill will be removed (but it remains an awful Bill) and a panel of experts will be set up to look at access and biodiversity issues within publicly owned woodland (and presumably non-woodland areas owned or managed by the Forestry Commission).

This story has a long way to go.  After such a public outcry the status quo is no longer an option, but government no longer wants to know what you think on the subject.  Hmmm.

This is a defeat for Big Society as an idea - isn't that the Prime Minister's big idea?  If a forest sell-off is no longer going to happen then the State is going to remain as a major player in the business of growing commercial timber crops.  What happened to Small Government and what are the implications for all other aspects of the Government's Small Government/Big Society programme?

The Public Bodies Bill will be amended - but remains a fundamentally awful Bill which would allow any future government huge powers to abolish, merge or amend public bodies, many of them Defra bodies, into the future.  At least Defra was consulting on its radical Big Society plans for forests - the Public Bodies Bill would allow many equally dramatic and controversial measures to be made without public consultation.

Are forestry sales now halted?  I'm not sure we know. Will those sales that were put on-hold be allowed to proceed now?  They were put on hold because it was thought foolish to go ahead with sales when government was consulting on the added safeguards that were thought to be needed to protect their wildlife, and access to those woods.  Government is no longer consulting on that issue.  So...?

And what does this mean for Defra's budget?  Were the projected income figures from forest sales built into Defra's CSR settlement with the Treasury?  I suspect they were.  So is there now a hole in Defra's budget?  I suspect there is.  What will be the knock-on environmental impacts of that budgetary shift?

And the status quo is rarely good enough.  The mixing up of making a buck and delivering a public service that is the current Forestry Commission is too peculiar to last.  We welcome the setting up of an expert panel, and the RSPB would be keen to play a part in its work, but we will have to see what is its remit.  It should be allowed to look at the role of the Forestry Commission and see whether its current remit is well-suited to the delivery of public access and a richer wildlife in our publicly owned forests, heaths and grasslands.

And what does this mean for National Nature Reserves?  What is their future now?

As I say, this issue has a long way to go.  How many people will stick with it for the long run?  The RSPB will.


  • Mark

    Previous posts of mine have stated –

    “The Ancient Woodlands? – they’re mine”


    “The State shouldn’t be into timber production”

    The Govt has two (?) problems

    1 - Most People do not understand the phrase - BS!

    2 - DEFRA rushed into it – got some / most of it wrong – and the right bit is so small as to not bother with!

    No understanding! – Wrong priorities!

    You’ve read ‘B’ by Pro Tim Roper – have a look at David Selbourne’s “The Principle of Duty” – the guy asked by the Tories some while back to report to them on this subject!

    There’s a difference between having a one-track mind and having ‘focus’

    And I’m still very concerned over your fraudulent claim:-

    “The RSPB – Nature’s Voice – tackling the problems that threaten our environment”

  • trimbush - it's difficult not to see it as a defeat for the Big Society approach in that the Small Government/Big Society approach has been reversed because lots of people want there to be Big government on this particular subject and those potential recipients in Big Society (which I guess includes the RSPB) haven't expressed much enthusiasm.  So, yes, it's a bit of a rocky passage for big Society down in the woods.

  • This is a defeat for Big Society as an idea"

    I will if you will!

  • Hope so Mark feel sure you will clear up what seems a misunderstanding perhaps by Telegraph obviously having to shorten the report,sure you have plenty on your plate at the moment so if you do not find time will understand.Would at some time like to know if you will have a blog wherever you are going and if someone from the RSPB will take on this site.Know it is not relevant to this blog but see that massive wind farm proposed off of Dorset coast right on flight path of millions of birds migrating through that area,it really is a unbelievable number if anyone watches web site of Portland Bill and Dorset Birds.Time for bed,feel a bit sad tonight bringing home you leaving quite soon.Think we have had a good innings on here anyway,hopefully both of us a bit more knowledgeable of the others views.  

  • trimbush - you have a one-track mind.  This post is about forests.

    miles - you are very welcome

    Bob philpott and sooty - I will get around to blogging about this some time I hope

    jonathnwallace - thank you

  • Won’t say! Can’t say!

    Your silence (at its politest) is deafening.

