What does the future hold for our beloved woodland?

Earlier this year a panel was launched to advise on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England. A report is now due to be submitted to this panel by Dr Paul Warde, environmental historian at the University of East Anglia. REBECCA GOUGH spoke to him about our love affair with trees.

Millions of people will have grown up with a favourite or memorable tree – whether a protruding branch became home to a swing in the garden, or a wooded spot was transformed as a place to build an exciting 'den'.

And it seems this affection for our woodland has not diminished, following a government proposal earlier this year to sell off a large swathe of public forest, including Thetford Forest and Bacton Wood.


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In just a few weeks the government was overwhelmed with objections from the public and scrapped an ongoing consultation early. In its place, environment secretary Caroline Spelman set up a panel of advisors, chaired by the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, which will report back to the government next year.

Last week, Dr Paul Warde, environmental historian at the University of East Anglia (UEA), chaired a debate between historians and other humanities scholars, those involved in landscape management and policy, geographers, civil servants, NGO representatives and campaigners, following which a report will be submitted to the panel.

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This, he hopes, will take into account the historic relevance of trees and woodland, as well as the way they could be managed in the future.

'The work of the panel and the debate over the future of our woodlands has clearly touched a national nerve,' Dr Warde said.

'Woodlands and trees are perceived as a central part of our heritage, linking together generations and connecting the past with our aspirations for the future.

'It's essential that those who have a long-term view of how we live with our woodlands make a full contribution to the debate.

'The panel will play a central role in shaping policy and any forest policy will have an impact for many decades to come.' Dr Warde believes an attachment to woodland can be traced as far back as the Norman Conquest, in 1066, when forests were used by the King and nobles for hunting. This, he said, caused some objection, even then, from people who felt a natural affinity to the land and their right to use it freely.

'Along with agricultural land, people feel these are somehow public property and people should have access to it,' he said. 'They feel it's unjust they should be kept away from those things.'

The public forest estate makes up 18pc of all woods and forests and 2pc of the total land in England.

It delivers a wide range of important public benefits, which the government has said would be protected under any sale, such as supporting biodiversity, storing carbon, supplying timber and energy and providing access to green space for recreation and employment opportunities.

However, campaigners fear they will lose access, continuity of timber supply and environmental protection if ownership is moved out of public hands.

In addition, an annual summary of key forestry statistics released last week by the Forestry Commission confirmed that the UK remains one of the least wooded countries, with just 13pc forest cover compared to 44pc in the rest of Europe. Figures released by the Forestry Commission in June, also show the rate of woodland creation in the UK fell from more than 18,000ha of new planting per year just 10 years ago, to less than half that figure in the most recent planting season.

Overall, woodland area has increased from 2,757ha in 2010 to 3,078ha in 2011. However, the commission said changes in the size threshold for recording woods account for the majority of this, meaning that this is paper-based rather than an actual increase.

Much of our love of woodland and forestry can often be traced back to affection for one specific tree, according to Dr Warde, who said a preoccupation with protecting woodland was a relatively recent issue. 'Trees have always been significant to people,' he said. 'They often value very particular species, oaks for example, but often these have come about because they've been managed in the past.

'If we love and value trees we have to look at the world which precedes them.

'I think opening up these sorts of questions can be important in developing a policy that integrates these things. There are a lot of ways of doing this and I'm sure a lot of wood owners say they manage their land very effectively, but others don't manage it at all. It's at the discretion of the private owner whether it's accessible as well, so if there are individual or health benefits, we need to try to explain those benefits for people to open them up.'

Dr Warde, however, is undecided on whether a sale would be to the detriment of England's woodland, but stressed management and skilled workers were key.

He added: 'I think it's important to consult and the report is important to open up the discussion about what's important to us and to manage woodland in a more integrated way.

'It's not because the forests are in a disastrous state, but it's a question of progressing a discussion.

'Perhaps the forests should be a mix of public and private ownership and maybe some should be run by local authorities or community groups. It's about getting the right mix which works most effectively and resolves people's needs.

'Trees and woodlands affect every part of people's lives, so it becomes a question of interacting with the landscape.

'I think though that even if they come out with quite a sophisticated report people will just concentrate on whether it's in the public or private ownership.'

rebecca.gough@archant.co.uk

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