Forest sell-off and NNR sell-off - updates

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I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Forest sell-off and NNR sell-off - updates

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I feel a bit for Defra over the subject of flogging off the family trees - the nation is up in arms over it.  But it's not clear what 'it' is yet.

Every now and then Caroline Spelman produces reassurances in the media or parliament which actually look quite reassuring - see herehere and here. and yet the subject does not go away (see here, here, here and here).  Let's wait and see what the consultation says - and then look to fix anything that is wrong with it. Or maybe I'm getting soft?

Back in October this blog set out the RSPB's view that there may be some sense in the state selling off some purely commercial, intensive forest plantations and yet we would be worried if forests of high nature conservation value are not protected.  That remains our overall take on the subject.

I can understand why the residents of the Forest of Dean do not want their forest destroyed - but as I understand it, the Forest of Dean is Crown land and can't be sold.  Am I wrong? 

What we may see is that some forest land is sold - let's make sure they are the right areas.  It isn't unreasonable for government to look at selling off some assets or to look at different methods to get those forests managed.  But let's see what government proposes.  Maybe we in the RSPB will hate the proposals - and if so then we'll say so, and be as bolshy as everyone else!

And I have just noticed that the article in the Independent over the Christmas break about NGOs and NNRs prompted a very nice letter from a Mr Crocker from Gloucestershire and a slightly blustering letter from Defra Minister James Paice.  Mr Crocker - nice letter though it was - is wrong to say that the RSPB is rich and wrong to say that we don't know much about all those species that are not birds - but all the nice things he says are completely true.  And Mr Paice seems to say that the Independent article is wrong and then confirms much of what it said!  That's clear then.

  • If any ancient woodland is sold we need cast-iron guarantees that they will be protected in perpetuity. I am against the idea of selling any woodland. If the government presses forward, organisations such as the RSPB must demand permanent protection for our woodlands - preferably with a clause that keeps the right to buy back the woodlands (at a reduced rate) at any time in the future if bodies such as the RSPB (not the government) believe the woodland to be under threat. I am quite prepared to march and protest if any woodland is threatened!

    Madeleine Longhurst

  • Hi Mark,

                 Stage 1 Victory to 38 Degrees as Sell Off seems rolled back a bit !

                 Mark I am pretty happy with what you have said; however as with NHS reforms I wonder whether any savings will actually be won through what seems like bureaucratic duplications ie Forest of Dean and Isle of Wight with rightly FC overview. But why reform when you are trying to make savings ? Its just complicates things.

                  I would note that your emphasis is on the lowland heathland ! My major worry is that in all this the upland tracts are going to be forgotton about and leased off to EFG; what about recovery of upland soils and streams re acidification; no vociferous lobby groups and key area of international interest.

                  My gut feeling remains that simply opposing this nonsensical reform is probably the simplest way forward. Retain expertise and cores of experience in places like Forest of Dean where there are 50 staff and a huge forest estate. The FC only costs 10 million a year and tagging on greater local control might be the way forward but we know with National Parks local councillors/farmers is a bloody nightmare because local is often "ignorant and proud of it". The tension between increasing local representation on national duties does not necessarily lead to greater wildlife value. I would also note that FC record on Stewardship must not be lost by private leased takeover.

                 I stand by the view that simply retaining the FC is the best way forward; there is very little to be gained here especially when we really need a timber industry to deliver sustainable housing. This reform seems a waste of energy and effort to me and should be opposed; these proposals are principally to avoid defeat in the Lords in my view and as such are a distraction. A generation ago we defeated this sort of nonsense; as with Cancun our movement seems to suffer 10 reverses for every 1 success.

                 I do not applaud this at all.

  • Love ----think you would find that I have perhaps in 99% of cases been the encouraging force for more comments and you would find with a bit of looking at early blogs we struggled for numbers on Marks blog and of course you could not find 5 minutes to comment on his blog while getting everything right on conservation front and now that it is all pucker you managed to join on the same day with a big plea which I am quite comfortable that all members will make there own decision on as I always allowv people to have their opinion and me the same but do not plead for everyone to follow me.

  • Wiggleywormhole - welcome and that's a great post - belated thank yous!

