in Heathland restoration, Local Campaigns

by Margaret Phipps

This is the fourth article in a series exploring the issues of heathland restoration by deforestation.

Click here to view more article’s in the series: SOW – Heathland Restoration


I do not think that there is any doubt what the general public in England think about our forests.  The outrage that arose from the Government’s consultation (now abandoned), on the future of the Public Forest Estate in July 2009, was profound.  It is not only the public from all walks of life who use and value woodland, but ‘conservationists’ from numerous organisations came out in defence of forests generally and the Forestry Commission’s management of them.

The appointment of the Independent Advisory Panel on Forestry to look into the future of our woods and forests was welcomed, in the hope that they would take a sensible view, and look at all aspects of forestry which must include the value of pine forests to some areas.  Having read the December 2011 Panel Newsletter and the notes of their meeting of 18th January 2012, I am becoming increasingly concerned that the views of those supporting ancient woodland and open habitats are taking precedence over the powerful views of the public in general about ‘all’ forests.  The Panel must not lose sight of the value placed on the ‘whole’ Public Forest Estate which includes well managed Pine Forest.


In Dorset, there are many wildlife organisations or trusts, often backed by Natural England, who appear to have the goal of felling every single pine tree, which they consider to be weeds, in order to ‘restore’ or ‘re-create’ heathland which was prevalent in Thomas Hardy’s day.  What they fail to appreciate is that before Mr. Hardy’s era those areas would have been covered with mixed forest which was originally felled when the wood was used to make boats and other necessities of the day.  It was only because of a certain lifestyle that heathland evolved, when it was used by people to cut wood for fires and graze their animals, which kept new saplings at bay.  That lifestyle no longer exists, and heathland has to be actively and very expensively managed by humans or it would not exist today either.

If you leave a piece of land unmanaged, then naturally trees will grow.  Heathland is not a natural habitat, it is one created by a certain lifestyle at a particular time in our evolution.  Some talk about heathland ‘loss’, but it is not all lost.  Our environment, influenced by humans as always, is just evolving, and they cannot turn back the clock to re-create as much heathland as there was in Hardy’s day.  They can, however, ensure that the species that live there do not become extinct by maintaining a ‘balanced’ landscape which contains heathland and woodland, whether it be pine or other species of tree.

This type of ‘balancing’ has just occurred on Town Common, part of which is in Hurn, where in 2003 ‘conservationists’ who lease some of the area, backed by English Nature (now Natural England), applied to fell 15,000 trees, mostly pine, to re-create heathland.  There was massive local objection, which has culminated in January 2012, after 9 years of talking and negotiation with Natural England and Conservation Groups, in a Management Plan for Town Common going out to consultation.  The local community, via the Parish Council and Residents’ Association, have been involved in this process all along the way, and with their input, I believe we have achieved a ‘balanced’ plan for the future of the Common which incorporates both managed pine woodland and heathland.  This is the sort of co-operation we should be seeking to achieve, rather than certain organisations imposing their will on others, in the guise of ‘conservation’.

Because of human intervention again, plantations of pine were planted in the twentieth century, as a rotating crop for timber production, now overseen and very effectively managed by the Forestry Commission.  Over time, the role of those forests has changed.  People have been able to enjoy them more than ever for walking the dog, rambling, cycling, horse riding and other activities.  At the same time, there has been more awareness of the wildlife which use these wonderful areas and the Forestry Commission have adapted the way they manage our pine forests to allow for open or thinly treed areas, rides, bogs and mires etc.  They have moved away from just wood production to accommodating a huge variety of wildlife as well as people.

In addition, because they have different ages of trees, being planted, maturing and then being felled in rotation, their pine forests hold a huge carbon store, which goes a long way towards meeting what some deem to be the 21st century challenge of climate change.  Future replanting could be pine or other native trees, and the Forestry Commission is looking at alternative species that could meet wood production needs and perhaps increase biodiversity as well.   A 2009 Open Habitats Consultation document tells us that:

“Trees on the Public Forest Estate currently store about 48 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent with a further 81 in the soil.  This is probably the largest single biological carbon resource in England under direct Government control.  The Estate therefore stores about one quarter of England’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Unfortunately, what it seems to me may be happening, is that now that the initial public outrage has subsided about Government Plans to sell off the Public Forest Estate, with people hoping that an expert Panel will sensibly deal with the matter, those organisations with their own agendas, such as heathland re-creation, are now making their voices very loudly heard within the Panel, whilst the general public supporting ‘all’ forests do not seem to have a champion at all.  Even an organisation called ‘Our Forests’ have printed their ‘vision’ for England’s public woods and forests, which very worryingly includes the wording “by 2050, England’s precious heathland habitats have been cleared of inappropriate plantations and returned to their former purple glory”.

It should not be assumed that the British native tree called scots pine has no value, for wildlife or people, because that is blatantly untrue.  It depends how they are managed.  In Hurn, Dorset, we have three Forestry Commission managed areas which are mostly scots pine, all of which are close to statutorily protected heathland areas.  Some areas within the Commission’s land also have protected status for wildlife or flora.

Our forests are constantly under pressure from ‘conservationists’ (mostly Natural England, Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB), who consider that the wildlife species on heathland should take precedence and have their area expanded via clear felling pine trees with no replanting of any trees, of any species, at all.  Not only is this an unsustainable option but it also depletes the habitats of other species, and it can decrease the open access areas which can be used without restriction by people for recreation.  From experience, I have noticed that normal procedure from ‘conservationists’, once an area has been designated for heathland, is to discourage the general public from using it especially if they have dogs or horses and to direct them to more ‘robust’ areas.  Well our pine forests ARE those ‘robust’ areas and if you clear fell them to create heathland, you just create more ‘fragile’ areas.  Where’s the sense in that?

