Seeing the forests for the trees

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Seeing the forests for the trees

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There are still a few things to resolve on birds of prey and their conservation.  But, I feel that, thanks to yesterday's announcement from the Minister, I can move on from buzzards and talk about something else.  That is a good thing.

Today I am helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RSPBs fantastic Coombes Valley reserve in Staffordshire, which is a delightful oak woodland perfectly set up for enjoying our returning woodland migrants. This feels like a good opportunity to revisit another hot issue with the public - forests.

Woodland at Coombes Valley RSPB reserve. Staffords. Copyright: Andy Hay (

At the start of last year, forests, or more specifically public forests, were on everyone’s lips following Defra’s consultation about their future. I struggle to think of any other environmental issue that has prompted over half a million people to sign a petition and others to burn an effigy of Big Ben in the Forest of Dean, although perhaps buzzardgate was heading that way.  I wonder if David Cameron would consider this as “big society” in action?

The public reared up and told the government to back off, which is exactly what it did after just 3  weeks, with the abandonment of the consultation. I think this sums up just how important woods and forests are to everyone. Nevertheless, we are not out of the woods yet – excuse the pun.

Caroline Spelman subsequently set up an independent panel of experts to advise her on the future of forestry commission, the public forest estate and forestry policy in England. This is no longer just about the important 18% of public woods and forests, but also the other 82% in other ownerships.  This Panel includes my boss, Mike Clarke, in an independent capacity, and they aim to report on 4th July. It is a huge job, and we await with interest their findings.

Is this just about who owns them?
For some people, yes - but for us it is also about much more than that. When you take a closer look at our woods and forests, regardless of who owns them, it is clear that simply fighting for status quo will cause us to lose our woodlands in a very different way.  Lesser spotted woodpeckers – common when I was young - but we have since lost three out of four pairs and they are now cripplingly rare.  Woodland wildlife is not in a good way, with 1 in 6 woodland flowers threatened with extinction, a 56% decline in woodland butterflies, the loss of 9 out of 10 pairs of willow tit, 78% of lesser redpoll, the list goes on and on......

What is the problem?
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a problem that will be solved by planting more trees. Although woodland expansion does have an important role to play, and we are fully behind it, the evidence points to another problem. The evidence is telling us that the condition of existing woods is where the greatest problem for much of our threatened wildlife lies. For centuries we have used woods for food, shelter and warmth. However, as this woodland management culture has declined, so have the varied woodland structures that wildlife need.

What do we want?
The RSPB’s vision is for England’s woodland to be a haven for wildlife, whilst helping meet the challenge of climate change, be economically productive, and available for people to explore and enjoy.

A future where:

  • Government revaluates the way they value woods and forests, so that they are no longer solely measured in terms of the timber they produce or their land sale value. Their full value lies in the wildlife, access and ecosystem service benefits they can provide to society
  • All woodlands are being appropriately and sustainably managed to provide rich and varied habitats to help reverse woodland wildlife declines.  
  • New markets, smartly regulated, have emerged to support a thriving and truly green forest economy
  • Woodland area is increasing sustainably to provide bigger, better and more joined up habitats for wildlife and local communities to enjoy, whilst contributing to climate change adaptation
  • An equal effort to that directed at new planting has been applied to reversing the planting mistakes of the past, with the restoration of heaths, bogs and ancient woodlands once under plantation forestry. Read more about this here
  • The Public Forest Estate is rededicated to the nation and becomes the epitome of what public land can deliver for society in the form of wildlife, access and natural heritage. 

What do others think?
The eyes of the nation, including ours, will be then be on the Government’s next move. A group that is also paying close attention is Our Forests who are an informal group of individuals with a shared set of core principles on the future of forestry. They have produced their own vision for the future of England’s woods and forests, which you can read here. I have and it is rather good.

Our views have much in common with this vision. For example, we both want increases in sustainable woodland management, the restoration of wildlife habitats damaged by plantation forestry, and increased woodland expansion. Although our emphasis on the latter would be further towards that of quality rather than quantity, as we are still fighting mistakes of past planting drives.  Although we have slightly different rationale, we both agree that status quo is not the way forward and something new, building on best bits of the old is needed to realise the fuller value of woods and forests for the nation.

Another excellent vision is from Plantlife, which you can see here.

Most importantly of all, what do you think?

Please do share your thoughts below. You can also submit your views direct to Our Forests’ on their vision here.

  • Martin, it was great to meet yourself and other members of the RSPB staff at Coombes Valley on Thursday. Hopefully you all had a great day and left the reserve feeling inspired by woodland and our vision to make Coombes Valley a real center of excellence when it comes to woodland management, conservation, education and visitor experience.

    Totally agree that quality is better than quantity. We need to look at how best to focus our efforts. Do we improve what we have, or do we create more new woodland?

    You have to feel the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Creating more woodland is the long term approach, but will allow greater connectivity in the future. However, it won't be suitable habitat for most species for 10-15 years, maybe even 50-70 years for others. We really need to assess if some of our woodland species have this long to wait. We also have to ensure that any woodland created delivers the quality that the associated species require.

    Personally, I feel looking to improve our current woodlands and then buffer them with new plantations is the key. This allows us to make the most of our land holding as well as looking to expand in the future. I also think advising other landowners on how to manage their woodland is going to play a vital role in halting declines of woodland birds. We cant possibly hope to own all the land in the UK, we are going have to work with others and help them to make their land suitable for the species we wish to conserve.

    Woodlands are always going to be a long term and slow paced investment of time, effort and money. However, as Coombes Valley hopefully showed, they hold that touch of magic you don't quite get from hides overlooking reedbeds, or from scanning wader flocks on mudflats; making them well worth the wait.

  • Martin,This one subject that is very close to my heart. I am sure the Forest Panel will do  a very good job but am concerned that the value of forests to society is underestimated.  Even in the piece above along with wildife and management you simply refer to access and enjoyment.  There is so much more that can be achieved alongside tree and wildlife issues.  Forests were never just woodlands but places for entertainment, sport and hunting.  I am not suggesting that but they can provide education, wonderment and experiences that remain foreever, whether it is watching woodpeckers, nightjar calling and the scary noise of deer barking at night or simply picking up chestnuts.

  • Fully agree with all the bullet point aims/targets you list above Martin. I think the issue that most concerns me is that while the Panel and hence the Government may, hopefully, support most or all of these aims, it is the way the administration and the structure of our woodlands is set up that will be very important. For example if the Forestry Commission carries on in its present form I think it is vital that their terms of reference must changed to include these bullet points. It is no good Ministers making "god and motherhood" declarations of intent if those in charge are not instructed to act accordingly. I say this because in my local patch, where there is a small nature reserve on FC land, I think recently the FC, if anything, has probably become rather less inclined than previously to consider wildlife issues  This may be an isolated case but I don't think so. Therefore it is very important to ensure these key targets, assuming the Government endorses most of them, are written in at the "working face" and that we don't actually get more of the same.

    Just to repeat what a great relief the buzzard decision is. As you say there is more in the raptor conservation story to come, but hopefully, this is now the worst chapter behind us.