    Loveitorloseit - welcome - and thank you too.  Your comments are very welcome and Sooty will feel bad that he has upset you I am sure.  

    Tomorrow we will probably see what the government actually says about forests.  We'll read the proposals carefully, think about them and then respond.  I am sure that there will be things with which we will taqke issue.  But they may not be the things that have been rattling around in the media for the last few weeks.  Not long to wait now - a matter of hours probably.

  • Sooty

    I am completely and utterly mystified by your comments and, quite honestly, very upset. My aim in submitting my post was not, I repeat not, to get members to support 'my' scheme. It is not mine. I have no connection whatever to 38 degrees. My aim was to do everything in my power and to play whatever part I could in all of us conservationists banding together to stop this rotten selloff in its tracks. As regards joining the forum with some ulterior motive then posters have to join at some point. As regards giving a monkeys about you and other RSPB supporters I don't recall offending any one of the posters in any way, shape or form. And how exactly am I supposed to prove to you that I care about you as a person? I would have thought being polite would be a good start, which I went out of my way to do.

    And anyway, Sooty, why shouldn't the one million RSPB members oppose the forestry sell-off? It would appear that you have set yourself up as judge of what members can and cannot respond to, and now police 'your' forum in a vain attempt to censor anyone who dares to post in your chosen arena.

    Sooty, I suppose I should accept that every Internet forum is bedevilled by these kinds of flame wars, but you really, really do seem to have the wrong end of the stick here. The reason that I was not posting a year ago was not some sort of conspiracy of ignorance, it was that I was doing other things, as you were before you first joined. In my case that was digging ditches, fencing, scrub clearing, hedge laying, doing bird and insect surveys and generally busting a gut in doing about £20,000 worth of the conservation voluntary work I've done over the last 10 years.

    So I, and I expect the other poster who recently joined whom you also criticised, am not, repeat not, taking advantage. What I am trying to do is my best. I can only sincerely hope that you stop lashing out at any newcomer who joins 'your' forum and you start looking again at the monstrous threat we all face from these truly terrible forestry proposals. United we stand, divide we ...

  • Sooty I have been an RSPB member since 1967. I do not often feel it necessary to spend energy on the "converted".

    It is quite simple will the RSPB endorse the amendments laid down by Labour's Baroness Royall ?

    I reiterate that this FC Sell Off has no mandate from either Coalition manifesto and therefore these proposals should be debated on the floor of the House of Commons and that is the proper and only due place for this to be decided; that is our parliamentary history from Cromwell to Churchill to Cameron.

    In my view RSPB quite simply has to respect and make clear that democratic authority. This Sell Off proposal that is already seen as lacking authority and legitimacy. Will RSPB move now ? Or has the tide on this already left as far as RSPB's authority is concerned ?

  • Well I think Loveitorloseit Iwould have thought a lot more of your pleading if you had not as it appears whether correct or not joined the forum with the sole purpose of getting the one million members to back your scheme and quite honestly you do not give a monkeys about us it is just the votes you want.How I wish you had joined a year ago but guess you did not need us then.Strangely you are the second one to join and within a day or two do exactly the same thing.Sorry in this instance Mark but hate people taking advantage of anyone even a large organisation find it really obscene and hope you do not censor it but will understand if you do,it has got to be fair game for people to join the forum just for there own gain.

  • Hello Mark and my fellow posters

    First let me preface my comments by saying that I admire and am grateful for bodies like the RSPB and the work that you do more than I can say, and I'm sure you'll be lobbying furiously over the proposed woodland selloff in due course, but, but, but ... I'm worried, worried sick, basically.

    The RSPB just doesn't seem to be treating this threat with the extreme urgency that it demands, and I can't help feeling that your organisation can't quite gets its head around the sheer blank-eyed indifference of the people who would drive this through, and, most of all, those who would profit enormously from it. All the years of campaigning, of consciousness-raising, of opening eyes to the natural wonders that could fill our every day might come to absolutely nothing've just got to take on board that we're all dealing with people here who would treat the most precious, spirit-affirming and life-saturated wildlife haven with all the care and attention they'd give to a can of peas.

