This is the second article in a series exploring the issues of heathland restoration by deforestation.
Click here to view the first article in the series: Heathland re-creation: it’s time to talk. By Friends of Thetford Forest
The Save Sandlings Forests campaign is co-ordinated by Clive Coles and Imogen Radford. It represents the views and opinions of various forest user groups and individuals who believe that our public forest estate should continue to be managed, as a national asset, by a properly resourced Forestry Commission. We are members of the national Forest Campaigns Network. [Inadvertantly left this paragraph out, sorry! Editor]
All over England woods and forests are being felled and not being replaced. This is in order to recreate heathland, a man-made landscape which was more widespread 100 years ago when the coverage of woodland had dipped to its lowest point. This deforestation is taking place without consulting or taking account of the wishes of local people, and without proper assessment of the value of the woodland being lost or of the success of the habitats ‘restored’.
Choices of which habitats and species have higher priorities are being made by conservationists who favour heathland over woodland, and implemented by conservation regulators and land owners/land managers who have bought into these choices. If they had their way there would be a faster and more drastic pace of deforestation.
We don’t have easy access to figures or joined up information on what is happening to our woodlands and forests. If the impact of the deforestation was more widely known many of the people who recently showed how much they cared about woods and forests would be horrified.
We need detailed accessible up-to-date information, and we need a balanced and honest approach – consultation, assessment, and planting of at least as much woodland as that which is lost. We already have government policy on how to ‘restore’ open habitats, drawn up by the Forestry Commission after extensive consultation, which if properly applied, together with suitable new planting, would stop damaging deforestation from ripping through our woodlands and forests.
Would you want this lovely vista of green and leafy dappled shade to be your local woodland?
Or would you want this bleak landscape of fenced off bracken, bare earth and shattered trees instead?
People who use Sutton Heath woodland in Suffolk are fighting to stop their popular and much used lovely woodland, shown in the first photograph above, being turned into the barren wasteland in the second. The landowner and land managers say they want to turn the woodland on Sutton Heath into purple heather heathland.
But local people know what will happen if they get their way. Many years of ‘heathland restoration’ by the same land managers, Suffolk Coastal District Council assisted by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, has resulted in the landscape you see in photos 2 and 4, taken in a part of Sutton Heath deforested 12 years ago.
This is just one example of woodland being deforested, but it is happening throughout the country
(1). I use the term ‘deforestation’ because that is what is happening, though others talk about ‘restoring heathland’ or ‘re-creating open habitat’.
“ ‘Deforestation’ is the direct human-induced conversion of forested land to non-forested land.”
Definition in the Kyoto protocol on climate change (2)
What is happening?
The first local people knew about the intention to fell the woodland at Sutton Heath was when the trees started being cut down. Their protests eventually forced the council to start consulting them, even though a council officer said that the council as landowner was “not required to consult the public on the management of its property” (3). Now they have got the council to agree to delay further felling for two years and to promise to concentrate on doing a better job on the already deforested area before further felling of woodland to create more heathland (4).
Those managing Sutton Heath say that they want to restore it to how it was in 1905 (incidentally a point at which the woodland in this country was at its lowest ebb). But when the area was notified as an SSSI in 1955 and registered in 1987 a large part of the area was woodland as the citation makes it clear (5):
“There are large areas of semi-natural woodland most of which has originated from selfset Scots pine, birch and some oak. Most of this is less than 60 years old. Heathland elements can be found beneath the younger stands. There are also small areas of broadleaved high forest composed chiefly of oak, birch, sweet chestnut, sycamore and beech.”
Some of this woodland and forest has already been destroyed, and the Sutton Heath Users Group realise they’re not going to get that back. All they are asking for is there to be no further deforestation, and for a balance between woodland and heath to ensure the area benefits people and wildlife (6).
Parts of Sutton Heath already deforested are covered in a blanket of 5 feet tall Bracken [photo 4], with virtually no heather to be seen, however you wouldn’t know this from the report of the assessment by Natural England of the SSSI in August 2010 (7):
“Unfavourable recovering. This site is undergoing a tree clearance programme at the current time and the area that has already been clear felled is showing signs of recovery with heather re-establishment. An area towards the north (the bottom part) of the site is being grazed by hebridean sheep owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Heather has been cut (in one block) in some areas to create a diversity in the structure of the vegetation (allow natural regeneration). The current management is successfully improving the biodiversity of the site.”
There doesn’t seem to be satisfactory assessment of the success of restoration of heathland after it is carried out, in terms of whether heather is established and whether the wildlife associated with it appears or increases, despite requirements in the Forestry Commission’s open habitat policy ‘When to convert woods and forests to open habitat in England: Government policy’ (FCOH) (8).
