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Our Forests press statement re: Independent Panel on Forestry Progress Report

December 8, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Our Forests

Today (8th December 2011) the Government-appointed Independent Panel on Forestry published its interim ‘Progress Report’ on its deliberations, since being appointed in March following the Government’s forced U-turn on its plans to dispose of England’s public woods and forests.

Jonathon Porritt of Our Forests said,

“It’s good to see the Panel acknowledge openly what was obvious to anyone who looked at the figures – the Forestry Commission delivers very good value for money for all the public benefits it provides from the woods and forests of the public forest estate.

Defra’s own internal impacts study of the proposed disposal made that clear, but that fact didn’t suit the political agenda of the Government. This welcome acknowledgement by the Panel confirms it was politics not economics that drove the disposal proposal – there isn’t and never was a convincing financial case for disposing of our public woods and forests. Their benefits far outweigh their costs.

As an ‘interim report’, the Panel doesn’t put forward any concrete recommendations, but Our Forests is concerned at the apparent havering over the future role of the Forestry Commission.  The majority of people who responded to the Panel and the hundreds of thousands more who forced the Government to halt its plans in the first place, see the Public Forest Estate and the Forestry Commission as indivisible.  As far as most people are concerned, the Forestry Commission is part of ‘Big Society’ – accountable to local people, not the distant, detached ‘Quango’ ministers sought to caricature it as.

One immediate action that the Government must take in response to its own Panel’s report is to state unequivocally that no disposal of any public woodland will proceed until a final forward plan for the Public Forest Estate has been set out and accepted by the public.”

Our Forests is producing its own future Vision and long-term strategy for our public woods and forests, as well as looking beyond those. This will be published shortly and made available for people’s input.

Gabriel Hemery

Read the press release on the Our Forests resources page

Read more about Our Forests

The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees

November 27, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

State of the UK's Forests Woods and Trees report
State of the UK's Forests Woods and Trees report

State of the UK's Forests Woods and Trees report. Click to download from the Woodland Trust website

Tommorow a major report will be released: The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees: Perspectives from the forestry and woodland sector. It marks the International Year of Forests in 2011. The report was featured in the Independent Newspaper today.

The State of the UK’s Forests, Woods and Trees report was led by the Woodland Trust and written in collaboration with 19 other organisations across the forestry sector, including my own involvement on behalf of the Sylva Foundation. I wrote two perspective pieces:

  • Reviving a wood culture in the UK
  • Trees fit for the future

The report presents important evidence concerning the UK’s tree and forest resources. The contributing organisations hold, and indeed presented during the drafting of the report, many diverse viewpoints. The lead authors Sian Atkinson and Mike Townsend of the Woodland Trust did an excellent job in bringing these together and providing balanced viewpoints, explaining any differences in opinion where evident. It was heartening in fact to find that there was so much in common in the viewpoints of these 19 leading organisations, and the findings are an important contribution to the discussions still ongoing regarding the future of the Public Forest Estate in England (read more).

The report consists of six chapters, making the following key points:

1.    Forest Cover in the UK

  • The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with 13 per cent woodland cover compared to around 37 per cent for European Union countries, and global forest cover of around 30 per cent.
  • This has, however, increased from a low point of around 5 per cent a century ago. The majority of UK woodland is therefore relatively recent plantation. Ancient woodland covers 2.3 per cent of land area.
  • Trees outside woodland are an important element of the UK’s landscape, with an estimated 123 million in Britain. The UK is particularly rich in ancient and veteran trees.
  • Government is committed to maintaining total forest cover in the UK under international agreements. Recording forest loss is an issue: while new planting is accounted for in statistics, there is no comprehensive monitoring of forest loss, for example to development.

2.    Governance

  • Almost 30 per cent of UK woodland is managed  by the state bodies, Forestry Commission in Britain and Forest Service Northern Ireland. The majority of the remainder is owned by individuals or businesses.
  • Very few communities directly own or manage woodland, compared to some other European countries, but the number is growing, especially in Scotland, and there is increasing pressure for the public to have a stake in the UK’s forests. Ownership may not always be the issue: people may simply want to know regulation is fit for purpose to enable forests to deliver everything we require from them and to feel they have a genuine part in decision-making.
  • Recent studies in England have shown a shift from farmers owning woods towards those interested in rural lifestyles. In 2000, 39 per cent of farms sold in Britain were bought by non-farmers.

