Are our forests still under threat?

Paul and Jackie Buckley, who run the voluntary group Friends of Park Wood
Paul and Jackie Buckley, who run the voluntary group Friends of Park Wood

From broken bones to new beginnings

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Who doesn’t love going to a forest and getting away from the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle, enveloped by the sights and sounds of nature?

So when the coalition government announced controversial plans to sell off the nation’s forests, the enormous outcry was entirely predictable.

Campaigners feared that transferring forests into private hands would deprive them of access – and people power swung into action.

But what does the government’s decision to abandon its plans to privatise our forests mean for the future?

Its enforced U-turn may have been hailed as a victory, but conservationists warn that the battle to protect England’s woodlands is far from over.

In Hampshire, there is some beautiful ancient woodland, from the vast expanse of the New Forest to Hundred Acres Wood north of Fareham, Queen Elizabeth Country Park at Horndean and Park Wood and Queens Inclosure near Cowplain.

Around 20 per cent of the county’s land area is woodland, with the south east the most heavily-wooded region in the country.

Chief executive of the Woodland Trust Sue Holden says much of it is still in danger through a combination of decay and development.

She says of the government’s decision: ‘We welcome the opportunity for a more considered approach to the future of much-loved woodlands in Hampshire, but our campaign continues.

‘While we welcome the removal of threats to public access, there is still an acute need for better protection of ancient woodland, our equivalent of the rainforests, and restoration of ancient woods planted with conifers.’

She adds: ‘Even if there are no sales of publicly-owned forests, the worst of all worlds would be for there to be no change to the loopholes that have allowed 850 ancient woods to be threatened by built development over the past decade.

‘Ministers have made strong commitments over the past few weeks to increase protection for ancient woods, and we will be holding them to these commitments. We must not let public passion and support for our woods and forests die down.’

Conservationists talk of the need to increase protection for ancient forests and restore those planted with conifers, what Sue calls a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for woodland conservation.’

She says: ‘We urge everyone across Hampshire to continue to sign our petition and transfer their passion about who owns England’s public woods to ensuring that all of England’s woods survive in the future.’

Ancient woodland is the UK’s richest habitat for wildlife, but it has been halved since the 1930s. In the past decade, more than 850 woods nationally have been threatened by development ranging from airports to golf course and houses, including some publicly-owned forests.

Ray Cobbett, Havant-based Hampshire co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, says of the government’s climbdown: ‘I’m not sure it’s a complete victory until we see these new panels that the government is setting up (to look into forestry policy).

‘This looks like a narrow escape, but we must remain vigilant - not just about forests but trees and hedges everywhere.’

What worries conservationists is that the government has announced a review of planning policy in England, with the aim of having a single consolidated National Planning Policy Framework.

This means all existing planning policy statements will be merged into one single overarching framework - leading to fears that specific planning policy which protects vulnerable ancient woods and trees will be diluted or even left out completely.

At the moment one of the planning policy statements, PPS9, explicitly recognises that ancient woodland is important for wildlife and says local authorities should not allow development that will lead to its loss or damage.

But a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government says; ‘Condensing the sprawling volumes of planning guidance will not undermine the local environment, it will just make planning rules more accessible and easier to read.’

The sort of ancient woodland that conservationists are so keen to preserve is typified by Park Wood at Cowplain. This eight-acre haven just off the A3 (M) features beautiful yew trees and abundant wildlife including squirrels, foxes, butterflies, deer, bats, owls, thrushes and many different types of fungi,

But this oasis of calm used to be an intimidating no-go area frequented by young thugs, glue-sniffers and drug-users who left syringes scattered on the ground.

It was transformed when Havant borough councillor Paul Buckley and his wife, Jackie, set up Friends of Park Wood 11 years ago.

Paul, of Treeside Way, Waterlooville, says: ‘It was totally overgrown and clogged up. We’ve improved access and we still need to do a bit of path work, but we have a plan together.’

He adds: ‘You would not have seen anything like the amount of flora and fauna we have got now when the wood was still heavily overgrown. The birds may have been there, but they couldn’t move around so easily.

‘Walking through it now is lovely. You can only just hear the hum of the cars on the A3. Go 100 yards into the wood and you can’t hear the road at all, just bird song.’

The wood is used by walking groups, dog walkers, conservationists and Cowplain Community School pupils.

A Dr F E Beddow originally left the land to Southampton University, which has for many decades leased it to Havant Borough Council for a peppercorn rent. It gave the running of the wood over to the Woodland Trust, but residents felt they could do a better job of maintaining it.

Paul, who is chairman of Friends of Park Wood, says: ‘To all intents and purposes we now manage it. We do a work day on the last Sunday of every month and about 25 to 30 people turn out. The membership also gives us a bit of funding.

‘That little bit of ownership from the residents who live round the outskirts of Park Wood encourages them to keep an eye on it.’

In true community spirit, volunteers patrol the wood, picking up litter and looking out for damage.

A few years ago the group was approached by the Woodland Trust and asked if they would consider taking on Queens Inclosure, a 40-acre wood opposite Park Wood. At the time it seemed too big for them.

But now Paul thinks it would be possible - and that nearby residents managing it might also prevent it being used for development.

‘It needs something like that, a group of local residents whose homes back onto it, to initiate the process.’

He says of the government’s volte-face: ‘My response is cautious optimism – I don’t think the policy is totally dead, but it will be subject to critical review before any further proposals are put forward.’

EXPERT PANEL

The government’s original forestry privatisation plans included a £250m sale of leaseholds for commercially-valuable forests to timber companies, plus measures to allow communities, charities and even local authorities to buy or lease woods.

There were also plans to transfer well-known ‘heritage’ woods such as the New Forest into the hands of charities. But now they will remain under the control of the Forestry Commission.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman, pictured, told the House of Commons last week that she was removing powers that would have allowed the measures to go ahead from the Public Bodies Bill, currently going through Parliament. Instead, the government has announced that it is setting up an independent expert panel to look into future forestry policy.