So far there has been no requirement on the land owners of Sutton Heath to carry out an environmental impact assessment on areas they intend to deforest, despite bats and other wildlife being present in the woodland (9), and no assessment was carried out in neighbouring areas before they were deforested. Anecdotal evidence is that the next-door Upper Hollesley Heath had Dartford warblers before the woodland and gorse was removed, but as soon as the felling started they disappeared and have never returned. Because no proper assessment was done we will never know exactly what was lost, and unless one is done before further felling we won’t know what will be lost.
Why is it happening?
Conservation policy is governed by a plethora of targets and legislation which could be designed to baffle campaigners wanting to save their local woodland from destruction. There are sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), special protection areas (SPAs), and several other designations for protected land. Organisations involved include Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Key legislation and policies include Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), Countryside & Rights of Way Act (2000) the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006), and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) priorities (1994).
The future of some of our woods and forests depends on choices made by land owners, land managers and those that regulate what they do, so it is important to try and understand some of this complex picture. Taking some of these elements and looking at Sutton Heath illustrates how conservation protection machinery is not straightforward when it comes to woodland.
On closer examination SSSIs are not straightforward protection of habitat as you might assume, and certainly not of woodland. Sutton Heath was first designated in 1955 and then subsequently re-designated in 1987. Two thirds of the area was wooded, mostly with trees that had self sown over 5 or 6 decades together with some older broadleaf woodland, and the remaining one third heathland. But the whole area was described as lowland heath. It is not clear why this happened, but perhaps it was the preference of those carrying out the re-designation in 1987. When conservation areas were listed in relation to 27 UKBAP broad habitats in the 1990s those that contained a variety of habitat were crudely fitted into just one of these broad habitats. So an area like Sutton Heath with two thirds woodland cover, even if it was semi-natural, is designated as dwarf shrub heath.
Common Standards Monitoring guidance gives the criteria for evaluating condition on SSSIs based on the broad habitats. In that guidance a unit that is designated for dwarf shrub heath has an upper limit placed on the coverage of scattered trees – it varies depending on the type of heath but is usually less than 15%. This is irrespective of the coverage of trees when the site was designated and takes no account of the value of that woodland.
Natural England give guidance to land owners and managers of SSSIs on achieving favourable condition in compliance with Common Standards Monitoring and have an enforcement role that can result in fines and ultimately compulsory purchase (10). Land owners say they are obliged to follow the legislation and often rigidly carry out guidance by removing trees to meet the 15% target.
Any land owner or manager who wants to cut down woodland has to apply for a felling licence from the Forestry Commission. If they’re not intending to replant it (in which case they need an unconditional felling licence), there should be a process of assessment and decision-making including an Environmental Impact Assessment (11), something that was not carried out at Sutton Heath. If the woodland is on protected land such as an SSSI (as Sutton Heath is) then Natural England will have a say.
There is a 28 day consultation on felling licences, but those interested have to know or be told about this, which doesn’t always happen. Forestry Commission (FC) open habitats policy requires that local people should be consulted and involved (12) and FC provide advice on engaging the public (13). There is guidance for local councils on good practice and legal duties to engage people (14) but as at Sutton Heath, this often doesn’t happen in practice unless people get organised and make a fuss.
Will we see more deforestation?
Within the Public Forest Estate (PFE) Forest Design plans identify a further 12,415ha of open habitat to be restored over the next 20 years. This includes 578 ha in East Anglia. But the potential within PFE, according to FC evidence prepared as part of the consultation in developing their open habitat policy, is for a further 36,958ha of freehold plantation and woodland that could be restored to open habitat. Of this nearly half (13,678ha) is in East Anglia (15).
Suffolk and Norfolk contain large areas of public forest estate planted since the First and Second World Wars, particularly on areas that were previously heathland that had been exhausted and left barren by agriculture.
We suspect that these forests are in the sights of those making choices and pronouncements about which landscape habitat is conserved.
We campaigned in the Sandlings forests against the sell-off or transfer of public forests to unaccountable charities because we suspected that in our area those charities were keen to get hold of our forests in order to deforest. We’d seen the Suffolk Wildlife Trust already doing so on land they own or manage and we know that RSPB and others strongly favour that approach, and we feared the loss of multipurpose forest and access – so important in an area where areas for recreation are in short supply.
We now know that our fears were grounded in reality. Thanks to the Our Forests freedom of information request we discover that at the height of the controversy the Wildlife Trusts did express an interest in taking on some of the forests, rather than joining with campaigners to argue against the ill thought out and discredited disposal plans (16).
The RSPB have spoken about the need to double the area of heathland in England, mostly by wholesale removal of plantation forests (17,18).
