• "Our Richest and Most Fragile Habitat"

    At first there was the by now usual sense of stunned disbelief: the government - not content with dispatching any public body with a goal of serving the greater public good or attempting to provide some kind of environmental balance from on high - was coming for the Forestry Commission. But beyond the justified chorus of concern, the petition that has already gathered 150,000 signatories, the score of campaign groups that has sprung up, is the idea really as bad as it sounds?

    After all, The Forestry Commission itself was set up after the First World War during which the importance of a domestic supply of timber had been made acutely relevant by the interfering effect of German u-boats. Our previous habit, formed in the previous century, had been to simply strip other unsuspecting countries of their wildwood. In a short space of time after the founding of the Commission in 1919, vast tracts of upland hillsides, moorlands and heaths had been planted up.

    The effect on these habitats in our backyards was obviously less than brilliant but at least we weren’t denuding the pristine forests from so much of the rest of the empire. And here, even at this first inception of the Commission, there lies the rub of how we provide for our appetite of timber without undue damage to the natural environment. Is it so bad if so much of the Commission land has now come up for sale? Weren’t these trees planted to be harvested at some stage down the line? With our current deficit isn’t now as good a time as any to call in our debts? We might even stand to reclaim some of those moors and heaths and barren but beautiful hillsides that were lost beneath the blanket of dark spruce.

    One very large problem with this is that large areas of ancient woodland have been cut down and grubbed up and planted with conifers this century, seen as they were after the collapse of their age-old management pattern as somehow extraneous, unproductive patches to be tidied up. About half of our ancient woodland has been lost since the end of the Second World War and replanting with conifers accounts for by far the largest share of this. At least, such a proportion would have been lost if these woodlands had not proved so unexpectedly durable – they can revive after a considerable time with the right conditions and even decades of the heavy shade of conifers have not removed them entirely.

    Infact, since the 80’s there has been a growing recognition of the need to thin out conifers where they have been planted over ancient woodland and revive the latter in all its beautiful and species enriched glory. Which is exactly what stands to make the proposed sell off so tragic – the Commission was planning to pursue such restoration on a massive scale. A vast amount of recoverable ancient woodland stands at risk of being lost, forever.

    So even if the concept of selling off an asset once held firmly for the public does not raise hackles in and of itself, even if the thought of tracts of forest losing the excellent level of upkeep of paths and rides that the Commission currently provides does not sit uncomfortably then perhaps the proposed pawning of this most precious asset – the 20,000 hectares of woodland as close to wildwood as anything we are ever likely to possess might just wake us up to what we stand to lose in this proposed sell off.

    The sorry star upon a proposal which has long since shed its needles and should be removed from both houses with all speed is that the mechanism drafted to facilitate the sell off is not even constitutional. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re glibly told that this is an opportunity for community groups to acquire their local woodland – even if such groups gather the money, where exactly do their members hope to find the time to manage forests with any thing like the level of dedication the Commission currently provides?

    There will always be a need for sustainable forestry. But brokerages as hasty as this one appears to be, running the risk of selling off to firms who only have profits in mind and little or no sense of what husbandry can look like don’t do the country any favours by any yardstick. The Commission maintains 100% of its woodland to Forestry Stewardship standard – there will be no such requirement for future owners. To make a former point again, even the economics is dubious; the FC making sizeable returns on their estates to the point where the body costs the public only 30 pence per taxpayer per year. But this government has no sense of value, of what a thing is worth, of what generations past have held dear and fought for. They paint themselves as bitter medicine, as the cruel but kindly short sharp shock. Really though they are just libertarians, about as respecting of institutions as their far left mirror images. Whether semi-crazed by ideology, or simply guilty of an amauterish gambling in the face of the crisis we face, they seem set to discover the limits of the population’s tolerance.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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