The debate concerning the public forest estate disposal in England seems to be focussing currently on the provision of public benefits and their possible demise in the hands of the private sector. But what do we actually know about the private woodland owner? Looking beyond the media hype about the proverbial forest gate being shut and locked: who are the owners in the private sector, what are their motivations and, if they are given an opportunity to buy the forests that are currently in public ownership, will the woodlands become more private?
Woodland owner typologies
According to a recent research project that attempted to classify private woodland owners in specific regions of England, relatively little is known about private woodland owners and their willingness or ability to deliver public benefits. The study conducted a postal survey of 600 private woodland owners and interviewed a further 30 owners to assess their willingness and ability to deliver public goods. The research qualified six types of private woodland owner: (1) Individualists; (2) Multi-functional owners; (3) Private consumers; (4) Conservationists; (5) Investors, and; (6) Amenity Owners. However, I believe that this approach excluded major ownership categories such as charities or farmers, and it is important to note that its findings were specific to certain regions.
A meta-analysis conducted by Lawrence et al. (2010) provides a wealth of information, too much to do full justice to here but I recommend that if you have an interest in learning more, you should take a look at the report. In short, it reviews most of the previously published papers on landowner attitudes, finding a clear pattern among the studies that provided evidence on owners’ reasons for owning and planting woodland. Landscape and conservation were ranked highest, with shooting often high, while production of timber and profit came low in the list of priorities, and provision of public recreation even lower.
Private ownership and public access
Given that we know relatively little about private woodland owner motivations and interests in permitting access, there seem to be widespread assumptions that access is limited. However, a questionnaire conducted with 83 woodland owners by Church et al. (2005) found that 80% of the respondents owned woodlands that included public rights of way. In addition to statutory access, two-thirds of the respondents provided permissive access rights to parts of their woods for specific activities. Nearly 50% of respondents claimed that they permitted access on foot to forest tracks, while approximately 30% allowed walkers to roam throughout their woodlands.
Contrary to the prevailing views expressed by commentators on the various campaign websites at present I believe that the evidence, where it exists, suggests that private woodland owners are less interested in commercial forestry and probably more concerned about wildlife and landscape than is generally perceived. Owners may be more willing to provide public access, while also being more constrained by existing access legislation, than is generally appreciated. Creating categories or typologies for woodland owners is extremely complex and generalisations are spurious at best. For example, we should recognise that a charity may focus on sustainable timber production and a private woodland owner may delight in providing open public access. Overall the private woodland owner cannot and should not be tarred with the same brush. Also, remember that 82% of the woodlands in England that we cherish for a variety of reasons, are already in the hands of private owners.
* Church, A., Ravenscroft, N., and Rogers, G. (2005). Woodland Owners’ Attitudes to Public Access Provision in South-East England. Forestry Commission Information Note. FCIN074.
* Lawrence A., N. Dandy and J. Urquhart (2010) Landowner attitudes to woodland creation and management in the UK. Forest Research, Alice Holt, Farnham.
* Urquhart, J., Courtney, P., and Slee B. (2009). Private Ownership and Public Good Provision in English Woodlands. Small-Scale Forestry. Volume 9, Number 1, 1-20, DOI: 10.1007/s11842-009-9098-y
* Public benefits from private forests and woodland in England: classifying private woodland owners.