THE closest I’ve yet got to Kielder Forest is my sister once spent a week there with the Brownies. But I’m so very connected.
The future of my Forest of Dean home, hundreds of miles away, and all other public forests in England, is inextricably linked to the spectre of who makes a killing out of Kielder.
The Government might be hoping that most of us misconceive Kielder as a vast, brooding monoculture of conifers –a spruce mega-farm, the kind of softwood necropolis that would make Chris Packham and the Woodland Trust cry real native tears; and so it would be out of sight and out of mind, ripe for hiving off to a corporation with the financially attractive option of chipping the lot for biofuel.
The panel has already visited the troublesome Forest of Dean, now least likely to be flogged off due to a complex web of statutory laws and customary privileges, as well as a vigilant population of 50,000-plus people determined to hang on to their birthrights. The panel was obliged to concede Dean Foresters are overwhelmingly opposed to their home being “disposed of”.
On Monday, they trek to Hexham, Northumbria – the nearest town to Kielder and also-threatened Chopwell, to meet with forest “stakeholders”. We hope and trust they’ll get the same message from the folk of these forests.
Kielder Forest is 250 square miles of near wilderness, including the country’s largest reservoir, three visitor centres and a village of 200 souls. But considering its minute population, Kielder village carried disproportionate weight in the postbag of Caroline Spelman.
Early in February, Kielder villagers started showering the environment secretary with coins. They each contributed 30p to pay for the upkeep of the entire public forest estate – their individual share of the £15million, £60 per hectare, annual operating costs of the Forestry Commission in England.
The Carry On Kielder 30p Campaign is carrying on. Now just imagine the delight on Whitehall’s face if we all carried on that way, raiding our penny jars to send in our 30p shares!
It’s ironic the people of this most beleaguered wooded land mass should be digging into their pockets. Kielder is far from a taxpayers’ burden – the £10 million annual profit has been used to subsidise the rest of the public forest estate. A crucial limb would be amputated if the Government was to put it on the market
Beyond trees, Kielder has the lowest light pollution of England so it hosts the best stargazing camps, for motorists it offers the longest forest drive, there are some testing routes for mountain bikers, and there’s also plenty on for boaters, anglers and climbers. A quarter of the forest is open space, with the largest area of blanket bog in the country. Kielder is the last English stronghold of the red squirrel, ospreys are breeding there for the first time in 200 years, and it’s also a haven for bats.
Europe’s largest manmade forest has become such a beacon of natural health thanks to the stewardship of the Forestry Commission and foresters – many former miners and shipbuilders came to live and work in Kielder from the 1930s on. Was part of the rationale for awarding Kielder ‘yellow’ status – sold to a megabucks chainsaw-wielder – that its population would be too small to put up a fight? Did Government plotters think that by giving the Forest of Dean blue “heritage” status, we would agree to a charity coup d’etat and turn our backs on other forests? Perhaps they wrongly thought we were myopic nimbys who can’t see further than the nearest clump.
At a recent event to review our campaign in the Forest of Dean, Kielder was frequently on the radar. Shadow Leader of the House of Lords Baroness Jan Royall told us: “There’s still much to fight for. It is so important to keep up the pressure. While privatisation of our Forest might be off the agenda we’ve got to fight for the remainder of the public forest estate. For selfish reasons, in order for our Forest to flourish, we need to be part of a bigger unit. But also because it’s morally right.”
Forest of Dean District Council recently appointed a Forest champion to fight against privatisation. Andrew Gardiner, who took a delegation to Westminster in January, said: “My real concern is the situation with regard to the Forestry Commission. If they reduce the number of employees considerably, the whole objective of what we’re trying to achieve could fall down from stealth. The Forestry Commission and the Forest of Dean should be treated as one entity – if one falls down, the other will automatically follow.”
His fellow councillor Graham Morgan added: “What they’re doing is withering it on the vine and doing it by stealth.” Anyone involved with this national campaign realises this – but we haven’t managed to halt this process. And forestry workers are gagged from speaking about the situation.
Defra lawyers have advised ministers that current law allows the Government to sell 15% of public forests per year. So that could be 60% in a four-year term. Sales were postponed, but Caroline Spelman has publicly surmised that the moratorium will be lifted once the panel has reported next April. Labour is seeking a legal opinion on whether this 15% figure can be challenged – it appears to come from a treasury document rather than any act of parliament.
Jonathon Porritt, whose seven-headed colossus Our Forests is keeping a close eye on the panel and their dalliances down the corridors of power, warns: “This isn’t a Government that has backed off from its proposals and everything we hear indicates that all they’ve done is just withdrawn for the time being and see if they can’t get a better set of circumstances in place to do pretty much what they wanted to do anyway. I really don’t think there’s been any serious change of heart whatsoever.”
Oliver Letwin, the Government’s policy minister, told Porritt the Government failure to implement the forests disposal plan was down to a “handling issue… (meaning) you were still 100 per cent right but you just handled it badly.”
United we must stand for Kielder and against the Forestry Commission being stealthily choked – or fragmented we shall fall.
Letters should be going out to newspapers, MPs, and most particularly to the panel – the panel could take a stand to halt the cuts when it makes its interim report this autumn. The Government-appointed VIPs have generously agreed to listen to the general public (that’s us) until July 31. So far, only the Ramblers’ Association has said ‘stop’. The rest of the panel members rather ominously seem to be passively accepting that the fabric which holds our woodland together is being stretched, unthreaded and torn before their eyes. Isn’t this cart before horse logic compromising, if not pre-empting, the panel’s “robustly independent” decision-making process on the Forestry Commission’s future role?
For those who don’t want to write letters – or have exhausted their literacy prowess – a quick note with your 30p to Caroline Spelman should suffice. Explain you want to pay your share to allow the Forestry Commission to properly manage Kielder and the rest of our public forests. Here’s the address: Secretary of State, Defra, Nobel House,17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR. Make sure you get a receipt.
Owen Adams… Freelance writer who once wrote about music for the Guardian and lots of irrelevant things such as weird monuments, until he got sidetracked when thieves tried to steal his beloved forest… http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/owenadams?INTCMP=SRCH http://travel.uk.msn.com/inspiration/photos.aspx?cp-documentid=152496056