Thursday, 27 January 2011

Largest Change in Land Ownership Since 1945?

In October 2010, James Paice MP, Minister for Agriculture and Food anounced government proposals to sell off around half the forest estate belonging to the Forestry Commission. The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 as a non ministerial government department to propect and expand the nation's forests and to provide a higher percentage of the timber used in the years following the first world war, thus reducing the amount of timber that was imported. In 1919, the UK had remanining only 5% of its original forest cover and over the years since, the Forestry Commission has doubled this. It currently manages about 1 million hectares of land, 26% of which is in England. The Commission focuses on sustainable forest management and maximising public benefit from forestry. It also regulates private felling. Following crticism, in the 1960-70's that it was over-using conifers it has developed an approach to forest management that balances timber production, landscaping amelioration (ie. judicious use of a number of species with an eye for factors such as the appearance of the forest and the needs of different wildlfe species), ecological restoration and recreational provision. Protecting, managing and expanding Britain's forests and increasing their value both in environmental and economic terms is a very long term project and plans take a minimum of 30 years to come to fruitition.

Well, I ask myself, is it sensible to sell all this forest estate off and what might the effects be? What will be the impact on the uplands of England and the communities that inhabit them? There is perhaps an argument that says that those who own the land will manage it with greater commitment than a government department. Or is Caroline Lucas MP, of the Green Party, right in judging the sale of forest estate to be an act  of 'unforgivable environmental vandalism' which will lead to the exploitation and mismanagement of Britain's forests?

I recently came across some research, reported in the Economic and Social Research Council's annual magazine, which had looked at the future of the Uplands. These areas of mainly moorland and forest are highly significant in ways most of us hardly ever think about for the environment in which we live. Soils such as those found in moorland and peat bog provide the largest carbon reserve in Britain, storing over three billion tonnes annually and, of course, trees take in and process carbon. Given climate warming and growing  concerns about flooding, carbon capture and storage is of prime importance, helping as it does to reduce the impact of flooding and to improve the quality of the national water supply. There will increasingly be twin and sometimes conflicting pressures on those who manage the Uplands. On the one hand they will be asked to intensify production of livestock as pressures on worldwide food supplies grow and, on the other hand, to restore and retain the peatlands, moors and forests for reasons to do with climate change and carbon reduction. Sometimes overlooked in all this is the question of what the Uplands communities themselves need in order to sustain their own life and make work in the Uplands viable.

I don't have any easy answers to the intricate balancing act that is required but I do think that the voices of those who work and live in the Uplands need to be heard and that there is a wisdom among people who farm the hill country and manage the moors which is not sufficiently heard and acknowledged. Their perspectives should be contributing to the debate and the decision making process. Yes, the local farmer may be focused on the needs of his business but those who look at the long term outcomes of Upland management often overlook the factors that motivate the people who live and work there and in fact have to bring about changes in land use.  I remember the debates in the 1960's around the damage the Forestry Commission were doing to the Upland habitat through their policy of indiscriminately planting conifer forests. It was, as I recall, largely through argument and dialogue with the farmers that a more balanced approach to planting regimes was achieved.  

I would be interested to hear what people think about the government's policy as they launch their sale of forest estate. 

And just finally, there is increasing concern about phytophthora ramorum, more commonly known as Sudden Oak Death although it attacks other species as well as oak, including larch and bilberry.  It is getting a real hold in Devon and Cornwall. Forest walkers are asked to report any signs of the disease they see to the Forestry Commission. The signs are mainly browning of leaves or needles and resin bleeding from the trunk or stem.

Read Giles Fraser's view Woods: It's All About Scale in the Church Times

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