Wildlife charities call for new vision after Forestry England replant conifers on precious heathland

Tony Whitehead

Thursday 11 February 2021

Wildlife charities call for new vision after Forestry England replant conifers on precious heathland

RSPB, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and Butterfly Conservation have today expressed concern after Forestry England’s (FE) decision to replant pine trees on precious heathland in Wareham Forest. In the current ecological emergency, they urge FE to begin working with them on a new heathland vision for FE’s estate in Purbeck. 

In May 2020, 192 hectares of Wareham Forest was accidentally burnt, much of it a low-value conifer crop grown for timber. The charities had previously pressed FE locally to recognise Wareham Forest as a priority for large-scale heathland restoration. They also asked FE to hold off on automatically replanting the burnt area, pending a ‘root and branch’ review of FE’s Wareham Forest Plan and discussion with the charities about how best to restore the site’s outstanding heathland potential.  However, last week, Forestry England went ahead with tree-planting on a large part of the burn area, much to the concern of the wildlife charities. 

Dante Munns speaking for RSPB said, “This was an excellent opportunity to expand and link the heathland in Wareham Forest with the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve as part of an extensive nature recovery network. It was a great chance to boost populations of rare birds like Dartford warblers, nightjars and reptiles like sand lizards and smooth snakes. 

“The RSPB and its partners have decades of experience in managing and restoring heathland at places like Arne and Winfrith. Having worked well with FE work to restore large areas of former heathland in Rempstone Forest, we don’t understand why FE rushed ahead with replanting. We’ve already lost so much precious heathland and opportunities like this don’t come along very often. It’s very, very disappointing.” 

Imogen Davenport, Conservation Director, Dorset Wildlife Trust said, “All our charities are passionate about the need for more trees and woodland but there is growing concern that poor choices are being made in the push to do this quickly.  It’s crucial that we plant the right sort of tree in the right place, in Dorset using broadleaved trees like oak, willow and birch which are wildlife superstars, and avoiding planting on precious habitats like heathlands. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have recently issued a ten-point guide to ensuring that tree planting does not cause more harm than good. Sad to say this planting fails on all ten points.” 

The restocking of Wareham Forest comes at a time when there is growing concern over poor choices being made over the planting of trees in the UK. 

Tony Gent, Chief Executive Officer, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said, “The fragmented nature of our Dorset heathlands puts immense pressure on the rare wildlife that relies on it. We, along with many other wildlife charities, have spent decades protecting the remaining heathlands in Dorset and people really enjoy visiting them.  But we really need to work hard to create more, bigger, and better joined-up sites, new nature recovery networks. And places like Wareham Forest are crucial pieces in the jigsaw. FE has a huge role to play in restoring nature, but fundamentally change what is currently a very damaging direction.” 

Jenny Hawley, Plantlife’s Policy Manager, said: “The Wareham Forest fire is both a disaster and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Rare at a global scale, Britain is home to a fifth of the world’s remaining lowland heathland. The unique character of Dorset’s once-vast heathlands and their rare and beautiful wildlife, such as pale dog-violet and yellow centaury, smooth snake and nightjar, could emerge from the blackened earth like a Phoenix from the flames.  With the combined experience of the nation’s conservation organisations for birds, butterflies, reptiles, and wild plants, in partnership with Forestry England, restoration at Wareham Forest could act as a shining example of a nuanced approach to regenerating magnificent wildlife-rich landscapes open to all.  It could be very exciting indeed.  We have to ask ourselves – is this really the best site for a conifer plantation?” 

Dante Munns for RSPB added, “We’re keen to help FE redefine its vision and direction on these precious heathland sites. We have the knowledge and the practical experience of managing large open areas of heathland. We stand ready to help; we just need them to talk with us.” 

Last Updated: Thursday 11 February 2021

Tagged with: Topic: England Topic: Heathland Topic: Conservation Topic: Forestry Topic: Green issues Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Science Topic: South West