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.

Read more posts about the public sell-off
Read more posts about the public sell-off

Gabriel Hemery

Further reading

* 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.


  1. I read with interest your piece on private woodland owners and notice that you make some comments about our own research, part of which involved developing a typology of private woodland owners in England.

    While we appreciate your interest in our work, I would like to clarify a couple of points so that our study can be representated accurately. You state that you believe the study fails to include major ownership groups such as charities and farmers. Although you are correct that the study did not specifically include charities and farmers as discrete groups in this study, I would like to clarify this as follows:

    1. We specifically did not include charities as we were purely looking at private individuals who owned woodland – indeed you also distinguish between charities and private woodland owners in the summary section of your article.

    2. We did not separate farmers out as a discrete category in the typology because we wanted to understand owner attitudes regardless of their agricultural affiliation. However, about a third of the woodland in our study was owned by farmers and our study showed that farmers were present across all the identified owner groups, showing them to be a hetereogenous group. Thus, we argue that limiting classifications of woodland owners to farming and non-farming is limiting and redundant and does not get at the more nuanced attitudes that owners may have towards the provision of public benefits in their woodlands.

    For further details on this study, please see our recent paper published in Forest Policy and Economics this year.
    Urquhart, J. & Courtney, P. (2011), ‘Seeing the owner behind the trees: A typology of small-scale private woodland owners in England’, Forest Policy and Economics, 13:7, 535-544.

    I hope that gives a little further detail for the rationale behind our approach. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    1. Author

      Thank you for a very helpful input and your insightful comments Julie. I trust that you don’t feel I inaccurately summarised your work but perhaps that some clarifications were needed; as I very much agree with your two points. For readers that may be interested in the publication Julie referred to, although not yet published. here is a link to it (which I imagine will include a link to the article when published).

  2. My wife and I have bought one of the lots in Knelle Wood, so I’ve read this discussion with interest. Knelle is indeed ancient deciduous woodland, but the 69 acres being sold is only a third of the whole wood, which even before Clegg’s sale was in the hands of at least 3 private owners. There is a public footpath right through the wood, next to a wide ride recently broadened to encourage butterflies, etc. Knelle basically all consists of several species of dense coppice of varying age, with oak standards and numerous ponds. The lots for sale are of irregular size and shape, separated by existing paths and rides. Clegg’s particulars include what can and cannot be legally done with the lots. We are lifelong conservationists and intend to manage our wood primarily for wildlife, but one must remember that such woods would once have been full of human activity, creating far more biodiversity than there is at present in the closed-canopy wood that has resulted from decades of abandonment. Finally, on some other websites I’ve been surprised at the cynical tone of some respondents – trust nobody (least of all, private buyers), etc. Not everyone is motivated by greed and a disregard for people and wildlife.

    1. Author

      Thanks for taking the time to write Patrick. I’m delighted to hear that you are a proud woodland owner – and rightly so. There must surely be no greater satisfaction then taking on the care of a woodland for future generations, and enjoying it for yourselves while it’s under your care.
      The private woodland owner was much maligned in the public forest estate disposal debate, which perhaps was not surprising given the extent of misinformation. I am sure that there is more that Government can do to help ensure the protection of the environment and the continued provision of habitat and biodiversity conservation. We should also celebrate the role of the private woodland in helping connecting the public to woodlands in their local environment.
      In terms of the biodiversity of your own woodland, I trust that you have a long-term management plan in place. One of the most important aspects for biodiversity will be managing to allow the light into the woodland. Many people falsely believe that non-intervention is best for wildlife but this is often not the case. At the risk of plugging an initiative that I’m involved in, you may be interested in the myForest Service, which offers a suite of tools for the woodland owner to help them map and manage their woodland, and if of interest to market local timber products too.

  3. Hi Gabriel

    Someone once remarked to me that statistics are like a bikini, what they show is interesting but what they hide is fascinating. What I find fascinating is that when presented with some statistics:

    “Nearly 50% of respondents claimed that they permitted access on foot to forest tracks, while approximately 30% allowed walkers to roam throughout their woodlands.”

    you draw the conclusion that

    “Owners may be more willing to provide public access, while also being more constrained by existing access legislation, than is generally appreciated.”

    The public forest estate allow 100% on both those measures, and this evidence clearly justifies fears over reduced access.

    Also, in the conclusion I quote you stated “more constrained by existing access legislation”, more than what/who??

    Regards, Joanna

    1. Author

      Hi Joanna
      Yes – they are interesting statistics and, it should be recognised from just one regional study. One small correction: the FC estate in England is not 100% open public access as is widely perceived, as there are restrictions on some sites. These are mostly on their leasehold sites. This is a relatively small percentage.
      I was attempting to make the point that many woodlands contain public rights of way and that this probably satisfies some people’s needs in wanting access within woodland, and perhaps this is forgotten when we discuss access in the context of the PFE sale. This is different of course to unrestrained and open public access but then, how I wonder many people range from the woodland path in any case?