    I take it then that both you and the RSPB are happy with paying out an increasing £100 million each year for allowing an ever-increasing number of Diseased Badgers to fatally infect cattle, alpaca, pigs, deer etc etc and do nothing

    Shame on you!  

    “The RSPB – Nature’s Voice – tackling the problems that threaten our environment”


  • Jockeyshield - thanks for reading.

    Why should the FC be in the business of planting conifers? There is no grassland commission spending taxpayer pounds growing grass to sell to the market; there is no beef commission producing beef to sell to the market. The FC existed because at a certain point in our history there was a strategic/military need for timber - specifically to produce props for mines and just in case we needed to shore up a large network of trenches (it was 1919) again. Those times have passed.

    We, the taxpayers, subsidise timber growers to produce timber  - several times actually, once at planting, then again during management, and finally through inheritance tax exemption on tree'd land. While there are obvious benefits to society (carbon storage, wildlife, recreation) to planting native broadleaves, do we really need to both subsiside state production of exotic conifers and subsidise the private sector? We can  make better use of the enormous estate that the FC own.

    We are told, by experts like Sir John Lawton, that our wildlife is ebbing away, because of the way land is managed. What better use to put to the FC estate than to manage it for wildlife, and for people to enjoy that wildlife, with all the benefits that derive.

    You say conifers provide wonderful habitat for many woodland species. All the evidence shows that those species would do better in native broadleaved woodland (with all the vital open space that management creates), where they used to live happily before woodland cover was reduced and woodlands ceased to be managed properly. Where do you think red squirrels lived before the advent of modern intensive conifer forestry? They didnt arrive with the Sitka.

    You suggest that planting conifers in the uplands will help remediate the damage caused by decades of mismanagement. It was the conifer plantations themselves which contributed to that damage. Carbon stored in peat soils in the uplands (this is where the vast bulk of carbon is stored in the UK) is released as a result of tree planting!

    I am all in favour of native woodland restoration in the uplands (juniper is one of my favourite trees), and yes the FC has been doing some good work restoring open habitat in their bigger upland plantations - one of the reasons why it was folly to sell them off. But conifers, apart from yew + juniper are, in England, not now native, and provide a significantly lower value wildlife habitat than the habitats the plantations replaced, whether it be ancient woodland, semi-natural grassland, lowland heathland, blanket bog or whatever.

    I have watched a number of sites recover their wildlife after industrial conifer removal, and it is astounding how wildlife can spring back after decades in the gloom. As I said in my blog (ok Mark point taken I won't put the link in this time!) the key difference is that FC land, like a lot of other state-owned land, has escaped the "green revolution" in agriculture, which for most sites means year on year application of nitrogen, phosphate and herbicide. These chemicals are great if you want to increase food production, but they alter the soil to such an extent that most wildlife cannot live there. That is why the FC land is so important if we are going to achieve the vision set out in"Making Space for Nature".

    Mark - I am extremely grateful for your readers and I hope you don't mind me commenting on your site - reading it is always a good way to start the day!

  • Hi Bob just quoted from what it seems was a short report in Telegraph so rely on it being correct but it did say as if Dr Murray Grant a conservation scientist with RSPB had come to that conclusion and he should contact Telegraph if they have reported wrong for sure less crows mean Lapwing chicks have a much better chance of survival and in the Peak District it is upsetting to see Lapwings going crazy trying to protect chicks from crows always to no avail.One type of bird done very well on farm land in last 60 years are Corvids and no matter what about habitat they would have a detrimental effect and there is good evidence that if numbers of a species goes down it becomes more essential to control there predators or numbers get drastically low.Think all birds that are in decline we are justified in helping them any way we can even if we go on about the habitat as quite often that is unlikely to go back to where it was especially with population increasing by perhaps 10 million in a decade in U K.It is very hard to accept but fact is a very big majority of population have as they see it much bigger things to care about than wildlife and I guess you see the same as me at any wildlife place it is almost exclusively senior citizens.  

  • Sooty,  Didn't see that one coming.  Read the project summary again.  

    "A new study exploring the causes of population change in upland waders has found that no single cause is connected with recent decreases in populations. Instead, the research by the RSPB suggests that different factors associated with varying land-use may be influencing changes in certain species.

