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In Mike's view...

Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB

Image: Eleanor Bentall

I felt enormously privileged to be a member of the Independent Panel on Forestry, appointed last year in the aftermath of the Government's decision to cancel its consultation on the future of our public forests.

I say 'privileged' because the Panel has met many people who care passionately for our woodland heritage. It's a passion I share. As a kid, my first encounters with wildlife were in local coppice woodland. These experiences later inspired me to embark upon a career in conservation, which began with a job at the New Forest.

We love forests for many reasons: For their spiritual tranquillity, for relaxation, fresh air and exercise away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Most especially, we love them because of their wildlife. In a recent public survey asking people why they valued woodlands, wildlife was the most popular response.

But, as the Panel's report explains, our woodland wildlife is in crisis. A sixth of woodland flowers are threatened with extinction, we have lost half our woodland butterflies, and the index of woodland birds is at an all-time low.

Development threatens

When the Panel visited the Forest of Dean, I was staggered to find that it has minimal formal protection - less even than that of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This iconic national landscape urgently needs to be safeguarded. Meanwhile, important woodlands are threatened by development, including my old stamping ground at Lodge Hill in Kent, with its melodious population of nightingales.

The Panel has filled a vacuum in the national policy debate on forests, as it was the first time in several years that forestry has been taken out of its traditional 'box' and examined in terms of its wider relationship with society. In this respect, the Panel has been playing policy catch-up, and I admire the commitment of my fellow panellists and the Secretariat staff to building a common vision for the nation's forests.

...the wider economic benefits of public access, clean water, carbon storage and wildlife far exceed those of timber production

Our report calls for a re-evaluation of the worth of our woodlands. Draw up the balance sheet and the wider economic benefits of public access, clean water, carbon storage and wildlife far exceed those of timber production. In the New Forest alone, tourists enjoying the greens and golds of the woods and the purple carpet of heather deliver over £170 million of VAT income to the Treasury. There is a massive economic case for investment in the Nation's natural capital.

This needs to be a moment of awakening, when Government recognises that future forestry policy should be based on public benefits. It needs to be a moment in our culture when local communities, landowners, voluntary organisations and government embrace woodlands and their relationship with the wider landscape.

So, what are the future implications of our report?

Firstly, we need to tackle the deterioration of our forests. Fixing this has to be the top priority, so that new woodland creation doesn't simply increase the scale of the problem. This means putting the right trees in the right places, ensuring appropriate woodland management, and tackling inappropriate past planting on ancient open-country habitats.

The wider economic value of the Public Forest Estate is derived from its wildlife, people's ability to access it and in the 'ecosystem services' it provides. The Panel recognised these benefits, which underpin the overwhelming case for continued public ownership. Our public forests also provide some 70 per cent of our domestic softwood supply. In future, timber production should support the delivery of wider public benefits and management decisions will need to reflect this.

Good for nature, good for people

This doesn't apply to forests in isolation. These are common principles for the management of land and natural resources. The Panel focused on the ends, in terms of the things that people want and need, that are also good for nature and for the economy, before considering the means of delivering it.

Institutions need to be designed, resourced and regulated in the interests of society as a whole. I would urge the Government to adopt this principle, as it starts to scope the forthcoming review of its other agencies, such as Natural England and the Environment Agency. It should be asking how best to deliver the laudable ambitions outlined in its Natural Environment White Paper last year.

The outcry over our forests reflected the passion that England feels for its wildlife. The Panel has shown that passion and common sense are rooted in ecological and economic reality. The Government can score some easy political points if it recognises this and responds in the right way.

Mike Clarke, chief executive of the RSPB

In Mike's view...

The RSPB's Chief Executive, Mike Clarke, provides his opinions on the major issues affecting wildlife and the environment in this regular online column. You can read more from Mike in the quarterly membership magazine, Nature's Home.

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