Storm over sell-off plan for English Forests

At the end of October 2011 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that the public are to be consulted on a proposed sell-off of parts of the Forestry Commission’s English Estate, which cover 257,000 hectares (635,000 acres) or 18% of England’s wooded areas, some of which provide domestic timber.

Defra is planning a ‘new approach to ownership and management of woodlands and forests, with a reducing role for the state and a growing role for the private sector and civil society’. Secretary of State for the Environment Caroline Spelman wrote a letter to MPs to explain modernisation of the forestry legislation in the Public Bodies Bill recently introduced to Parliament. The letter says Defra envisage ‘a managed programme of reform to further develop a competitive, thriving and resilient forestry sector that includes many sustainably-managed woods operating as parts of viable land-based businesses. It confirms that there will be a transfer of some Forestry Commission land from public to private ownership. Beyond that their vision for the future of England’s woodland remains unclear. Defra is stressing that biodiversity and public access will be safeguarded. Ministers stress that there is no threat to biodiversity or public access and that their aim for the future of the English woodlands owned by the Forestry Commission is not incompatible with protecting the natural environment.

Protest Storm
The announcement has raised a storm of protest among those who use Forestry Commission land for recreation, and conservation groups, there is clearly scepticism over how these aims can be achieved if forests are managed by private companies looking to maximise profit and there are a number of on-line petitions marshalling opposition to the suggestion.

Archaeology also threatened
The plan also raises significant archaeological concerns. The Forestry Commission Estate contains many Scheduled Ancient Monuments and other important but unprotected archaeological sites which are currently not under threat. For example the Commission has been doing work on recording the archaeology of some of their sites through high-resolution LIDAR survey.

However it is difficult to police contractor activity at the many archaeological sites in forested areas (eg sites such as the nationally important Alice Holt RB pottery production sites on the Surrey/Hampshire border and the wealth of Iron Age archaeology preserved in Micheldever Wood north of Winchester are both on Forestry Commission land. Other important archaeological sites include the New Forest Roman pottery industry, and the sites containing evidence for the Wealden iron-industry). It is difficult to police even known Scheduled sites in forested landscapes and protecting them is not an easy task.

In addition there are hundreds of unprotected archaeological sites within publically owned woodland that would be in danger if these areas were to be sold off to private companies who were unaware of their responsibilities to the archaeological remains present within the forest, or careless in their management of them. Sites in woodland are notoriously hard to identify and, when a short time ago Hampshire CC commissioned a number of surveys of areas of woodland dozens of sites for which there was no previous record were identified. Such a survey represents merely the tip of an enormous iceberg.

The recently announced 32% cut in the budget for English Heritage, coming on top of earlier cuts of 11% surely means that the organisation will be severely challenged in its response to such proposals. In addition cuts to local authority budgets will inevitably mean that non-statutory functions such as HERs and environmental warden schemes run by local authorities will be preferentially targeted for reductions in funding, further weakening any regime of protection for ancient woodlands.

The fear is that if private companies are allowed to exploit large areas of woodland there would be no control over what took place there nor any requirement for survey work to be carried out in advance of intrusive maintenance or tree felling work. The suggestion poses a significant risk of potentially disastrous consequences for thousands of archaeological sites throughout the country.

The Save Our Forests campaign now has over a quarter of a million signatures, nearly three times the capacity of Wembley Stadium, on our on-line petition at:

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