    OK, so I run the risk of entering (or am already deeply in) headless chicken territory here, but please Mark, we're talking about things that have been growing for (thousands?) of years, and which might be trashed in months - on our watch. So, yes, this is emotional - among other things.

    So what I'm asking, pleading for - in the generality - is a sense of urgency commensuate with the threat. I have been following the technical aspects of the proposals clearly and closely and nothing I've seen suggests that I should be dampening down my alarm. And what I'm asking, pleading for - in the specific - is that the RSPB drops its rather standoffish approach to the 38 degrees 'Save our Forests' petition (I'm not connected with them in any way). Yes perhaps it is a little alarmist (I don't know), and yes, perhaps a little emotive too, but come on, it's an insurance policy. It's a shriek of anguish (just read some of the comments accompanying the signatures) from the very sort of people who established and fought to perpetuate the ideals of the RSPB against all the forces that would have just destroyed. So let's not knock it. We can lobby as well.

    Nothing communicates to the distracted and overburdened general public, who probably know little or nothing about this selloff, like good, solid numbers. Don't we all recall the attention that the 10, Downing Street road-pricing petition attracted? I hope you'll forgive my criticism Mark, but I do sense a wave of disdain from the RSPB and from the Wildlife Trusts for anything so trivial as a petition, but this is what the media pick up on, this is what will really get through thick government skulls that massive numbers of people care very deeply about this, and, that massive numbers of votes may be lost in the future unless they scrap these proposals.

    So please, Mark, can't we please have some good solid support from the RSPB for the 38 degrees petition?

    You have it within your gift to urge, what? 250 000 more signatories over in the petition's direction. If it takes behind-the-scenes lobbying as well, then I'm sure you'll do it superbly, but we've just got to smack the ecologically illiterate AND US between the eyes before, during, and after as well. I'm afraid that if we 'wait and see what the consultation says - and then look to fix anything that is wrong with it' as you wrote above it will be too late to raise a massive petition, and too late to galvanise people for the fight ahead. If it's all just a matter of committees, the why would the RSPB bother attracting members? So let us - everyone in the conservation community - prepare arguments and counter-arguments, prepare for a long fight, but let's pull together and push as many names as we can beg, borrow or steal on this petition as if our lives depended on it!

  • Mark,  I somehow missed this blog which is a pity because it makes me very angry (not the blog - the potential sell off.)   I will keep my comments until we get the white paper but just to answer Mark and add a couple of things at this stage.

    My heart is in the Forest of Dean and this was Crown land and in and out of crown / govt ownership since 50 years before William the Conqueror.  It became part of FC estate in the 60s I believe and at present cannnot be sold because it is specifically excluded under the 1981 amendment of the Forestry Act. (For very well argued reasons).  

    The second point I find odd about this is that the United Nations has declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests.

    It has invited governments, organisations and individuals to do all they can to raise public awareness of the key role of forests and sustainable forest management in building a greener, more equitable and sustainable future.

    The Forestry Commission on its website states "it is pleased to play its part and will make a full contribution to the UK’s response. Our programme of educational, community and recreational events throughout the year will be used to highlight the Year of Forests and we are planning many more projects and events throughout 2011."

    I do wonder if anyone has told FC they may not be able to undertake this commitment.

    I am sure once the White paper is out you will revisit this subject and I might submit a much longer entry.

  • Well I think WigglyWorm Hole has hit the nail fair square on the head that once its private without any legal designations one's influence is limited

    I owe Baroness Royal of the Forest of Dean an apology; in her own words she says

    "I am against the sale of forests which are national assets.  I can assure that I will be acting in the interests of all of the forests held by the Forestry Commission and, as you will see, my name is on several amendments, one of which is to delete clause 17, the clause that would enable the sale of the forests.  The reason that I am particularly concerned about the Forest of Dean is that we do not have the same rights as other forests, we only have customary privileges and these cannot be preserved if the land is sold.  You will therefore understand why I have tabled specific amendments on the Dean Forest".

  • Well wiggly if this your first welcome and what a way to start.