  4. I am struck by a number of aspects of your thoughts about the opposition to private ownership and without a doubt I see things in a very different way so I will try and set out some of the responses it generates.
    • Firstly there is not total opposition to private ownership – but there is to private ownership of what is publicly owned land.
    • From my perspective the edifice of privately owned small woodlands is a contributing factor to woodland decline and a barrier to rebuilding sustainable forest ecosystems as well as productive forest. That is not to say there are good woods that are privately owned and providing valuable work or woodland products and I do want to see better markets for those.
    • I find from reading your thoughts and some of the background material you refer to, as well as what I see when I go round the countryside that it reinforces my opposition to private ownership of public land. I think the whole state of forestry and biodiversity in this country is a mess but I think sales will make matters worse.
    • Can I ask what have you got against publicly owned woodland either directly or indirectly? If the government is about to offer incentives for private woodland owners then the prices will probably go up, so will fragmentation and woodland access will only truly be available to the wealthy. Conservation groups will be forced to pay more to buy up land so the people who will be subsidising foresters will be having to pay out more to acquire the same land!
    • There is more expertise, accountability and scale of operation in a publicly owned or conservation oriented organisation like the FC, or the Woodland Trust which manages for sustainability than there ever would be in the fragmented private sector. They would also produce public benefits rather than just private benefits.
    • Is there evidence that private woodland ownership is better than public woodland ownership? What are the measures used?
    • Even DEFRA acknowledges that much of our wildlife habitats has been lost to attrition, and much of that has been illegal or through a Planning System that is not fit for purpose. You will not have figures for that but it happens all the time.
    • Biodiversity does not seem to feature in your thinking and yet this is a major cause of concern. I learned with the Woodland Trust some years ago that many of the staff came from the Forestry Commission. They knew about trees but not bio-diverse eco systems. Things may have changed but I have a question in my mind that the foresters mindset is still prevailing. Jim Paice in the House of Lords in December said “We have to persuade the general public that a tree is just a very aged plant that, like any other plant, comes to the end of its life. That is the point at which you harvest it, hopefully use it sustainably, and replace it.”.
    One thing we lack in this country is old trees. They should be making a huge biodiversity contribution but they virtually do not exist.
    • I would argue that our fragmented woodlands under fragmented private ownership will not recreate woodland systems that are large enough and well run enough to enable sustainable ecological systems. However, if woodlands are bought or created and managed by forest investors or “recreational service providers” then profit will become the sole imperative with all its horrible consequences.
    • Nothing is mentioned in your piece about the quality of or lack of standards in woodland management in the private sector. I doubt if anyone knows and yet ancient woodland is now such a scarce and vital resource.
    • The majority of woodlands (we do not have forests) are small (Small Woods Association says 75% are between 0.1 and 2 Hectares.) What we have left is fragmented unsustainable forest biodiversity communities that are being constantly degraded. Even the small woodlands left are being further fragmented including ancient woodland see Knelle Woods on the John Clegg website. 69 acres of claimed ancient woodland being sold in 9 lots.
    • Private ownership was a major reason why we have so little woodland. How can you be so defensive of private ownership and by inference unsupportive of publicly owned woodland when it has been a major factor in woodland cover reduced to 9%?
    • The public benefits of the Forestry Commission I would argue are significant and cost almost nothing. The nation, including those like me that despair of the damage to biodiversity at least see an accountable organisation whose general direction, skills, remit and scale of operation and benign management we value. I do not doubt we could and should expect better.
    • I believe that government policy direction will result in even greater fragmentation of what is left of our ancient woodlands.
    • Government policy will result in investment subsidised by taxpayers that will be intended to produce income for the treasury to spend but no public or biodiversity benefits. Conservation groups who really do believe in sustainable woodland management will be squeezed out even more as the taxpayer helps corporate investors to create tree factories and large profits for a few.

    1. Author

      You make some good and interesting points. I think that you have misinterpreted my views. I have set out to provide a balanced and moderate discussion of the key areas in these discussions. I admit that I have not clearly laid out my views in the form of a position statement, instead preferring to stimulate informed discussion.
      I do have real concerns about the provision of public benefits from woodlands with significant social and environmental values and would like to see these made exempt from sale.
      As you have probably picked up, I am being interviewed for the BBC Newsnight debate to be broadcast tonight. Although I am unlikely to get more than 30 seconds of air time, I hope that I may be able to make my personal thoughts clear. I intend to post something about this later today or tomorrow in anycase.
      Thanks again for taking the trouble to comment.

      1. I see your 30 secs got pulled – interesting?? Back to our exchanges! One of the things you and the Woodland Trust do is qualify what should not be sold by referring essentially just to ancient woodland. That may be pragmatic but I happen to think we should retain all the public estate in benign management and ownsership unless there is an exceptional reason for disposing of it. We need landscape scale regeneration for biodiversity and for that we need land, and for that land to be restored by people who know what they are doing – not disposed of to people who only want to accumulate “things” and shooting rights etc. The scale of biodiversity destruction in this country and even the low level of woodland means that we are in desperate need of varied habitats. While yes there are some good landowners, to hand over more land to timewasters and destroyers is not my idea of progressive eco system restoration. That I feel will be what happens to most of the land that is disposed of. I have no confidence that DEFRA has a clue about what it is doing, beyond perhaps being forced to listen because of the scale of the objections already going on. This is Treasury driven to raise money so that politicians can spend on pet projects and has nothing to do with environmental restoration. If they want to sell off our national land then I think we should sell off Buckingham Palace and all the rest and the Palace of Westminster etc, I will bet no government minister will want to talk about that!

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