Public forests should stay in public hands

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Public forests should stay in public hands

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So the Independent Panel on Forestry report has been published.

The stand out headline is that public forests should remain in public hands.  But, the report goes further by calling for the public forest estate to be managed by a securely funded public body, whose remit is focussed on maximising the estate’s full value to people and wildlife. There will probably be a collective sigh of relief for anyone who loves these woodlands and wants to see greater investment so that they realise their full potential.  But there is still detail to work through.

The report also called for:
-       Government to fully value the plethora of benefits woods and forests provide to society, and reward those who provide them.  I thought that the Bishop of Liverpool was right to emphasise this point in his Today programme interview this morning.
-       Government and other woodland owners to give as many people as possible ready access to woodlands, for enhancing health and wellbeing. 
-       Increasing the area of woodland cover from 10% to 15% - using the principle “the right tree in right place”
-       Greater protection, management and restoration of England’s woodland and associated wildlife habitats at a landscape scale.  This should Include a renewed strategy for restoring some of the damaged ancient woodland and open habitats on the public forest estate. 
-       Support for a “green” woodland economy to drive the delivery of public benefits from existing and new woods and forests
-       This is just a snapshot, take a look at the full report here

So, what do we think?

Our aspirations for this report were outlined here. So on face value, we have a lot to be pleased about. I was particularly pleased to see the report shining a spotlight on woodland wildlife declines and identifying some of the actions that could contribute to addressing them. If nothing changes, we could lose our woods in a different way. We could lose the diversity of wildlife that makes them so special.

In yesterday’s blog, I outlined the importance of bringing more woodland into management, and I was happy to see this is one of the central themes within the Panel’s report. It points firmly at the role of a “green” economic revival to drive the types of woodland management needed to benefit people and wildlife. If we get it right, then economic woodland management could work hand in hand with increasing woodland access, and fighting wildlife declines. However, government will need to be brave and step in with right mix of incentives and regulation to ensure that this report delivers on its “green” promises.

Next steps

This is a good start but it is now up to the government to decide how to take these recommendations forward.  We understand that we may need to wait some months for this although someone has just pointed out this Defra tweet to me "We’re keeping the public forest estate in public hands, as recommended by today’s #ForestryPanel report ".  The RSPB will continue to make the case that any changes must lead to greater benefits for wildlife and for people.  And, we'll look more closely at the detail and share further thoughts tomorrow.

In the meantime, have a read of the report and let me know what you think.

Juniper woodland, Andy Hay (rspb-images-com)

  • "While we will consider our detailed response we will continue with the general suspension of sales of estate land"

    Martin,  I totally agree with your and other's sentiments.   I am still a little bit sceptical given the above comment by Caroline Spelman.  Not quite as your DEFRA tweet would make out.

    Peter Crispin, Excellent news for HOOF and others.  I don't get to cross the old Severn Bridge any more having to get there on the less pretty route through Gloucester but I can still recall the view from my bedroom window as a youngster; across Lydney Cricket Pitch past the Church and the Bridge in the distance.

  • Not sure the Nightjar needs more woods,more likely they need more heathland as Arne has lots of Nightjars in areas of sparsely populated trees.

    Wildlife will take a big knock with more human access causing massive disturbance.

  • Nightjar - that is an ambition we should all sign up to.  More on this anon...

  • This is a good day for our forests, for birds and the environment. I do hope Mrs Spelman will be brave in championing the Panel's reccomendations in Government: we all make mistakes - but it is possible to make a comeback - look no further than the Forestry Commission which was on the ropes in 1988 after the Flow Country - and has fought back through hard work for people & the environment to have this fantastic public support today.

    I hope the panels inspiring recognition of the breadth and potential of woodland will mean a new start - for the Forestry Commission a new remit that recognises that it is far more than just a timber producer will remove much of the angst around open habitats - I've always wanted to 'move' forests - off the heaths and onto city dwellers doorsteps and now we have the prospect of the mandate and even possibly the money !

    But most of all my ambition is to reverse the decline in woodland biodiversity. Forestry played the key role in reversing the fortunes of Nightjar, showing that against all the odds species on a long slide to extinction could be turned round - what I'd like to see now is a grand alliance between forestry and conservation to save the Nightingale - I am convinced we can reverse the decline in this most wonderful bird and, Peter Crispin, do something about fuel poverty in the process !

  • We have just spotted this statement from the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman...

    "I am grateful to Bishop James Jones and all the Panel Members for their considerable work, detailed consideration and sound advice on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England. I very much welcome their Report. I would also like to thank the many groups and individuals who contributed to the Panel’s thinking in the course of their work – their role has been important.

    Forests and woodlands are an important part of our heritage and future, and I want to see them make an increased contribution to the environment, economic-growth and personal wellbeing and for everyone to enjoy the many benefits they offer. We know that people feel passionately about forestry and the Panel’s report has given us a vision for how a more vibrant future for England’s woods and forests can be achieved.

    The Natural Environment White Paper set out our vision which placed nature at the centre of the choices our nation must make. By properly valuing nature today, we can safeguard the natural areas that we all cherish and from which we derive vital services. We stated an ambition for a major increase in the area of woodland in England, better management of existing woodlands, and a renewed commitment to conserving and restoring ancient woodlands. The Panel’s advice will help us to achieve this. The Panel’s report shows clearly how forestry has the potential to offer more in terms of green products and green jobs, often in rural economies.

    The Panel’s work will also inform the future of the Public Forest Estate, a key component of our English woodland network. I therefore agree with the Panel that the Public Forest Estate should continue to benefit from public ownership. A well managed and publicly owned estate provides the sort of public benefits we need to protect – such as access and biodiversity.

    But I also agree with the IPF that the way that the Estate is cared for and managed should evolve to meet the challenges ahead of us. We need a new model that is able to draw in private finance, make best use of Government funding and a means to facilitate wider and more comprehensive community support.

    The Government will now need time to properly consider the work of the Panel – we will respond more fully by January 2013 and I look forward to working with the many interested organisations in the development of this response. While we will consider our detailed response we will continue with the general suspension of sales of estate land. In the meantime, we expect the Forestry Commission to continue to manage the estate to deliver the most public benefits."

  • Brilliant news and well done to people like Martin for keeping the pressure on them.

  • Hooray ! Hooray ! Mrs Thatcher could nt privatise them and nor can the Coalition. I am truly delighted; the woodlands of the Wye Valley are one of the points of my deepest solace; I cross the Old Severn Bridge and wind up through the russet beech woods deeply mixed with dashes of deep green yew to the quiet of the deserted blue/green hills of mid Wales.

    The one point I would make today is that given the ever deepening fuel and poverty crisis ( at the primary school by me children are arriving unfed with holes in their shoes; I know the LSA) ; we could set up "coppicing co-ops" where people could join in the public management of their woods, where appropriate, and be rewarded for their time and effort with fuel shares.