Last week I attended a workshop organised by Defra designed to feed into the work of the Independent Forestry Panel that is charged with reviewing the future for England’s trees, woods and forests. The subject was the cultural and social issues around forests and woodlands in England. Around 25 people attended, by invitation only, many of whom were academics with historical and social interests in forestry, woodlands and trees.

Kathryn Packer from the Defra Secretariat of the Independent Forestry Panel (IFP) outlined future work for the IFP. The 42,000 responses, many of which had come through 38degrees, are apparently still being analysed. A national stakeholder event is being planned by the panel and in the New Year, the IFP will be calling for Hearings from individuals/groups with particular experiences. Other news from the IFP is that they have commissioned Forest Research to conduct research exploring issues of access & recreation, international comparisons, models for community engagement, and economic issues.

There were a number of interesting presentations under different themes, including the myths and truths of history of the forests; cultural significance of trees and woodlands; accounting for change; memory, meaning and community; and, doing things differently – international comparisons.

The most interesting, yet challenging issue to emerge for me, centred around a question about the importance or even relevance of trees and forests in Britain today. One opinion expressed was that had the disposal for the public forest estate been instead about the selling of the BBC or the NHS, then the response would have been even greater that it was for the selling of the forests. Certainly in the current economic climate it seems logical to assume that the man or woman on the street would, when questioned, be unlikely to rate trees, woodlands and forests to be a major and critical factor in their lives, and therefore unworthy of top political consideration. However, clearly when the threat of our forests being sold was real, the British public responded with unprecedented interest. One speaker from a think-tank created rather a weak and circular argument, suggesting that trees and woodlands were relatively unimportant, then mentioned that when she had tweeted that she was attending the meeting it had attracted a record response from her followers! There is something curious and perhaps still little understood about the British public’s deeply felt, if perhaps recessive, interest and passion for our forests.

The biggest question, despite all the soul-searching, public consultation, expert submissions, social media twitterings and so on, is whether Government actually wants to listen to the deliberations of the Independent Forestry Panel? Have they the stomach for a continued fight about the sale of our forests, or might they hope that the question will fade quietly away? I am more concerned about the possible impact of changes in forestry policy, rather than on any potential sales of the public forest estate, particularly those affecting private woodland owners who remain little understood and often maligned by the public. How too will the Forestry Commission emerge – will they survive in their present form or ultimately face some form of merger with the environmental interests of Government; emerging as a new wildlife and forestry service?

Read more about the Our Forests ginger group, and more posts on this subject.

Gabriel Hemery

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