3.    Productivity and sustainable forest management

  • The UK is the third largest net importer of forest products in the world, behind China and Japan. It currently imports most of its wood and wood products, and exports very little.
  • Production of softwood is likely to peak in the next five to ten years, as the forests planted in the 20th century mature, and then to decline again. There is potential to increase production of hardwoods, as many broadleaved woods are not currently managed for wood production, but there are barriers: many of these woods are small, ownership is fragmented, and supply chains are not well-developed. Wood fuel is the main potential product.
  • At the same time, demand for wood is likely to increase significantly in the UK in future, particularly for bio energy. This is seen as  both an opportunity, to stimulate growth in forestry and related industries, and a threat, with new sectors such as bio energy competing with traditional markets for wood fibre.
  • To make the most of the opportunity it is essential good standards of sustainable management are maintained. There may also be a need to address skills shortages within the sector.

4.    Biodiversity

  • Forests, woods and trees are important for biodiversity: around a quarter of priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan are associated with woodland habitats.
  • UK Government has international commitments on biodiversity, expressed through the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Biodiversity strategy is devolved, and following recent reviews at international level, country strategies are under review.
  • Targets to maintain, restore and protect priority woodland habitats are generally not being met. In some cases, baseline information and monitoring is inadequate to assess whether they are or not.
  • There are multiple challenges, from climate change and invasive species to changes in land use both within and outside woods. Monitoring shows changes in the ecological composition of woods that reflects this. Some species are increasing, but others show worrying declines.

5.    Ecosystem services

  • The concept of “ecosystem services” is increasingly gaining currency. It opens up avenues for placing value, including financial value, on the benefits provided by forests, woods and trees.
  • Examples include improving air and water quality, helping to manage flooding, carbon sequestration, reducing urban heat island effect, thus helping adaptation to climate change; provision of timber, fuel and non-wood products such as fungi, fruit or nuts; places for recreation that also improve health and wellbeing.
  • Ecosystem service benefits of forests, woods and trees are a strong rationale for increasing tree cover. The value of UK woodland for public access benefits alone is estimated to be £447 million a year, yet only 15 per cent of people have easy access to a wood of two hectares within 500m of home.

6.    Resilience

  • Forests, woods and trees face environmental change at an unprecedented scale. Challenges include climate change, increasing  pests and diseases, pollution, invasive species, inappropriate levels of grazing, and land-use change. There is clear evidence climate change is affecting aspects of the composition and function of woodland. Diseases such as Phytophthora ramorum and Acute Oak Decline are a serious threat to productivity and biodiversity of trees, woods and forests.
  • Predicting the effects of single driver of change is complex, but the problem is compounded by the fact that there are multiple drivers, and these also interact with one another. Yet because of the long timescales involved in tree and forest growth, we need to find the most appropriate action now to enable them to survive and continue to deliver maximum benefits in future.
  • It is broadly accepted that building resilience will require action within woods, and across whole landscapes, to reverse fragmentation, increase diversity, and reduce stresses.

Summary of the report

Much evidence exists, and some of the policy is in place to support what is needed: an expansion of the forest resource, protection and restoration of its most valuable natural assets, re-invigoration of the economic woodland and forest sector, delivery of environmental and social benefits, and delivery of resilient, functional landscapes. The biggest challenge is to drive this policy into practice.

The report points to a number of needs to achieve the above:

  • the need to recognise and enhance the diversity in form, function, and use of our woods.
  • the need for joined-up thinking with supportive government policies that embed forests, woods and trees and enable collaboration within the sector.
  • the need for public support and an awareness of the benefits of woodland and why its protection and expansion is essential. People’s connection with forests, exemplified by the strong emotional reaction to the threat of losing the public forest estate earlier in 2011 needs to be deepened to a real understanding of and support for forests, woods and trees as working landscapes and as crucial habitats for wildlife.

Download the report from the Woodland Trust website

Gabriel Hemery


Contributing organisations to the State of UK’s Forests, Woods & Trees: Perspectives from the forestry and woodland sector

  • Ancient Tree Forum
  • Bat Conservation Trust
  • Coed Cymru
  • Community Woodland Association
  • Confor
  • Campaign for National Parks
  • Country Land and Business Association
  • Forest Policy Group
  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • Institute of Chartered Foresters
  • National Forest
  • Reforesting Scotland
  • Royal Forestry Society
  • Scottish Wildlife Trust
  • Small Woods Association
  • Sylva Foundation
  • UKWAS
  • Wildlife Trusts
  • Woodland Trust

7000 responses to aborted public sell-off of England’s forests

June 20, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Analysis of responses to the public consultationOn 27 January 2011 the Forestry Commission England and Defra opened a consultation on the future of the public forest estate in England (read more). The consultation was suspended after only three weeks, on 17 February 2011.  In that short time, 7007 responses were received by members of the public.

