My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Other than a few fleeting mentions in the media, the furore around the future of England’s public forest estate seems to have simmered. The Independent Panel on Forestry has started to examine the issues and a few public pressure groups have mobilised. But it certainly isn’t the political hot potato that it was in February and March of this year.
But it’s important that we don’t forget about it. As we said repeatedly earlier in the year, it’s a complicated issue and our views on it can’t be fitted comfortably onto a placard. But basically we want to make sure that, whatever happens, we get the best possible outcome for wildlife, habitats and people. And then it’s about finding the best possible way of achieving this.
The results of a recent re-survey of deciduous woodland bird populations showed that 9 out of 34 bird species have suffered serious declines. Some, such as willow tit, have declined by more than 70%, one of the largest bird declines in any UK habitat. Changes in the structure of woodlands, caused by a lack of management, are thought to have had the biggest influence. And it’s not just birds - alarming declines in woodland butterfly and plant species have also been recorded.
The Forestry Panel for England will need to address any shortcomings in the management of our woodlands if these iconic landscapes, and the wildlife that lives in them, are to have a secure future.
So, what do we want?
We’d like to see improved woodland management for rare and threatened wildlife, through the protection, restoration and extension of our native woods and priority open habitats, such as heathland.
We also need to ensure that the right trees are in the right places. This may sound a bit odd, but some important habitats have been overplanted with the wrong species of trees, often to provide commercial timber. Planting of non-native conifers has damaged some our most important habitats – both ancient woodland and heathland.
It’s shocking to realise that over 80% of England’s heathland has been lost over the past 200 years, which has had a devastating impact on the wildlife that depends on it. We’d like to see these special and important places restored and see an increase in heathland species like the woodlark, Dartford warbler, sand lizard and heath tiger beetle. And restoring our ancient woodlands could benefit species such as hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker and the glorious purple emperor butterfly.
And it’s not just about the wildlife. It’s also about you and me. Woods and forests need to be managed with people in mind, providing local areas for recreation, education and the enjoyment of wildlife.
The Forestry Commission does some things well, but there are quite a few things that need to be fixed. For example, an area of heathland and ancient woodland almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight continues to be damaged by conifer plantations on FC-managed land.
These are some of the issues that we will be asking the Forestry Panel to consider. What do you think?
There seems to be a lot of woodland in grant schemes these days but this doesn't seem to be delivering any significant results for wildlife if the species declines are continuing. The other problem is that too many people think chopping down trees is wrong. You often see save our trees campaigns when the thing that is needed is to chop down some trees. Clearly much more education is required.
Personally I think people should not be able to own woodland if they haven't got a plan for management. Meanwhile any woodland planting should have to allow for 50% of other habitats on the land. There is not enough control of what is planted and where it is planted. Otherwise all the things you mention are the things that are needed.
Agreed! Government should be embarrassed that barely commercial crops of conifer continue to be planted on vital wildlife habitats. I am not saying conifers don’t have a place in the countryside, but why is tax payer’s money being spent to support this activity on the precious wildlife habitat owned by the nation? Public debate has focussed on ownership of FC land, but the panel has a much wider role than this. The panel needs to deliver an increase in management across woods and forests in private ownership if future generations are to again hear the drumming of a lesser spotted woodpeckers, and the trill of a wood warbler. FC need a new remit that is less about money and more about public benefits