I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
I spent a lot of time as a kid, and since, in the New Forest and there are two things I know about it - it's not new and it's not all forest.
This mix of ancient woodland and modern tree farms, grassland grazed by ponies and heathland alive with Dartford warblers is a very special place. And a very complicated place with a long past and we hope a long future. But the government consultation on forestry suggests that one potential future for the New Forest might be for its forests to be managed by communities or NGOs like ourselves at the RSPB.
The RSPB manages over 140,000ha of land across the UK, and a good chunk of that is heath, grassland and forests of various types, and we do have some expertise in inviting the public in to see the landscapes and wildlife that we protect. But, let's be clear, we don't think running the New Forest can be done by charities. And we don't think it's desirable.
The New Forest, as with the Forest of Dean (of which I also have fond childhood memories), is a Crown forest - not strictly speaking owned by the state - and benefitting from its own specific primary legislation. The New Forest has a complicated suite of overlapping designations such as National Park, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area for birds which aim to protect its public and wildlife value. Its adminstration is a complex mix of ancient and modern with an ancient Verderers Court and a modern National Park authority.
And does off-shoring management of the New Forest pass the Osborne tests?
Back in June last year the Chancellor George Osborne, set out these rules about departmental spending:
Is the activity essential to meet Government priorities? Does the Government need to fund this activity? Does the activity provide substantial economic value? Can the activity be targeted to those most in need? How can the activity be provided at lower cost? How can the activity be provided more effectively? Can the activity be provided by a non-state provider or by citizens, wholly, or in partnership? Can non-state providers be paid to carry out the activity according to the results they achieve? Can local bodies, as opposed to central Government, provide the activity?
Without going through these tests one by one it is not clear that any change in the status quo would deliver great advances in effectiveness or reductions in cost. For example, those SPAs and SACs mean that the UK Government is responsible for what happens whoever owns it - and therefore would be expected to monitor and police activities - or take the rap. If the RSPB thought that we could step in and make the New Forest a better place for wildlife and people then we'd say so - but we don't, and have no intention of pushing ourselves forward in that way. We work in the New Forest now, in partnership with others, as we do in the Forest of Dean too, and we'd like to carry on working there with local people. We might do more in future - but we aren't daft - we know when something is too big to swallow.
But we are interested in how such heritage forests are managed. Are they managed for people and wildlife or as state tree production units. To be fair to the FC they walk the tightrope quite well for most of the time, occasionally toppling off on one side or the other but a Forest and Wildlife Service could manage the heritage aspects of these forests, and others, and non-forest land of equal public value in a more effective way on behalf of us all. The idea of a merger between a heritage FC and Natural England keeps popping back into my head.
Hopefully, by belonging to organisations such as RSPB who care for and protect wildlife and habitats, we can speak with one voice to protect what I, as the oldest of four generations of my family, have enjoyed all my life, i.e. our beautiful countryside and the wildlife it supports. I would like to be confident that this will all still be here for a further four generations of the family at least.
The problem is that most of our politicians are so out of touch with reality and "ordinary" life that they cannot see what is happening under their noses, all they see are £ signs, millions of them.
It was really interesting that in the Commopns debate Desmond Swayne who was portrayed as supporting the Government - not surprising, he workd for david Cameron and is hardly a pinko - actually said he wanted local Governance - and management by the Forestry Commission ! And he knows - he knows just how difficult the forest is and just how well FC carries out what is probably the most complex rural land management challenge in the UK. And, his neighbour Julian Lewis (best known as a lead champion of replacing Trident) went further, diagreed with the Government and said he wanted the NF to continue as it is.
I agree with all the above re FC and NE but can we focus on the upland forests a bit more please the lowlands will to a certain degree look after themselves; Mark Avery quoted on the Guardian states "We don't object to the state getting out of the business of growing timber, but we need to see if the right forests are being sold in the right way."
Sold ? Hold on where is the data that substantiates this; private in my experience is not as good as FC. It is harder to influence the private sector's bottom line re stewardship standard of plantings and species diversity.
Especially in National Parks and AONB's we have an opportunity to redraw landscapes; if we sell FC off we can not by law influence planting regimes or protect soils and streams against acidification.
Mark please show me where the evidence is or regulations are that after an FC plantation is sold we can stop a whole load more sitka going in with potentially disastrous long term results.
Also this is not the time to Sell. It is NOT in the public interest it is in the PRIVATE interest; it is the time to buy land and forest as its value is rising steadily and it is is Inheritance Tax free; this is a tax avoidance scam for the wealthy.
Mark you can not run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. This is clear to me.
Hands off Our Forests.
I wonder how a merged "heritage FC" and Natural England would deal with the question of public access. Public access is one of the big issues in the present debate, but the kind of public access many people favour is often bad for wildlife. I'm just back from a low-water count along the River Orwell - plenty of open access there...
The latest news (BBC today) is that the Govt has halted the initial sell off of 100,000 acres, the bit that is outside the consultation. If this right that will at least bring that land within the consultation process.
Are our Royals living in another world? Crown Estate means it belongs to us. We pay for their up keep. Even with the massive windfall from wind farms which they hope to get it is still our money going to keep them with a roof over their head.
Mark, I totally agree with your analysis about the potential role of the RSPB in Forest management.
The problem with 'Forests' is that the word means different things to different people. To a lot of people, including my MP it seems, the word means a lot of trees and you would expect to see trees in Forests but I would argue not necessarily as many as those people think; I note even you refer to the New Forest being not all forest.
The Normans defined a forest as a place for hunting and you didn't need many trees for that. Within forested areas there are quite often areas of land refered to as a Chase, usually the heathland you refer to. I can recall my local Chase as an open area where I saw some of the last Red Backed Shrike as a youngster (that makes me sound old).
The Forest of Dean lost it's Crown status in the 60s apparently and this is one of the reasons why it is uniquely protected in the Forestry Act. Hopefully it will remain so.
I think this is why part of the concern is being raised. To the Government, Forests seem to consist of trees only (I have also seen that sort of reference on some comments on this blog) but to a lot of us a Forest is much more. It is about the people, the culture, the access, the enjoyment and of course the wildlife.
Think the New Forest is run really well at the moment,unfortunately N E seems to run things absolutely brilliantly or quite badly and just wish they could up their game a bit on the bad although to be fair they do seem to recognise there mistakes and improve them but really expect people with their experience to get things right in the first place.
Quite agree Mark, to have a new group of NGOs trying to run, say, the New Forest would lead to chaos I'm sure. As you say the delicate balance of interests and the system of administration has been built up over a long time.