    In the first country-wide assessment of its kind, the study looked at five wading bird species — Lapwing, Curlew, Golden Plover, Dunlin and Snipe — and explored changes in their populations across various upland habitats. 142 individual survey plots were identified for study within the following regions; East Flows, Exmoor, Lake District, Lewis & Harris, North East Scotland, North Pennines, North Yorkshire, South Pennines, Wales, West Flows. It found that where declines had occurred, they were linked with factors such as habitat cover, forest edge exposure, grouse moor management intensity and crow abundance."

    Yes predators do come into it but the report doesn't say lapwings do better where crows are controlled, it just covers crows as one option within land management. Get the land management right and the balance is likely to be better and crow numbers will go down.    That is no different from anything the RSPB has said before.

  • Think it was all a cover up for hiding lots of important other decisions made over the period this managed to get a measly1% of the population galvanised into a fury.It was never going to happen as it simply did not make economic sense and if the Government had intended it to happen then it would have,think the clever politicians laughing up their sleeves.See the RSPB done something of a U turn and their own study and report states that Lapwings do better where Crows are controlled,well there is another laugh,will not say I told you so but seems a few of us who make our living in the countryside know better than all these scientists who keep telling us we should believe their knowledge as us country bumpkins know nothing compared to them.

  • Mark you say -

    trimbush - interesting post but whilst the government is spending my money I have a stake in what they spend it on.

    Firstly - May I remind you that your role is that of Conservation Director of a Charity - with all the associated legal obligations

    Secondly - I take it then that both you and the RSPB and its members (have you asked them?) are happy with paying out an increasing £100 million each year for allowing an ever-increasing number of Diseased Badgers to fatally infect cattle, alpaca, pigs, deer etc etc and do nothing

    What are your answers to both of the above?    

  • Miles - rubbish - Why can the FC not grow conifers. Conifers provide a wonderful habitat for many woodland species like Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, Crossbill, Woodcock, Goshawk not to mention the main habitat for Red Squirrel. Private Forestry will never manage their woodlands for wildlife other than game birds and then the Birds of Prey will be removed like Goshawk, Tawny and Long eared Owl. The old plantations of the past are now being changed into timber and wildlife corridors by FC. Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier and Black Grouse are the birds of the future. Vast areas of British Uplands have been left with soil erosion damaging lakes and rivers in many areas and causing flash floods many owned by the National Trust especially in the Lake District. Real management is needed. Look at Iceland turning eroded hill sides into forest. Non native trees encourage native trees to establish as the micro climate is established keeping out those Arctic winds. I just hope 'cowboys' will not end up on this panel to advise the government as they obviously did before.

  • Trimbush

    I am not sure what the relevance of the Big Wheel in York is to the debate about selling off forests or not but for what it is worth (a) I don't see anything wrong with proposers of a big wheel having to take due account of its possible impacts on bats and (b) from the report I heard (on BBC Look North News) the Big Wheel proposal fell because it was deemed that it would adversely affect some views of York Minster.

  • nightjar - thank you.  The inalienable forests of England - sounds good to me.

    Keith Fitton - this is the end of the beginning I think. So, have a breather but don't think it's finished.

    Bob - you aren't the only one who has lost the plot - if you have - I'm not sure that David Cameron looked on the top of his game in terms of collective responsibility or seeing the big picture yesterday.

    peter crispin - I'm glad that you are pleased.  But this isn't the end of the game.

    trimbush - interesting post but whilst the government is spending my money I have a stake in what they spend it on.  And I try to be tolerant of all views here but even more so when the poster describes me as 'young man'.

    CPAGB20 - or may I call you CP? There do seem to be cycles of this activity.  What is different this time is that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act has reduced, but not totally eliminated, the angst over public access to FC land.

    Miles - I liked your blog but I might not always let you pinch my readers!

    redkite - thank you.  I need to find that website.

  • Listening to the BBC news at 1.00pm, Mark, the current hullabaloo surrounding the forest issue may mean that politically, it will not now be possible for the Government to sell any forests, not even the commerial plantations. So while I would still strongly support your proposal (and my comments) on your earlier blog this morning, it may well be that some alternative thinking needs to be done on the basis that no woodlands or very few will now be sold. However as you say, this still has a long way to run, with, I am sure, lots of twists and turns to come, so it is excellent the RSPB will be there and ready with its expertise and inputs .