Response to Our Forests and Jonathon Porritt’s comments

Posted on 16th January 2012

Response to Our Forests and Jonathon Porritt’s comments about The Wildlife Trusts and the Public Forest Estate (11 January 2012)
Monday 16th January 2012

The campaign group Our Forests set out its ‘vision for England’s woods and forests’ in January 2012. Prior to this, it submitted a Freedom of Information request to Government, The Wildlife Trusts and other NGOs regarding the proposed sale of the Public Forest Estate in July. Below is our response to their statements published on 11 January.

On what Our Forests call the ‘shopping list’

We believe it is important to be in dialogue with the Government about issues that could have a profound impact on achieving our charitable objectives and our vision of A Living Landscape. Open and frank dialogue does not mean that we are in agreement with what a government suggests and we would never engage in deal-making that would go against the interests of nature or the people who love it.

From a very early stage The Wildlife Trusts made it clear to Government that there should be a proper long-term strategy for the Public Forest Estate. Our forests are an important element of what needs to become a resilient ecological network across England, whether they are in public, private or voluntary sector ownership. Land in public ownership offers the Government a key opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to securing nature’s recovery – as sought in the 2010 Lawton Review – a point we have consistently made.

Our vision of A Living Landscape is a recovery plan for nature which involves enlarging, improving, creating and joining up wildlife-rich areas of land to create a connected ecological network across the UK. To fulfil this vision, we are working to secure the best use and management of land, including forests and woodlands, for the benefit of people and wildlife. We achieve this through advice and partnership, as well as through managing land directly. In considering the role of the Public Forest Estate, the importance of woodlands and forests for wildlife and for people is therefore our starting point, and a key part of our agenda for nature’s recovery and restoration.

The Forestry Commission owns a substantial amount of land which is of high value for wildlife – a tremendous national asset that could contribute significantly to England’s ecological network. Once we were aware the government might dispose of the Public Forestry Estate we quickly identified FC sites that we consider to be particularly important for achieving our vision and communicated this to Defra. We obviously wanted to be sure that any disposals would result in sympathetic management and opportunities for restoration would not be missed.

On the ‘betrayal of our members’

Our engagement in this debate has been motivated by our passionate desire to protect nature and secure the recovery of wildlife in England where so much has been lost in the past. It is what our members would expect us to do.

Each local Wildlife Trust listens to its members and the wider community in its area and understands the complexity and importance of the forestry debate. Each has a strong track record of supporting local people working to protect and manage important wildlife-rich sites. Part of this is the long history of local communities campaigning to protect woodlands from loss and damage and today there are large numbers of ‘Friends’ groups working with Wildlife Trusts, local authorities and others in the management and promotion of woodlands as valued community assets.

The sale of FC land is not new. It has been selling land for some years now and Trusts have worked extremely hard to ensure that such sales did not lead to wildlife damage. Since the 1960s, Trusts have raised funds to purchase the land if they felt that these areas would otherwise be at risk of destruction. In the run up to the publication of the Government’s consultation (Future of the Public Forest Estate), we knew they were proposing to dispose of FC land. But it was not clear how this would happen or even whether some might be divested to voluntary organisations.
On sitting on the independent panel
The Independent Panel on Forestry was established by the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, in March 2011, to advise government on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England. The Wildlife Trusts welcomed its formation and said at that time:

“This gives us a breathing space for proper consideration of the long-term future of England’s woodlands, which matter so much to us all. In our view this Panel comes at a pivotal time for our natural environment. We will do everything we can to ensure that the discussion and outcome reflects our vision for A Living Landscape and enshrines the thinking about nature’s recovery in the recent Making Space for Nature Review which is soon to be taken forward in a Natural Environment White Paper.”

The Panel is chaired by the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, and members have wide experience, knowledge and interests in the economic, social and environmental aspects of forestry and woodlands. Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, sits on the Panel in a personal capacity. It will publish its final report in the spring.

On Our Forests plans to plant one billion trees in England

The Wildlife Trusts believe woodland expansion should be considered at a landscape-scale and in all cases a ‘right tree in the right place’ mentality should be adopted. The Wildlife Trusts want to see native woodlands protected, restored and reconnected at a landscape-scale as part of a robust and comprehensive ecological network across the country. This means buffering, extending and reconnecting existing sites as well as creating new woodland, in appropriate locations. It’s not always necessary to plant trees to achieve this and natural woodland regeneration has an important role to play.