  • There are so many sides to this.  I might be a bit dim but..  Let's see if I've got this right..  Forestry Commission is an arm of government and therefore the government is entitled to sell Forestry Commission land...  However, do the 'government' (our current government) actually own the land that they intend to sell to individuals and corporate interests?  How is it that they own it?  Is it not the case that the British people own it and the Forestry Commission manage it for us? Does taxation pay for the Forestry Commission? I'm just a little confused about how any particular government can 'own' so much land? Are we over looking one rather obvious flaw to the intended sell off?

    At the ecological level there are some interesting issues.  I find it hard, personally, to be convinced that non-native plantations are absolutely useless in every way.  They're certainly not ideal but (leaving aside the brooding majesty of a 40 year old dark hulk of Sitka in (what some consider) an otherwise bleak/featureless and in many ways manmade landscape.  Leaving aside the gut churning sadness of the scars left when these familiar plantations are scraped away over the course of a few months. Their very presence (apart from acidifying the water table perhaps :( ) must serve some purpose in controlling land erosion and rain water seepage?  Forty acres of roots, above a little riverside village, must be having some positive effect? Must do something to alleviate the destrustive force of helm winds and such like.

    Has no native species evolved to find timber plantation useful?

    The whole environmental issue of trees and carbon capture/retention is so complicated I'm not even going to start with it except to say that I've heard that thoughtful/subtle felling of spruce plantation (to use as fuel) is a hell of a lot 'greener' than burning fossil fuels.  A whole lot prettier (yet I quite like them) than wind turbines.  Very complicated though, depends on type and age and where.

    Before news of forest sell off reached us we, on the border of Northumberland/Cumbria/Durham, started to notice the 'woodland for sale' signs and before we could co-ordinate to react they were sold and new roads were being constructed to facilitate the timber extraction.  All over the place. It seems like every familiar plantation is being clear felled in the area. No idea who has bought (one private interest or is it just suddenly fashionable to sell timber) the land but is it just a co-incidence that it's all being cleared at the same time?  I found the sale schedule for one particular wood, which was very close to my heart, and it was stated that the purchaser would also have mineral and hunting rights on the land.  I'm probably extremely suspicious but, about a year ago, there was some local discussion and hoohaa about a Canadian Zinc mining company seeking to test mine for zinc in the area.  The discussion, at that time, was whether the suggested employment opportunities were a cruel tease or would it infact mean an imported work force who would catastrophically burdon already stretched local infrastructure.  Now I really suspect that all the plantations sold locally came with a promise of mineral rights and our community is going to become an enclave of Canadian Zinc mining via the back door.

    This is what happens when it's confusing who actually 'owns' land and it is sold into the private sector.

  • Hi Peter good points but of course the wealthy pensioners you spoke of almost certainly paid massive taxes during 50 years working because for sure to be a wealthy pensioner you have to earn a massive amount during you working life and of course you would not realise but that wealthy pensioner will still be paying considerable taxes though retired.

    Find the point about trees difficult as I would like to keep conifers where Red Squirrels are or could expand to as that seems there preferred habitat.

  • Hi Sooty; glad you laughed but very serious point; why are we so burdening the young ? My Dad God Bless him "benefited" greatly here for he lived to 91 and I am sure his pension was geared to age 70 life expectancy when he was contributing.

    Mark; I think you and RSPB are letting the public down with this stuff about "state forestry farms"; the questions remain about the environmental record of private forestry and the management of landscape; two very good letters in today's Guardian; I personally wish to row back on letting large upland tracts go.

    The truth is that if this government wishes to be the "greenest" ever then surely the replanting of conifer monoculture with greater numbers of native broadleaves to prevent the further acidification of soils and streams is the way for ward; ie larch etc.

    At this moment I am very anxious that Baroness Royall is sacrificing the wider public interest re public woodlands for her own birthright as a "Forester of Dean" and focusing solely on the defence of the Forest of Dean and the traditional rights.

  • Thought that funny Peter but I want to live a bit longer got a special day out on Mull planned in September,your comment stumped me and perhaps I have to be thankful society has been so generous with us and did not give us a jab on reaching 65 and said thanks goodby been nice to know you and with that put us 6ft under.