Others have spoken about wanting a faster pace of ‘heathland restoration’, for example the response from Plantlife (20) to FC’s open habitat consultation 2010 (19).
Our Forests described in their recently published vision document (21) their aspiration:
“By 2050, England’s precious heathland habitats have been cleared of inappropriate plantations and returned to their former purple glory.”
It’s not clear whether they realised that would put paid to most of the forests in East Anglia which we campaigned to save from being sold off, nor whether they realise the implications for biodiversity that depends on these forests, the environmental and climate change implications, or the economic and social impact of such a drastic deforestation at a pace far outstripping the fastest option in the consultation to develop the FC open habitat policy (22).
The Forestry Panel discussion on open habitat restoration in their 18 January meeting (23) emphasised the need for progress in carrying out FCOH policy in PFE and private forests. Importantly, though, the panel picked up on the need to improve information available nationally on operation of the open habitat policy.
There is some information on deforestation in total, as every country is required to provide this under the Kyoto protocol on climate change (24), but there isn’t readily available information on how much woodland across the country is being deforested to create heathland.
Deforestation: is this what we want for our woodlands?
We know from the recent campaign against the sell-off of forests and from surveys such as the detailed consultation done in 2009 (25) that people highly value forests for their social, economic and environmental benefits, they want more forests and woodland, and they want them to be more accessible to them where they live. When their local forest is threatened, people are upset and campaign to save it if they can. If everyone who spoke out in defence of forests was aware of what was going on around the country they would be horrified.
It is time to get a grip on unthinking acceptance of the priorities and choices of the conservationists and the headlong rush to deforest they are pursuing and implementing.
It’s time to challenge the absurdity of all of us agreeing on the importance of planting more trees and creating more woods and forests – the government’s Big Tree Plant, the Woodland Trust’s Jubilee Woods project, the call by the forestry panel’ s chair the Bishop of Liverpool for planting of woodlands (26,27,28) – while at the same time cutting down and not replacing woods and forests all over the country.
We need to be fully aware of the irony of putting billions of pounds into international campaigns to stop deforestation (29), while at the same time spending millions in grants to land owners and managers to deforest our own country. Overall figures on grants are difficult to gather, but we know, for example, that Suffolk Wildlife Trust received €889,316 million in European farm subsidy grants 1999-2009 (30) and that Suffolk Coastal District Council has recently entered into a Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment scheme on Sutton Heath for £133,889 (31,32).
It is unfair that at the same time FC (which is not eligible for any grants) has to bear the total cost of managing some of the heathland restoration and the lost revenue (33). And it is even more illogical that the government is paring down the paltry £20 million a year it contributes to FC to run the massive PFE.
Is there a better way?
The experience at Dunwich Forest in Suffolk provides a contrast to Sutton Heath. Here the Forestry Commission in cooperation with other local organisations is converting some of its forest to heathland as part of a coherent plan. Local people and stakeholders have been consulted through the FC’s forest design plan process, and the process is being carried out gradually and sensitively (34). This is a very different area to the very popular amenity woodland at Sutton Heath. Dunwich Forest is next to nature reserves including the RSPB’s famous Minsmere reserve and is much further from local urban centres and less heavily used for recreation. Here a balanced and more appropriate approach is being taken, based on the principles in FCOH (35):
• the right tree in the right place;
• the right habitat in the right place; and
• the right change at the right pace.
Detailed government policy, ‘When to convert woods and forests to open habitat in England: Government policy’ (36), drawn up after extensive consultation, outlines a balanced and effective approach to considering converting woodland to heathland.
We should consider whether there is value in recreating heathland – in each case and in the broader context – rather than unquestioningly assuming that it always a good thing.
If it is in the interests of biodiversity to remove some trees, woodland and forest to create different habitats then we already have a framework in the FC open habitat policy document, which if applied properly could ensure this is done in a way that enable us to continue to enjoy the whole range of public benefits that woods and forests provide. Before allowing deforestation there must be genuine consultation, genuine assessment, and genuine replacement planting — that is planting that would be of use to those losing their woodland: it’s no use to those losing their local woodland in Suffolk to know that new woodland is being planted in the Midlands.
The choices of one strand of opinion on what is the best use of our woodlands and forests, and on what trees and habitats should be in what places and about the pace of any change, should not be imposed on us all.
3) EIR432 full response at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/information_relating_to_the_dest
24) UK NIR 2011, figure 11.4, http://unfccc.int/national_reports/annex_i_ghg_inventories/national_inventories_submissions/items/5270.php
37) Save Sandlings Forests campaign www.savesandlingsforest.co.uk; http://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-Our-Sandlings-Forests/180924598610817