There's been a flurry of publicity for Songbird Survival over the last week - mostly in The Times. This organisation, which I always think as being more anti-predator than pro-songbird, and anti-raptor in particular (but maybe I have got them wrong), may be funding the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to cull some crows and see whether songbirds flourish. Good luck to them - but I hope they take more notice of this research than they did of the research that they commissioned from the BTO which went some way to exonerate predators from being the cause of songbird declines. That study doesn't seem to have altered Songbird Survival's views at all.
The Chair of Songbird Survival is Lord Coke. Lord Coke hails from Holkham Hall. The head gamekeeper at Holkham Hall was charged with several offences, including some under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, last week. This has led to some interesting comments in some places (see here for example). Lord Coke's father, the Earl of Leicester, is not the biggest fan of birds of prey, nor indeed of the RSPB. As I say, interesting.
The article in the Independent makes the link between the head 'keeper being charged and the fate of the Holkham National Nature reserve. That's an interesting point too.
I can remember that 1973 , when Dutch elm disease was seeing off millions of elm trees, was National Tree Planting Year. We were all exhorted to 'Plant a tree in '73' - I don't believe I did though.
This year is United Nations International Year of Forests and the government's plans for our forests seem to have the potential to unite this nation against the government. It is fascinating how everyone is on the side of the tree, thicket, copse, wood and forest. I wish every case of potential environmental loss would get everyone fired up so much. And the reason that forests do, I guess, is that there is a sense of place with many wooded areas. The New Forest, the Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest are all iconic places - we've heard of them, we think we know them and we know we like them.
The government consultation paper which emerged on Thursday after much leaking, apparent leaking and enormous speculation recognises the sense of place with some iconic wooded areas and calls them heritage forests. The plan for heritage forests is not to sell them off at all - although the plan is to take them out of state management through leasing them to appropriate NGOs or communities, The National Trust is already reported as saying it's interested in them.
So the Forest of Dean is not going to be sold off and chopped down - that never was going to happen.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are a large (we don't know how many actually) number of smaller woods, almost all commercial conifer plantations, that will be sold off to forestry companies and neighbouring land owners. These are not the big names amongst our state-owned woods - they are the D-list woodland celebrities whose fates won't make the News of the World but are of local interest and importance.
We British are a pretty conservative bunch when it comes to change in the countryside and a pretty distrustful bunch of our governments. Both traits have huge advantages and some disadvantages that go along with them. I can't get really worked up about who owns a small wood down the road from me whose main function is to grow trees for the timber market. We don't have state farms intent on producing wheat so why should we have state woods intent on producing timber for building or pulping? Is this an area where we need government to be taking a hand - in growing a commercial crop - and such a close hand that it must be government who owns the land and government employees who grow the trees? I think not. It's less about who owns the commercial woodland and much more about the safeguards that surround them. And government has recognised this in its consulatation paper. The questions that need to be asked, about even the most apparently insignificant parcel of state-owned forest are about how protected is public access to it? how protected is its future as a wooded part of the landscape? and how protected is its wildlife? These are areas that need to be watched very carefully.
I hear government Ministers saying continually that this is not all about money - and I'm not sure that that reassures me - although clearly it's supposed to. Almost certainly, in non-monetary terms there will be some gains and losses if we sell off, or lease off, our state-owned woodlands. The RSPB will continue to work hard to maximise the gains and minimise the losses but if this programme goes ahead then the Law of Unintended Consequences will dictate some funny outcomes that no-one expected. But amongst all this I do hope that I, the taxpayer, is going to make a decent buck out of the changes proposed. Surely that is part of the point of it all? I hope the government won't be selling my forests off cheaply, and I would be very interested to learn what the monetary consequences of the proposed leases of heritage forests will be - might it even be that those forests cost us more under the government proposals? If so, then that's not a particularly good deal. These are areas where the government's proposals need to be explored and tested.
There is a bit of an assumption in the public debate that the Forestry Commission is on the side of the angels and has done no wrong. Life is never that simple. The Forestry Commission's attention to environmental issues has waxed and waned over the years, partly in relation to the price of timber (all those public goods drop down the agenda when timber prices are high), partly in response to who has had which jobs (never underestimate the importance of having a sympathetic man or woman in the right place at the right time) and partly in relation to whether the government of the time was thinking of changing anything. Over the years the Forestry Commission has helped to destroy upland areas where trees should never have been planted, ancient woodland which should have been protected rather than felled and replanted with conifers and lowland heathlands which should never have been planted. Some of that is ancient history but the last subject, planting trees on open ground where ideally trees would be absent, is still a very live issue.
Foresters live with their mistakes for decades - that's the fact when your crop takes 30+ years to mature. And so the present generation is living with the triumphs and disasters of the past. We have found the Forestry Commission glacially slow in moving forward with a policy to remove trees from areas of lowland heathland which would provide greater public benefit if unplanted. In very recent years the FC has sometimes appeared like a bunch of lumberjacks rather than a body charged with delivering public benefits. And so the staus quo is far from perfect too. The RSPB will continue to push for the restoration of open-ground habitat to be the most suitable land use for areas of heathland, chalk grassland and bog that have been damaged by past FC errors. It has been difficult enough making any progress with the FC - heaven knows what it might be like with a myriad of different owners and so we will look to government to fix these issues pre-sale or pre-lease.
But let us think of the future of FC as well as the future of its (our) forests. FC regulates forestry as well as doing forestry on the ground. Once it is in a position of doing less forestry on the ground then surely the logic of merging the remains of FC with the remains of NE - as basically proposed long ago by Lord Haskins - will be seen. Eventually it will be realised that the future of heritage forests and the future of national nature reserves are questions of great similarity. One option that this government appears to have rejected is to give the management of both to a merged NE and FC. If done well, it could do worse.
As I say, we were never going to see the chainsaws arriving in the Forest of Dean as a result of a state sell off - the fact that they won't is a good thing but hardly a victory. The war to save our forests and their public value starts in earnest now. And its not about saving all trees - it's about saving the right trees in the right places. And it's about the detail of what is intended not just the headlines. This issue has a long way to go.
Get on with the Big Garden Birdwatch - we'll talk forests tomorrow!
I notice that colleagues I have worked with in Defra and statutory agencies are moving on - some are taking early reitrement others are taking voluntary redundancy and yet others have lost their jobs.
Natural England is, as much earlier revealed in this blog, shedding 400 jobs this year of the 800 that will go from the organisation over the next few years.
Here at the RSPB we are making difficult decisions about which projects we can take forward and which we cannot. This year there has been quite a lot of juggling to try to protect our conservation work - but that can only be done at the expense of other things. Other things like salaries, computer upgrades, pension contributions etc..
I've had to halt conservation projects because of the sudden and unexpected disappearance of external funding and that hurts. And there is great uncertainty about which projects may be funded by agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency next year - and next financial year starts in about 9 weeks time.
Similar things are happening across all sectors so I am not saying that nature is being hit hardest of all - although it is being hit hard (and nature is blameless in our financial difficulties). I'll share more of the consequences over the next few weeks.
I guess I stand a better chance of seeing a waxwing in my garden during Big Garden Birdwatch this year than any year for ages - but I'm not holding my breath.
However, in this 'waxwing winter' I am sure that many more of us (even if it won't be me) will see these attractive birds this year. Have a look at the Birdtrack graph to see how much commoner they are this year.
There have been some lucky folk in previous years and below are two maps for 2008 and 2010 BGBWs. I'd be surprised if the sightings aren't quite a bit more widespread and more numerous this year - but we'll see! That's the thing about birds - they are their own masters and we are mere observers of their behaviours.