Forest Research have now published an analysis of the findings.  Read more

Gabriel Hemery


Lawrence, A. and Jollands M. (2011) ‘The future of the Public Forest Estate in England’: analysis of responses to the curtailed Public Consultation January-February 2011. Final Report, May 2011. Forest Research, Farnham.

Forest essay winner announced

May 12, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Earlier this week The Independent newspaper published the winning essay about the future of forests in England.  This was an open competition with an attractive £5000 prize that was announced in February, just before the Government scrapped plans to sell England’s publicly-owned forests.  Read more.

About 150 essays of 1500-2000 words were submitted and the shortlisted entries considered by three judges: Tony Juniper, Oliver Rackham and Michael McCarthy.  Read the winning entry by Andy Byfield here.

Gabriel Hemery

Ten reasons why the forest sale failed

February 17, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

In principle there were some good ideas in what the Government sought to achieve by reviewing the ownership of England’s forests.  The Forestry Commission are a great public organisation and achieve fantastic results for a relatively small cost to the taxpayer, although we should recognise that there is also room for the private sector, in all its guises, to play a greater role in managing some forests in England.  I applaud the Government’s decision to halt the public consultation, in the face of overwhelming public pressure, which was announced earlier today.

So what went wrong?  I think there are 10 key reasons:

  1. There was no manifesto for the public forest sell-off
    It was in neither the Conservative’s or Liberal’s manifesto, and appeared from nowhere.
  2. The motives for the sell-off were not clear and changed through time
    Initially it was about money until it became apparent that it was not a cheap option, with the sell-off possibly costing more than the revenue earned.  The Government tried to suggest that the FC could not act as both regulator and commercial operator but this was a flawed and unattractive argument to the public.
  3. Big Society confusion
    Government suggested that ideologically the forests should not be owned by the state.  The public responded “we already own it, and we want the FC to carry on managing it”.  The public questioned “What is Big Society anyway?”.
  4. Charities
    Suggestions that woodlands may be taken on by NGOs such as the Woodland Trust, RSPB or the National Trust fell down when these and others said “we can’t afford to take these on and we are not sure we want to. Perhaps they were not consulted fully?
  5. Confusion and embarrassment over the 40,000 hectare sell-off
    The public were always confused by the five year commitment to dispose of 15% of state-owned forests, as this was allowed by existing law, and that this was a different matter to the sale of the remaining 85% of forests.  The fact that this was going on at the same time muddied the waters.  Ministers made the mistake of criticising the former Government for selling forests without adequate protective measures until it became clear that the 15% disposals were being made on the same basis.
  6. Lack of support within Government
    Members of Parliament across the country were angry at the lack of communication and support from Defra, seemingly being as surprised as the public about the proposals, and faced with an unprecedented public mailbag.
  7. Failure to learn from recent history and evidence
    Twice in living memory former Government’s have attempted to make major changes to forest ownership; both times without success.  A public consultation undertaken at the end of the last Government showed very strong support for the Forestry Commission.
  8. Public Bodies Bill
    The bill’s clauses relating to forestry were to give Government power to act without future consultation with parliament.  Conducting a public consultation concurrently with this major proposed reform only added to the distrust of Government’s future motives.
  9. Reputation
    The proposals clashed fundamentally with (1) the unfortunate timing of the proposals with the status of 2011 as United Nation’s Year of the Forest, (2) the connotations of the Conservative’s use of a tree as an emblem, and (3) the Government’s self-pronouncement as the greenest government.
  10. The socially-networked society
    Campaigners were able to organise reaction, keep each other informed and influence debate as never before thanks to the internet including campaigning websites, Facebook and Twitter.

Looking forward I hope that lessons are learnt and the positive opportunities taken forward. If nothing else I have welcomed the spotlight on forestry as an opportunity to raise public understanding and consciousness about the importance of trees and forests in modern society.

Gabriel Hemery

Deutsche Welle Radio interview

February 17, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Bernwood ForestI was interviewed last month for the Living Planet programme on German international radio Deutsche Welle, which was broadcast today.

The topic for the interview was the UK Government’s proposals, which were dropped in an announcement earlier today, to sell publicly owned forests in England.  See more posts about this.

I met the journalist at Bernwood Forest; one of the few woodlands in Oxfordshire that is owned by the Forestry Commission.  Bernwood Forest is home to the rare black hairstreak butterfly, which feeds on the flowers of blackthorn, and one of only 45 colonies in Britain.  Of course there were no butterflies in evidence during my January visit but I intend to return when the adults will be on the wing: this is only between the end of June and mid July each year.

Listen to the Living Planet programme on the Deutsche Welle website

or click on the play button below:

Gabriel Hemery

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