The future of forestry in England: the verdict

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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

The future of forestry in England: the verdict

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It has been a nervous wait for the nation, but the news is in. Government confirms a more secure future for public forests. You can read my boss, Mike Clarke's reaction here.

It feels to me as though the Bishop of Liverpool lobbed the ball up (with the Independent Panel's report) and the Secretary of State has smashed it into the back of the net (with today's response).  A political crisis in 2010-11 has turned into a government success in 2013 where most people seem to be happy.

This is an important day for forests, for nature and for all the members of public that stood up to be counted. It is great to see the Public Forest Estate will be managed by a new public body, with greater flexibility to secure all the things we value about them.  Of course this is not just about the 18% in public ownership and the response goes on to outline how we are going to increase the same public value everywhere else too.

There is lots of detail for us to interpret and amongst the positive words there are a number of questions about the “how” and “where” this will be delivered.  We will be feeding back our thoughts over the coming months on how Government can turn these words into reality.

Now I am not about to raise my assistant referee's flag and say the Government's goal was offside, but after my first read of the full response, I do have some further thoughts:

-       I hope the Government’s emphasis on generating more money on the public forest estate is not at the expense of providing more conservation and recreation benefits.

-       I'm pleased to see explicit links suggested between the Natural Capital Committee and funding agreement for the Public Forest Estate. Knowing the huge public value for money the estate can provide, this can only be a sensible step. 

-       The process for creating a new public body for the public forest estate needs momentum and commitment now, so it does not sit on the shelf for a future government to deliver.

-       The response places a huge amount of responsibility for nature and people at the door of a rejuvenated forest industry sector. If we get this right, the improvements in woodland condition brought about by sustainable woodland management could help halt and reverse wildlife declines. If we get this wrong then the already spiralling declines in wildlife of woods and forests will only become greater. This feels like one of the biggest challenges in taking this forward.  Biomass is perhaps the best example of this.  Sustainable supply of wood fuel can help deliver much needed renewable energy whilst getting more of our woodlands into better management.  This, in turn, will help the one in six woodland flowers currently threatened with extinction, half of the woodland butterflies which have declined since the 1990s and the dramatic decline in woodland birds (such as nightingale, wood warbler and willow tit).

-       Key to success will be to keep the forestry debate and public passion for forests fuelled, as this still has a long way to go. Let's strike while the iron is hot, and continue to build progress and links with all those who have a stake in forests, woods and trees.  I am not necessarily calling for a Big Woodland Birdwatch (but that would be fun wouldn't it?) but I am saying let's do more to get people out seeing bluebells and getting up early to hear a fabulous woodland dawn chorus this spring.

One last point, the future of Governments forestry functions has now been formally linked to Defra's review of the future of Natural England and Environment Agency. This has to be right.  People will contest the relative merits of the Forest and Wildlife Service versus a stand alone body advising woodland managers, but it is right to have this debate now.  I'll say more on this next week. 

For now, I'd love to hear your views.

And I promise that this is the last football analogy of the year.

RSPB HQ, the Lodge at sunrise by Stuart Geeves (rspb-images.com)

Comments
  • It seems good.

  • I think this is a very good response by Government. Faced with the public backlash over the forest sales proposals they could have tried again by another route - weakening the Forestry Commission until it could no longer operate effectively and lost public confidence, for example. However, clearly they have listened and have also made a clear decision that forestry should not be a big issue at the next election - which gives some guarantees that the plans they lay out will be delivered.

    What perhaps isn't so obvious is that some new thinking from forestry's expertise as multi purpose land managers has crept into the Government's response in a way we haven't seen before: ecosystem services, for example, as part of the solution to big problems like flooding rather than just as a nature conservation enclave. Similarly, the emphasis on business solutions - conservation can't be just about spending money and there is no way anyone was ever going to pay to remove  a million tonnes more timber from our native woodlands every year which is crucial to saving the Nightingale illustrating this blog.

    It isn't just about the Government - all too often action for climate change has led to head on clashes with nature conservation and public opinion - windfarms, the Severn Barrage, biofuels,

    HS2 etc. Forestry and conservation expertise are the absolutely key ingredients to managing more of our woods and creating new woodland - without the skills that bodies like FC and RSPB have the risk of what could be a big plus turning into yet another disaster is high.

    For RSPB, I'd like to see a comparable drive on forestry and woodlands to the determined campaign on forestry and open habitats: I'm not suggesting for a moment that RSPB eases off on that, but there is no conflict whatsoever between working for more management in our native woods and re-creating and managing more heathland.

    RSPB has a great record on woodland - it's woodland reserves could well be the best managed in conservation ownership and it has led on research into declining woodland birds whilst at a regional level it is doing excellent work with FC to help owners manage better for woodland birds. Now we need a more focussed campaign not just of lobbying Government (crucial to making sure the good promises turn into reality) but also out there selling a strong message for the right sort of management at both national and local scales.

  • This response by Defra obviously wants a fair bit of digesting and as usual "the devil will be in the detail". I quite agree that it is important not to let these issues drift and to establish the details as soon as possible consistent with a sound working basis and a srtong voice for wildlife protection. A "Forestry and Wildlife Service would not, on the face of it, seem an absolute  "no no" as long as the "Wildlife" part of it maintains a strong independent voice and reports directly to Government and the public and there is no conflict in interests such as commercial interests. In other words much on the lines that Natural England currently operates. There should also be a statement of intent to remove all plantation forestery  from habitat where it has been wrongly planted in the past. Such habitat includes especially, heathland and chalk downland.