Here in Hurn we value our ‘robust’ man made forests, and in order to protect the ‘fragile’ man made heathlands, we believe that our ‘robust’ areas should be officially designated as such, so that they are acknowledged as being part of the heathland protection package.  In a survey of Hurn Parish Residents in 2010, 81% said that trees should not be felled in order to increase the amount of heathland in the Parish.

Hurn’s pine and mixed forests, excellently managed by the Forestry Commission, fulfil the multi-purpose roles of providing:

‘robust’ recreational areas for people; contributing towards carbon store for the nation; housing conservation sites; and providing a habitat for very many species of wildlife.  It is a fact that just in Hurn, our predominantly pine forests conserve, house, or are habitat for – rare plants; badgers; many different fungi; raptor nesting areas; schedule 1 birds; mires; streams; ponds; scheduled and unscheduled ancient monuments; heathland; TPO trees; bat roosts; otter; rare reptiles; sand lizard; smooth snake; great crested newt; southern damselflies; deer; and much more……  I cannot list them all, but I hope you get the picture.

Our pine forests are managed well by the Forestry Commission, and are magnificent, and I cannot understand how any ‘conservationist’ would want to fell them all to promote a monoculture of heather which is the particular habitat of only certain reptiles and ground nesting birds.  Those protected species which live and thrive in heathland, can live and thrive on heath and wooded heath in amongst our forests as well, sharing them with other species.  It is already happening in Hurn.

For us, the general public, what better than to enjoy some shady and sheltered treed areas as well as some open sunny or windy heath.   Those who have walked an open heath on either a hot summer’s day or a windy, cold wet one, and been either fried, or blown away, will appreciate why we need to strike the balance of including a combination of both these environments.

I do hope the Panel will look at the wider picture here, and strike a balance for all wildlife and people.  We must look at keeping both heathland and pine forest for the benefit of all species, including humans.  So what’s wrong with well managed scots pine forest?  It’s just another cycle of history, just as heathland is, so why can’t we embrace what we have got, acknowledge that people are passionate about all forests and ask our single agenda ‘conservationists’ to take a more balanced approach?  It may not be why they draw their salaries or collect their grants, but I think it’s what the general public want.


Margaret Phipps, Friends of Hurn’s Forests, Dorset



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Roderick Leslie June 15, 2012 at 09:24

Dear Margaret,

This is a great article – and I say that as a leading proponent of more heathland within the FC & the person who insisted in that comment going in the Our Forests vision.

As you may know, FC has restored more heathland than any other organisation – and – its hard to prove because the other’s figures are so poor – possibly more than all the conservationists put together. BUT throughout it has done that by working very closely with local people – I understand every point you’ve made because they’ve been made to me time and time again over the years – and FC restoration has gone ahead relatively quietly because we recognised people’s feelings and involved them in reaching the sort of agreement you’ve now reached at Town Common.

I think there is a big debate to be had around exactly what we are trying to do – I very sttongly agree with you about creating new, forward looking landscapes, not falling back on history: there is too much tendency towards a rather sugary nostalgia. On top of that, some of the conservation thinking on heathland has become very rigid and simply isn’t achieving its aims – as a current debate in the Brecks is showing. The reluctance of some conservationists to recognise the continuing importance of forest clearfells to Nightjar and Woodlark rather undermines claims to sceintific objectivity – especially when you have a huge forest-based Special Protection Area for them at Thetford !

There really has to be open discussion where both sides listen to and respect each other – I hope I might be able to persuade you of the value of heathland, but only by looking together at some of the wonderful animals and plants living there, not by telling you I’m right and you don’t know anything and are therefore wrong. And, having with Oliver Lucas and Roger McKinley, been responsible for Wareham Forest as it is today I just wonder whether the forest-heath landscape of trees and heath, dense forest giving way to open vistas, shelter on a windy, rainy day (know as ‘summer’ in England) and the bright sunshine of the open heath on the occassional fine day, isn’t actually the best ‘new’ landscape of all.

Stephen Hailes March 15, 2015 at 19:36

Dear All.
I have no professional links to the land but I do like to get out there in our forests and heathland. As a member of the public, I find myself being quoted rather a lot in letters and articles, as either wanting more forest or more heathland. So I thought I would say just what this member of the public wants.
I enjoy Scots Pine forests. In my own limited experience there are rarely just pine trees there. Although in limited numbers there are usually some hemlock, beech and oak trees. It’s really an experience walking through a forest of any kind.
Heathland also makes for an experience. The stretch across the dual carriageway on the way to Southampton with its low rolling hills and nearby woodland makes for a really great walk and judging by the amount of people I see there I’m not the only one to enjoy it.
The RSPB sight at Arne has woodland and heathland/wetland and is another fantastic place to walk.
Why change what we have for the sake of change? In 50-100 yrs time the boffins will argue about changing it back again. If you go back far enough we should be planting oak forests or even further maybe we should bring back dinosaurs. I know that’s a bit over the top but you see my point. We have a very diverse habitat and I, for one, would like to see it stay diverse. We are where we are and should be looking forward and not too the past. The good old days where not actually so great.

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